High on Fire's latest is divine

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Wielding his custom-made nine-string axe, churning out tone so thick it could flaunt hot pants in a rap video, and crafting an ever-expanding arsenal of neck-snapping riffage, High on Fire guitarist Matt Pike has done it again.

His playing on the Oakland trio's new album, Snakes for the Divine (Koch Records), surmounts a new, fiery height. That the things he already did well (effortless, legato hammer-ons, heavy-handed, scything chords) are done better is hardly surprising – it's the expanding versatility of the snaggle-toothed shredder's songwriting and technique that impresses, along with his ever-improving vocals. Though Pike's work in Sleep will inevitably serve as a preamble, it is likely that the virtuosity and creativity of his High on Fire output will reverberate longer, and heavier, in posterity.

The album's production, courtesy of Slayer knobsman Greg Fidelman, strikes an agreeable balance between Steve Albini's uncompromising, abrasive work on 2005's Blessed Black Wings (Relapse Records) and the enveloping warmth of Jack Endino's Death Is This Communion (Relapse, 2007). Fidelman's task is made easier by the fact that High on Fire are a power trio that sounds like a power octet. Nevertheless, he replicates the commendable work he did on Slayer's World Painted Blood (American/Sony, 2009), wringing vast, organic-sounding potency out of the drums and amplifiers without sacrificing instrument separation.

Bassist Jeff Matz deserves plaudits for his reverberant, foundation-shaking appearance in a supporting role, anchoring crucial chord progressions and driving thunderous grooves as Pike ascends into the sativa stratosphere. One-guitar bands often lose momentum during leads and solos, and the fact that High on Fire never does is a testament to Matz's quality, along with that of drummer Des Kensel. One of the hardest hitters in the business, Kensel's truncheon-like approach is complimented by the exorbitant circumferences of his cymbals and toms. He and Pike have long enjoyed a striking musical understanding, exemplified by the lockstep concordance of the former's riffs and the latter's barbells-in-the-dryer tom runs, and the connection has rarely born riper fruit than the meter-bending wallops of album's title track, along with the drummer's effortless shifts into double-bass driven double-time later in the song.

Following immediately after the eponymous opening salvo, lead single “Frost Hammer” kicks off with cascading drums before settling into a propulsive, downbeat-heavy groove, delivering an arena-ready shout of “frost ham-mer!” at a number of key junctures. “Bastard Samurai” starts as a doomy, meditative plod before erupting into strident, lost-face anguish during the choruses, and is soon followed by reckless, frantic thrash of “Ghost Neck.”

Closing track “Holy Flames of the Firespitter” begins with a riff that hearkens back to the band's previous albums, reminding old-school fans that even as High on Fire evolves, they remain relentlessly true to their hard-scrabble roots. Don't expect them to be changed by a new label, a big-name producer, or last year's arena tour -- they're a band that eats Motorhead, drinks Sabbath, and bleeds Slayer, and Snakes for the Divine proves that they are at the absolute pinnacle of their game.

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