Some bands struggle as they get older. Lacking the pressure of expectations, a debut album can conjure inspired genius, only to be followed by the dreaded "sophomore slump." Metal bands, particularly vulnerable to the physical demands of their music, can lose the speed and ferocity with which they played in their youths, or succumb to market pressure to make their sound more palatable. It may not have seemed possible considering the strength of its prior releases, but High on Fire has managed to continually improve with age.
Case in point: When it came time for the Oakland metal trio to write its fifth album, Snakes for the Divine, the biggest challenge the members faced was how to whittle down about four hours worth of material it had in the can. On 2007's Death Is This Communion, vocalist/guitarist Matt Pike had purposely sung within his range; this time he's hitting larger and higher notes — the result, he says, of more lung power and better control. Drummer Des Kensel, having gone through two surgeries related to playing injuries, got an endorsement from Tama and finally built his dream kit, adding another kick drum and rack tom. Now, he's doing double bass with two drums (as opposed to one drum and two pedals).
That doesn't mean the songwriting was easy. To the contrary, Pike says it's only gotten more difficult. "We challenge ourselves all the time, so we make it hard on ourselves a lot on purpose 'cause all of us are good and all of us strive to be better," he said at an Oakland bar on a recent Friday afternoon. To that end, Snakes for the Divine shows the band pushing itself musically, yet still sounding undeniably like High on Fire. The songs are heavier, more complex, thoughtfully arranged, and technically impressive. In short, Snakes for the Divine is the sound of a band at the top of its game — except there's no indication that a decline is in sight.
The opening title track starts off with an AC/DC "Thunderstruck"-like guitar riff, then unleashes a fast, low-end rumble in which bassist Jeff Matz matches Pike's playing with jaw-dropping accuracy. After the similarly revved-up "Frost Hammer," the pace is broken up by "Bastard Samurai," a return to the band's groovier, doomier roots. Despite the song's slower tempo, it's one of the more difficult tracks for Pike to play live. "It's fucking hard," he said. "I use my toggle switch and there's all this footwork and I have to sing at the same time. So it's kinda confusing." That's followed up by the dizzying intro riffage of "Ghost Neck" with Kensel laying down that tom-heavy "tribal" beat he's known for. "Fire Flood and Plague" sounds like classic High on Fire — but tighter and fuller, if possible. Epic closer "Holy Flames of the Firespitter" employs a war-cry chorus behind a thick groove, with Kensel, Matz, and Pike sounding like a unified battle unit mowing down fields of mediocrity.
Partial credit for the band's recharged sound goes to new producer Greg Fidelman, who was behind Slayer's World Painted Blood, Johnny Cash's American V: A Hundred Highways, and Metallica's Death Magnetic. "We were trying to figure out who to use as a producer," Kensel recalled. "We were thinking about Jack [Endino] again, Terry Date was another guy, Kurt [Ballou] from Converge, and then our new manager said that he's been dealing with Greg Fidelman because he's been working with Slayer. And we're, like, whatever man, we're not gonna be able to afford this guy."
Despite their limited budget, Fidelman showed interest. "He flew up and watched us practice and we just barraged him with all this music," said Pike, who added that the band ultimately chose him as much as he chose the band. But from the get-go, it was apparent that their material was going to need shaping. "He's like, 'Jesus, you guys are fucking out of control, you have like four albums going on.'"
In August, the band flew to Los Angeles and rented a practice room for about two and a half weeks of preproduction. Five of the eight songs were already completed. Two — "Ghost Neck" and "Bastard Samurai" — were written during that time, while the title track got more added onto it (although the intro riff of "Ghost Neck" was something Pike had around since the band's early days). "We had just so much music, the hardest part for us was arranging it and putting it together in a way that made sense," said Matz.
Thus, Fidelman was crucial to the creative process. "He was kinda like a fourth ear to us, and he's like, well what if, what if, giving us what ifs," said Pike. "So he was way more hands on than, say, Endino .... Fidelman was all, 'No, dude, that needs something that goes there.' That's the difference between a producer and a kind of a producer-slash-engineer. He's a producer. He had a lot to do with the way the album was put together."
Also aiding the songwriting process was a newly acquired sixteen-track digital recorder, which allowed the band to develop parts without other members being present. Kensel says Matz' bass parts on "Bastard Samurai" came together that way, while Kensel laid down the drum beat for "Holy Flames of the Firespitter" and "Frost Hammer," which sparked Pike to start playing along. "A lot of stuff sort of evolved that way," said Matz. In addition, Pike said they "try everything in threes, everything in fours, try every angle until it sounds right to all of us."