84. High on Fire, ‘Blessed Black Wings’ (2005)

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager I probe, which is now the farthest man-made object from the earth, at almost 14 billion miles from earth and counting. The hopeful people of the planet, who still had the good sense to believe in science by the way, extended their greetings to any interstellar alien species who happened along, by means of a golden record. I supposed they must have also packed a record player, and some cartoony, IKEA-style instructions. On this record were sounds that the Voyager team thought were central to humanity…children greeted the aliens in many languages, the songs of birds and whales, Azerbaijani folk music, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, the sound of the surf crashing on the shore, and the brain waves of noted science writer Anne Druyan, among other things. I’d imagine that there must have been a lot of discussion, debate, and even heated rhetoric as to what to include. I mean, they couldn’t put everything on there, could they?

This raises a dumb question. What if we wanted aliens to understand what metal was? What album would we send?

This is the album that I would choose. It isn’t the best metal album. It isn’t the loudest. It isn’t the most extreme. It is the centroid. The type specimen of metal if you will*.

Imagine that we created a million indices by which we rate metal albums: brutality, virtuosity, energy, riffitude, shredding, vikingness…etc., and then performed a principal coordinate analysis (PCA). PCAs plot each album in as many dimensions as there are indices, and then squashes the plot flat in a way that maximizes variation among albums. Albums on the outskirts of that graph are extreme along multiple axes. Albums in the center are most representative of the center of the multiple axes of variation. In other words, no metal head would ever argue that “Blessed Black Wings” is not a metal album, the way that some would not recognize anything by Tool** as metal. All of the essential elements are there, and there isn’t much other than what is essential. If Black Sabbath and Motorhead had a child, and got that child wound up on jack-and-coke just before the baby-sitter arrived, you’d have this album.

It is a very good album. I had never listened to this album or this band before this week. I’ve listened to it about nine times straight through. After my first listen, I was curious about who engineered it. No surprise— Steve Albini— known for straightforward, raw production values that maximize the live feel of the album. This is a “nothing rattles, nothing shines” production. Drums sound like drums—thumpy and not so distinct—, the bass sounds like a bass, and the guitars sound like hella-overdriven Gibson Les Pauls run through Marshalls. Moreover, you can hear that the musicians were really into the performance. The album has an element of abandon to it. You know the drummer broke some sticks, leaving shreds of wood all over the studio floor. There was sweat and blood. The microphone got contaminated.

The first song, Devilution is a hell-ride. From the opening drum battery, this just kicks ass all the way through. At first blush, I was wondering if Lemmy was performing guest vocals. The Vocalist and guitarist, Matt Pike just happens to sound a lot like Lemmy. Which is fantastic. “Cometh Down Hessian” is a similar ripper. “Brother in the Wind” is pure grunge, with more open chord-work than one normally hears on purely metal albums—nice big chords pounded in earnest downstrokes to a Keith Moon tribal rhythm. “Blessed Black Wings” is clearly the opus of the album. It opens with a raw and evil riff, which is also somehow bluesy and sludgy. It ends on a rampage, with the drummer going at that crash like it owed him money. Silverback, gorilla-aggressive, is nearly hardcore. The album ends with a very pretty instrumental piece called “Songs of Thunder”, which features an extended clean guitar intro, picked in quick triplet pattern like something Gaelic or Norse. It comes in so heavy, and so suddenly, that you may shit yourself. But with joy.

There’s only one low point on the whole album, and I think that this was a result of Albini’s production style. In the middle of the second song, “The Face of Oblivion” there is a guitar part that goes on without drums for some time. You can just hear it sagging in places, like a moldy old bridge. It’s cringeworthy. When the rest of the band enters, they are not together. The vocals through most of the album are pretty simple and shouty, which works fine on most of the songs. However, the vocal part at the end of “The Face of Oblivion” is a bit more melodic. Or should have been. Matt Pike is terribly off pitch. He sounds like me performing “Man in the Box” at karaoke…he just can’t hit those pitches, and he should have known that he can’t hit those pitches. The final two minutes of this songe are painful and wretched. I don’t know why this track got a pass from either the band or Albini. Maybe they were just tired from all the other ass-kicking.

*Assuming you take a typological approach to taxonomy, which is neither here or there.

**Settle down.

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