In celebration of the release of De Vermis Mysteriis, we will be analyzing a High On Fire riff in this week’s lesson. And in keeping with our last lesson’s theme of majestic riffs that emerge from the midst of barbarity, our riff will be the closing to “The Face of Oblivion” from High on Fire’s 2005 magnum opus, Blessed Black Wings.
Much like “Paragon Belial,” “The Face of Oblivion” begins as a punishing, mid-paced stomper, and if the false ending around 3:55 was the true ending, “The Face of Oblivion” would still feel like a complete and satisfying listen. What then emerges at 3:59, however, is a mind-blowing, eighteen-bar riff sequence that could only come from the mind of Matt Pike.
The riff begins with one unaccompanied, mildly distorted guitar picking out a melody of arpeggiated chords and passing tones that roughly follows an F-minor, G, E-flat chord progression. As is usual for High On Fire, the guitars are tuned down two whole steps. The riff flows very smoothly in a comforting, almost hypnotic way on a nearly unwavering pulse of eighth-notes. Every note in this first section falls squarely in the key of F minor, further contributing to the sense of musical “rightness.”
A two-measure phrase based on a D-flat to E-flat progression severs as a bridge to the riff’s second half. While the first section was played exclusively in first position using open chord shapes, this portion of the riff is based around repeated melodic figures rather than arpeggios, and consequently moves about more, both on the guitar neck, and melodically speaking. While this section is also based more or less in the key of F-minor, Pike throws in a few out-of-key notes, making it sound a little more chaotic and metallic.
After the first run-through of the riff, which takes a whopping forty seconds, the rest of the band begins to gradually work its way in. At first, the drums, bass and a second guitar merely punctuate each chord change, but in the second half, a more distorted guitar doubles the melody, and the incomparable Des Kensel executes a masterful build-up with the drums. Kensel starts by pounding out a steady eighth-note rhythm to match the melody, but as the riff progresses, he doubles and eventually triples up on beats until the whole thing busts wide open for the next repetition of the riff.
From here on out, the first half of the riff is abandoned, and on every other repetition, the whole melody is harmonized in fifths. In-between, Pike roars out a few versus, during which the melody drops out. Finally, after two and a half minutes (nearly a song unto itself), this freight train of a riff comes to a halt.
What makes the closing of “The Face of Oblivion” so great, aside form its length and melodic composition, is the way that High On Fire continues to add layers of instrumentation and rhythmic and harmonic variation to build up intensity without changing the riff’s tempo.
Name a track that feels like two songs in one.
High on Fire – Blessed Black Wings
Learn to play “The Face of Oblivion”.