High on Fire and the Path to Divinity

Despite hearing “Frost Hammer” well beforehand and streaming about half of the title track when that was put online, I held off listening to High on Fire’s fifth full-length, Snakes for the Divine (their first offering on new label E1 Music) until I could hold the disc in my hand. Since production was my major concern going into the record – how it would actually sound, in other words – I didn’t want to waste time on the poor quality of a MySpace stream or something like that. Plus, sometimes it’s better to wait. Builds the anticipation.

And anticipation was certainly at a fever pitch for High on Fire this time around. I don’t think there’s a headbanger over drinking age for whom Snakes for the Divine wasn’t right near the top of the list of albums being looked forward to in 2010. It was right up there for me as well, and as the reviews started coming out and everyone seemed to be in accord on the level of kickassery, I wanted to hear it all the more. Having now finally had that chance, to sit with Snakes for the Divine and try to understand where it’s coming from, as an avid High on Fire fan since their early Relapse Records days, I will honestly say this latest effort is a mixed bag.

While we’re being honest, I was hesitant to even post a review of the record after listening to it, since I’ve no doubt that for the vast, vast majority of those who will hear it, Snakes for the Divine will more than surpass expectation – not to mention that, with a release this huge, my opinion is of minus relevance, so I’m basically pissing in the wind. Nonetheless, here we are.

Five of the eight tracks on Snakes for the Divine are over six minutes, which although the album itself is about 11 minutes shorter than 2007’s stunning Death is this Communion (their last album on Relapse), is pretty much in line. The opening title track begins with a lead line from guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike that’s a little more modern metal than what High on Fire has gone for previously, but not gregariously or unforgivably so. This is the second record with bassist Jeff Matz (Zeke) in the lineup, and Matz makes his presence known mostly with his surprise backing vocals during a melodic break in “Frost Hammer,” his well-established thrash chops otherwise helping him to keep up with Pike and madman drummer Des Kensel. Between the beginning couplet, it’s clear High on Fire are going for something different with Snakes for the Divine, perhaps feeling as though they’d taken their previous sound as far as it could go and looking to branch out.

Producer Greg Fidelman is perhaps best known in the metal community for having done Slayer’s World Painted Blood, and the drum-heavy sound he brought to that album he brings to Snakes for the Divine as well – though in parts, as on “Ghost Neck” — the triggered sound of Kensel’s kit (why on earth you would want to replace the natural hitting of a drummer as skilled as Kensel with samples, even if those samples might be taken from his own drums, is beyond me) is a detriment to the song. His high-hat hits are both too high in the mix and too uniform-sounding, and unless I’m way off base (I’d be happy to learn I am) and Kensel is just that precise a player, that can only be the result of replacing his hits with samples. It is one of the most unfortunate outcrops of making albums in the digital age, and realistically, with an album as big as Snakes for the Divine was set up to be – especially considering E1, formerly Koch, is a considerably more commercialized outfit than was Relapse – it was unavoidable.

But really? A band with the natural character and appeal of High on Fire and your big plan is to clean up their sound? Really?

Pike tries a somewhat different approach vocally and it works in varying degrees. “Bastard Samurai,” a relative creeper of a song with some late-Iommi ambience in the guitars and a more subdued overall feel, is an album highlight. Melody has been easing its way into Pike’s voice for the last couple records and it’s not out of place here, but he’s still far more of a guitarist than a vocalist. The difference is his confidence in what he does makes it more of a style than him just trying to fit something over his own riffing. His riffing, by the way, remains fantastic, and ditto for the soloing.

Though, again, I wasn’t much for the opener, a later cut like “How Dark We Pray” has exactly the kind of six-string work that put High on Fire on the map, and “Fire, Flood and Plague,” led into by the short intro “The Path,” is the best song Snakes for the Divine has to offer. Closer “Holy Flames of the Fire Spitter” is comparatively forgettable, but also a shorter and more straightforward song, so the tradeoff is it hits with a more immediate impact. If it seems strange that High on Fire would save the more characteristically High on Fire material for side B, it makes sense when you consider the “time for something new” mindset.

That’s not to say axes aren’t wielded and buried in the skulls of enemies throughout. It’s still High on Fire, and though the trio are working new elements into their sound, they remain one of the most recognizable musical forces of their generation. Already we are beginning to see new bands cropping up with a marked High on Fire influence, and with the added exposure and higher profile their new label will get them, you can be sure that won’t stop anytime soon. Snakes for the Divine may or may not the be mythical follow-up to Death is this Communion some of us had been hoping for, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t end up on many 2010 year-end lists all the same.

High on Fire on MySpace

E1 Music

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3 Responses to “High on Fire and the Path to Divinity”

  1. Mike says:

    I’ve held off on publicly commenting on this album because I am split on how I feel about it. First and foremost it is a High on Fire album, so I love it. Only time will tell though where it stands amongst the band’s entire discography for me. I think officially the band has now run the spectrum of production values, from the gritty, raw and sludgy The Art of Self Defense to what we have now with Snakes for the Divine, a polished stone. It’s unfortunate in this case because the real beauty of what Pike and High on Fire do is best appreciated in its rawest form, live. Therefore studio albums should try to capture that quality. Anything other than that and you are robbing the music of its very essence. Triggers are not live, but a crutch. A perfectly healthy person like me does not need to get around in a wheelchair. Know what I mean? I don’t fault the band. I think with a different producer, this would be in instant classic. Maybe not besting Death Is This Communion, but giving it a good run. I really like the songs (I could do without the albums AC/DC like opening riff though…Pike has said that it is so damn fun to play he had to use it) and the playing on this album. Bastard Samurai, polished as it may be, still oozes a wonderfully dark atmosphere. Pike gaining more confidence in his singing abilities is a good thing to me. And the cover art rules. So really this about the producer, as we all knew it would be the minute we read who had gotten the job.

    None of us on this side of the project know what really went down, but it has been told that Greg Fidelman had seen High on Fire live and had to record them. Sure… Fidelman being the producer of Snakes for the Divine has everything to do with High on Fire being signing to E1. Pike and Kensel have admitted their reasons for leaving Relapse. They wanted a label that could offer them more and all that that implies (more exposure, more support ($)). The band has been steadily gaining forward momentum and fan base and this move could take them to the next level. Pike has been in this came for about 20 years, so wanting a little some more is ok. Despite his length of service and his undeniable street credibility, he is the new kid at this level and probably had a say in the choice of a producer, but was surely guided in a direction. It had to be unavoidable in this scenario. Hopefully, this album will break the band and next time out Pike will have more say and they will get back to making albums High on Fire style. Maybe this was a necessary and calculated step on Pike & Co.’s part. Let us all hope and pray that if the band does make it big with this album that doesn’t cloud their vision. Hopefully their deal with E1 gives the band room to move and not be dictated as to what to do with gained success. Only time will tell.

    It’s just too bad that the producer and the albums productions values overshadow the music itself. That’s why I am psyched to see the band play this stuff live in a month!

  2. Mike says:

    Wow, I’m back…that just kinda flew out my fingers in a matter of minutes earlier. I want to elaborate on a few things. My gripe with the production is not with the job as a whole, but specifically with Pike’s guitar and Kensel’s drums. Otherwise, I like the sound. It is a bit dry, but I think that is probably a result of the album being digitally recorded (just a guess on my part). Analog recordings do have a warmer feel to them. I also like Matz’s bass. It could be a tad thicker, but I like where it stands in the mix and the feeling you get when you play the CD in a car at high volumes. This album is loud as hell too. I think the album was mixed decently. I like where things stand. It’s funny you mention this being a drum heavy album because so many have said the opposite, which just tells me they are reviewing a digital copy…how can anyone pick on production when listening to a digital copy is beyond me. Kudos to you on that point.

    Interesting too that you mentioned the latest Slayer album when talking about the drums. Right away, I was thinking how reminiscent of Dave Lombardo’s playing some of the faster stuff Kensel does on this album is. I read a review that likens Kensel’s fills to sounding like a fall down a flight of stairs. Controlled chaos like Lombardo. Kensel is like a professional stuntman though in that each hit is meticulously choreographed. To the listener it sounds as if at any minute…someone could get hurt.

    Back to what I said originally about this being a polished stone, to some it is going to be the best thing to come along all year, or in several years. I can see it and appreciate it. I just like my rocks a little jagged.

    I like this album a lot. Could it be better? Yes. Will there be better this year? Maybe. Is it better than much of what will come out this year? Yes. High on Fire is a favorite of mine and continues to be. Was this a slight mis-step or calculated move? In the end, it really is all good. The musicians and their songs on this album shine through regardless.

  3. Mike says:

    Congratulations to the band! I just read the debut at #62 on Billboard’s Top 200 Chart.

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