Album Review: High On Fire – ‘Snakes For The Divine’

Only a select few individuals in metal can claim to have matched the achievements of Matt Pike, not in terms of record sales but based on the continuing influence on pockets of the genre that the man’s work possesses. Having risen to prominence in the mid-nineties as the frontman of doom/stoner metal pioneers Sleep, Pike is now bringing his refreshingly traditional musical demeanour to a wider audience as the guitarist and vocalist of High On Fire, for which he is perhaps best known today. The relentlessly heavy, mind-numbingly epic sounds purveyed by HOF across four albums have won the band masses of richly deserved praise, but the band’s fifth studio album ‘Snakes For The Divine’ seems destined to propel this acclaim to a whole new level. Despite lacking the diversity of previous releases, this album is a beacon of unequivocal brutality and ingenious dynamism. Pike, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel have created something which is unquestionably innovative yet possesses a consistent thirst for old-school stylings, and followers of just about any form of metal or hard rock will appreciate what the album has to offer.

Without doubt, ‘Snakes For The Divine’ marks a clear progression in High On Fire’s now easily identifiable style, but this progress is achieved in an intriguing way. The band’s previous record ‘Death Is This Communion’, for instance, contained a myriad of somewhat surprising elements, such as the use of Middle Eastern acoustic instrument the tanbur, and this variety of musical approaches was perhaps the main reason why the album was such a triumph. Nothing of this sort is found on ‘Snakes For The Divine’, but this gives far greater prominence to the core components of High On Fire’s sound, resulting in an astonishingly heavy piece of work from start to finish. A consequence of this is that it allows Pike to indulge in some of his most elaborate, mind-consuming, infecting riffs to date, which is perhaps what the album will ultimately be remembered for. The quite astounding quality of riffage is evident on all eight of the tracks on display, from the stop-start pounding attack of ‘Fire, Flood & Plague’, to the ominously catchy ‘Holy Flames Of The Fire Spitter’. One of the finest moments on the album comes in the form of ‘Ghost Neck’, where ambitious arpeggios and climactic changes in timing are the main focal points, not to mention a lesson in supreme ferocity from Matz and Kensel.

Although none of the tracks on ‘Snakes For The Divine’ can really be described as “experimental”, the one instance where High On Fire seemingly venture out of their perceived comfort zone is the magnificent ‘Bastard Samurai’, a devastating, slowly-paced episode of sheer savagery, with another earth-shattering main riff making way for a spellbinding, haunting solo. This is just one of many examples of Pike’s skill and inventiveness with regard to lead guitar in addition to the heavy riffs, and this continues on the brief yet atmospheric interlude ‘The Path’, as well as the outstanding ‘How Dark We Pray’. On this track, Pike performs an absolutely wondrous, inspired lead riff which seems to move in just about every direction imaginable. Backed up by a deeply intense rhythmical display from Kensel, the track as a whole is extremely infectious and remarkably well-executed. The visceral ‘Frost Hammer’ demonstrates Pike’s vocal talents with tremendous effect, as the man opts for psychedelic cries in the verses and chorus, before the pace drops at a somewhat unconventional bridge, where his heartfelt melodic vocals are reminiscent of Mastodon’s Brent Hinds. The members of Mastodon initially met at a High On Fire gig, so it would appear that the influence works both ways.

All of the facets which make each of the aforementioned tracks so great, however, are initially found in the stunning title track which opens the album. The main riff on show is possibly the most awe-inspiring on the entire album, and when it descends into a chaotic array of no-holds-barred thrash, dramatic pace changes, irresistible lead bursts and galvanising vocals, it is clear within an instant that High On Fire are onto something special. In a way, the track symbolises precisely what ‘Snakes For The Divine’ in its entirety is all about; there are no gimmicks on display whatsoever, but simply a band of three truly gifted musicians who have opted to revert to type, with excellent results. Comparisons between High On Fire and Motorhead seem to be increasingly common, but although there are similarities in terms of guitar tone and indeed attitude, this does Matt Pike, Jeff Matz and Des Kensel a great disservice. Quite plainly, HOF offer a far more intricate and far heavier sound, and even die-hard fans of Lemmy and co will surely admit that their style is somewhat one-dimensional. Such comparisons, though, will surely be dismissed by anyone who has the opportunity to listen to ‘Snakes For The Divine’. High On Fire have proved that it is not necessary to introduce radical new measures in order to make real progress, and this album, arguably the band’s finest to date, is guaranteed to leave any self-respecting metal fan gasping for breath. [8]


About JJPorter

JJ is a 20-year-old student hailing from Scotland, who lives and breathes music. His favourite genres include a variety of styles of metal, as well as hardcore, punk, and just about everything in between. Contact JJPorter on Twitter or via Email.

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