High on Fire—De Vermis Mysteriis
High on Fire’s sixth album, De Vermis Mysteriis, is the Oakland, California trio’s best work yet. A spectacularly convoluted conceptual gambol, it draws from the esoteric works of H.P. Lovecraft, and marries those references to frontman and famed guitarist Matt Pike’s ponderings about Jesus having an unborn time-traveling twin. It all makes for a complicated narrative arc. But thankfully, High on Fire have backed up this fantastical tale with a searing set of tunes. If you’re nervous about deciphering such an elaborate tale, you can simply sit back and bask in 52 minutes of sludge-fueled stoner metal. It is, quite simply, superb.
De Vermis Mysteriis is produced by Kurt Ballou. As such, the new album is a notable improvement on 2010’s overly polished Snakes for the Divine, which was produced by Greg Fidelman. That album, while crammed with Pike’s unmistakably adventurous and churning riffs, was criticized quite rightly for sanitizing the essential filthiness that underscores High on Fire’s rough and ready visceral bite.
Thankfully, Ballou has remedied all that. As he does with all his producing, he’s captured the band’s degenerate rock ‘n’ roll looseness and ragged-ass metal perfectly. Pike’s endless Motorhead-cum-Sabbath-cum-Sleep on-speed riffs are dirty and palpable, and the interlocking grooves of bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel are given the weight they so richly deserve. Ballou has ensnared the core dynamics of a power trio working towards the same end goal, perfectly illustrating that melding of collaborative propulsion and individual might, highlighting all the evocative punches of nuance and bare-boned ferocity.
You’ll find all that on opener “Serums of Liao”. Six minutes of raging riffs and thunderous percussion, with Pike’s howl layered on top, securing its graveled timbre. High on Fire have always set out a crushing opening track, and while the album does contain a raft of subtlety and finesse, the intensity doesn’t drop to any large degree from here on in. “Bloody Knuckles” and “Fertile Green” follow on. The former is a colossal grind (infused with a grimy d-beat kick), the latter a drummer’s delight—with Kensel laying down a pounding martial beat over Pike’s crustier oozing riffs.
Three songs in and there’s no sign of lessening strength or arcane wrath. “Madness of an Architect” begins with a lethargic feedbacking prelude, before Pike breaks into a mud-spattered, mesmeric riff that loses none of its vigor due to its more languid pace. “Samsara”, the following instrumental track, is a three-and-a-half-minute glistening solo. It should, given its more sanguine nature, feel out of place. But ultimately it serves its purpose well as a brief respite (and prologue) before “Spiritual Rights” turns up to slay all the dragons, cast all the curses and drink the mead barrels dry.
The preceding tracks illustrate High on Fire’s wonderful ability to balance the bludgeoning might of metal with the élan and artistry required to ensure their craftsmanship is not obscured by an overload of bloodletting. But it’s the album’s centerpiece, “King of Days”, that truly lights a torch to illuminate just how imaginative Pike’s songwriting can be. His work with Sleep is obviously appreciated for its expressiveness and hypnotic vision, and “King of Days” draws from the same well—albeit in a less blatantly anesthetizing fashion. A genuine monolithic stoner epic, the track shifts through its seven minutes dragging clawfooted lysergic riffs and spiraling solos, to ultimately transform into a jamming behemoth. Beautiful. Easily one of High on Fire’s very best songs.
From here on it’s a battleaxe-waving romp till the end. “De Vermis Mysteriis”, “Romolus And Remus”, and final track “Warhorn” continue in the same vein of providing swampy riffs and pummeling percussion galore. Pike’s cryptic lyrics endlessly circle the Cthulu, the phantasmagorical and the chest-beating warriors of yore.
De Vermis Mysteriis is the most ‘live’ sounding album High on Fire have released since their early days. Fans have pointed to 2002’s Surrounded by Thieves and 2005’s Blessed Black Wings as albums that managed to more fully encompass the band’s live intensity. But they’ll have a hard time denying that De Vermis Mysteriis has usurped them all as High on Fire’s most pulverizing and imaginative work. Does that mean this is Pike’s magnum opus? Who can tell, we’ll have to save those assessments till the day he rides off in a blazing chariot to Valhalla.
Matt Pike is an acclaimed metal icon, a genuine guitar hero, and High on Fire have yet to release an album that has been anything less than compositionally outstanding (production issues aside). There’s no doubt that Pike has plenty of sterling riffs just waiting to be unleashed, and De Vermis Mysteriis represents another in a very long line of masterful works from High on Fire. Equal parts enigmatic and ingenious, Pike and the boys have once again drawn a bloody line in the sand that few would ever dare approach, let alone cross.
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