At the start of their latest album, Blessed Black Wings, the California metal band High on Fire announce that humankind as we know it is finished: “Man’s done, Babylon…. Web spun, death comes, brings the blackened tide.”
The appropriate response to the end of life as we know it? Cast aside all moral concerns and “eat the fruit divine,” as singer-guitarist Matt Pike implores.
Heavy metal’s hedonism is legendary, but it always comes at a cost: the understanding that self-indulgence leads to self-obliteration. It’s knowledge too powerful to bear. Drawn to the forces of darkness, Pike understands that once he’s explored the deepest, most depraved corners of his soul, there’s no turning back. “The lot is cast, mysteries vast / Alive our eyes as conscience dies,” he sings in “Brother in the Wind.” As the track opens, the guitar erupts with the force of an apocalyptic wind and never lets up.
There was a time when metal progenitors like Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer actually sounded menacing, but now they just sound like rock ’n’ roll bands. Since then, each new generation of bands has gotten louder, faster and angrier, with Judas Priest giving way to Slayer, giving way to the bleak outrage of Eyehategod. But High on Fire belong to a different strain of metal; you can hear the Priest, Metallica and especially Motörhead—Pike’s raspy, throttled voice sounds remarkably like Lemmy Kilmister’s—but there’s no thrash. Instead, the guitars are so brutally thick, the sense of decay so pervasive, the record feels suffocating.
In his previous band, Sleep, Pike slowed the music to a molasses-paced crawl—so sludgy, in fact, that a major label refused to put out the band’s final record. But no matter how heavy Sleep’s music might have been, the sluggish tempo created a sense of space—the sense that somewhere among the billowing clouds of pot smoke, a listener could find escape. Not so with High on Fire, who’ve sped up their songs to the point where the music has a kind of snowball effect; sooner or later, you’re bound to get beaten down and swept up.
Like other metal lyricists, Matt Pike indulges a fascination with fantasy fiction. Archaic names and references pop up throughout Blessed Black Wings, most notably H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham, the site of many dark deeds in the horror writer’s stories. But at times the lyrics read so clumsily and elliptically that they threaten to destroy the illusion. After all, High on Fire, like most other metal bands (except for the few terrifying ones who actually live out their murderous impulses), are trading in a ritual purgation of human angst and aggression—the same way horror writers do. Once the record’s over, you can put it away. But a sense of dread lingers after the closing instrumental “Sons of Thunder,” the same way a bad dream can cloud the brain for hours. No matter how much it may be a fiction, the music touches on fears all too real.