Another couple years, another High on Fire LP, and another sturdy contender for album of the year. De Vermis Mysteriis seems at once a staggering achievement and yet somehow inevitable. Matt Pike and company have been churning out reliably high grade metal for so long now that the only way they could ‘branch out’ would be to suck. Fortunately for us, they seem to lack those genes. Once again the trio has assembled a collection of songs both dizzying in its stripped scope and exhilarating in its execution.
It’s hard to hear the opening double-kick stampede of ‘Serums of Liao’ and not be taken back to the first time High on Fire trampled out of your speakers. Those already experienced to High on Fire might call De Vermis Mysteriis a return to form of sorts, or at least they would if the band had ever truly changed their shape. Still, their production hasn’t sounded so unabashedly full of burl and bristle since Surrounded by Thieves.
All the fixtures culled from their twelve-year career here remain untarnished by the restless call of progress. Rather, they insist on making truly progressive music masked by their affinity for bowel-voiding riffs. ‘Bloody Knuckles’ pummels the listener with three variations on the main riff before ever charging into the verse. In fact, the bulk of the songs stretch out for over a minute before the band avails themselves to vocals. They’re so adept at getting you to bang your head that you forget how much they’re using theirs.
While it might be a futile task to try and crown De Vermis Mysteriis as High on Fire’s finest hour (you might as well try and choose MTV’s most shameless reality series), one can easily claim it their most diverse. The opening salvo of ‘Serums of Liao,’ ‘Bloody Knuckles,’ and ‘Fertile Green’ could very well be the most violent fifteen minutes you subject your eardrums to this year. But never one to disavow his roots with 90’s stoner rock demigods Sleep, Pike rolls the instrumental ‘Samsara’ through an oblong 15/4 riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on the backside of an Obsessed LP. The album’s closer, ‘Warhorn,’ dredges up some of the grungiest sludge of the new millennium. The Sabbath salute ‘King Of Days’ is as majestic as its name implies, and far more epic, culminating in some truly savage guitar-bass solo fisticuffs.
Perhaps the greatest strides taken here are Matt Pike’s vocals. His voice has never sounded better, at once the bark, bellow, and howl of man tied to the stake calling out his executioners through the smoke. Even more impressive is how he casts his vocals in the light (or lack thereof) of his guitar work. He’s a heavy metal Hendrix, his vocal phrasing in constant dialogue with the riffs below. Just check out how the verse to ‘Madness of an Architect’ writhes and spits like an anaconda regurgitating its meal for a second helping.
|High On Fire – ‘King Of Days’.|
Special praise must also be given to producer Kurt Ballou. Having spent a couple decades in the trenches with East Coast metalcore soldiers Converge, he must have learned a thing or two about how to bring clarity to sonic murk. Everything about this album is grizzled with mud, but Ballou captures each instrument as a different shade of dirt, never allowing one element to sully another.
As undeniably strong as the songs were on 2010’s Snakes for the Divine, many fans decried its (relatively) glossy sonic veneer. It was a bit like putting Crest Whitening Strips on Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils. So everyone should be rest easy knowing that the band happily thrashes through the filth like a saber tooth tiger in a tar pit. What could have easily been a bass heavy blast of bong resin, instead comes off as a vein of coal ready to compress to a diamond.
It’s a wonder there aren’t more bands like High on Fire. They encompass the drunken thrash of 80’s Motörhead and the hazy bruise of 90’s stoner rock, all within the setup of a classic 60’s power trio. The formula is a no brainer, and yet the band is peerless in bridging the classic to the contemporary. De Vermis Mysteriis solidifies their stature as modern legends and keepers of an old flame, stomping huge footprints across the metal scene like a yeti, elusive and unclassifiable. That is, until the hail of tribal drums leads into the title track and it hits you: High on Fire is missing-link metal.