The torch bearers for no-nonsense, blood pumping heavy metal High On Fire return with 6th record De Vermis Mysteriis (translation: Mysteries of the Worm a reference to a fictional grimoire conceived by Robert Bloch) . After his stint in epoch making stoner band Sleep, Matt Pike could have rested on his laurels and accepted ‘legendary’ status but no, instead he has forged ahead with his six legged beast of a band High On Fire – a band that has produced more than it’s fair share of thrills in the last decade taking Hunter S. Thompson’s most sensible advice: “Live steady. Don’t fuck around” to heart by being both consistent and prolific. While peers such as Mastodon and Kylesa have achieved mainstream critical press by changing and [arguably] softening High On Fire have continued to delight their core audience with record after record of hard hitting, sludge shattering heavy metal. De Vermis Mysteriis is no different and, in ditching the controversial production and epic song lengths of Snakes for the Divine, Pike with bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel have assembled an improbably heavy affair this time around.
As with previous records there’s a loose theme to be found on De Vermis Mysteriis as Pike explains: “I got this idea what if Jesus had a twin who died at birth to give Jesus his life and became a time traveller right then? He can see the past through his ancestors’ eyes, but his enemies can kill him if they kill the ancestor that he’s seeing through at the time. It’s kinda like that old TV show Quantum Leap.” The singer/guitarist admits most people won’t get it and it’s true that the concept can easily be missed amongst the cauterizing riffs and war drums of the songs.
The opening songs on De Vermis Mysteriis are a very American take on Tony Iommi and like a fossil fuel guzzling hot-rod produced in Detroit there’s plenty of chest beating power that’s best enjoyed at full throttle. Opener Serums of Liao gets down to it straight away blasting ever forward and Bloody Knuckles harks back to the molten grit of third album Blessed Black Wings. There are fewer, shout-it-out loud “Frost Hammer!”/“Bastard Samurai!” soundbites on these songs but Pike’s guitar continues to be a singular sound in metal and the Matz/Kensel partnership kicks untold amounts of arse – just listen to the rumble on the THC dripping Fertile Green.
Madness of an Architect ushers in the expansive journey into space of Jesus’ unknown brother with a bassline so dripping in menace and power that it should come with a health warning especially when topped off with a stomping megalithic-riff. The psychedelic-doom approach (the other side of the ‘stoner’ coin) continues in the middle third of the record with the suitably titled Samsara. The title coming from the Sanskrit meaning to ‘flow on’ and again Matz’ bass dominates – undulating purposefully building a framework for Pike’s exploratory lead guitar – going as far as you’ll get from the rabid dog sound of the opening tracks that is, until the raging Spiritual Rights clatters into earshot bringing back the metal.
The best of these mellower, head nodding, cosmos orientated songs has to be De Vermis Mysteriis’ longest track: King Of Days. There’s actual melody to be found in Pike’s sunset croon and Jeff Matz’ bass coda brings back memories of a certain Cliff Burton as he harmonises with Pike’s visceral guitar over rolling toms in an evocative finale. Speaking of finales Warhorn is how it should be done. Kensel’s accented groove introduces an ominous yet muscular tale of battle and fear: “Lay the charge!” indeed. One thing is for sure on these ten tracks High On Fire understand dynamics; when to turn it up to 11, when to slow it down and when to bring it down to earth.
Matt Pike’s tar-lined, scarified throat; the one that produces a noise like the bellow of a fishing boat captain in particularly heavy seas, cedes space on this record as the bass and drums tangle and vie for attention making for a noisy record with very deep, complementary grooves. Production man of the moment Converge guitarist, Kurt Ballou must take some of the credit for this sound as he organises and highlights every player on De Vermis Mysteriis and frankly the band have never sounded better.
By this stage in their career fans have expectations for how a High On Fire record should sound hence the reaction to the change in production on Snakes For The Divine but on this record the trio have tempered their usual megaton heaviosity with improvisation and a few left turns and the results are breath-taking. Contender for the album of the year no doubt, but then again, that is my expectation for any High On Fire album.