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High On Fire has never really ventured too far from their thrashy sludge metal sound, but one can’t accuse the band of putting the same album out every time either. Perhaps in response to the controversy that came with 2010’s Snakes For The Divine, De Vermis Mysteriis proves to be the band’s most raw and ambitious release in some time. In addition to having been produced by Kurt Ballou of Converge, it is also the third album to feature bassist Jeff Matz, effectively solidifying the band’s longest lasting lineup yet.
In a way similar to the previous release, this album could be seen as a battle that’s being waged between the two elements that make up the group’s monolithic sound. About half of the songs on here exercise their faster-paced influences while an equal number are some of their most doom-oriented tracks to date. A gritty production job and more straightforward song lengths further accentuate this variety.
The band members’ performances also help make this a very worthwhile effort. While drummer Des Kensel has always been a driving force, he really outdoes himself on here as he is constantly pounding and ends up leading the songs more often than the guitar! Not one to be outdone, guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike offers impressive bursts of chunky riffs, technical solos, and vocals that are as gruff as they are wordy. In addition, Matz round the trio out quite well; his tone isn’t as fat as it was on Snakes For The Divine but he still manages to get highlighted on several occasions.
As previously noted, the album has a good blend of fast and slow songs with the first three starting things off on a series of intensely rapid notes. “Fertile Green” was an interesting choice for a lead single as it features the fastest drum performance along with the most ripping guitar solo. The opening “Serums of Liao” also stands out thanks to its pounding rhythms and vocal lines that are rather bouncy by High On Fire standards.
Ultimately, the doom metal tracks are arguably the most rewarding moments. “King Of Days” and the closing “Warhorn” are two noteworthy songs as the former has an almost ballad feel with its borderline clean vocals and excellent bass solo while the latter venture that rivals classic Sleep and “Bastard Samurai.” In addition, “Madness Of An Architect” lives up to its name with its dark, bass-heavy tone and “Samsara” is a nifty instrumental that features a steady drum beat guiding some weaving guitar and bass lines.
As a fan of High On Fire since the Blessed Black Wings days, I have yet to run into a disappointing release and this one is certainly no exception. It’s hard to say where this stands in comparison to past efforts but it’ll probably end up being seen as one of their more consistent. At any rate, the future still looks good and I can’t help but wonder if the doom influence means that we’ll have a new studio album from Sleep in the near future. I can dream, can’t I?
“Serums Of Liao”
“Madness Of An Architect”
“King Of Days”
High On Fire are a sludge metal band who have been consistently great over the last ten years, releasing monstrously heavy album after monstrously heavy album. From the raw, visceral attack of 2002’s “Surrounded By Thieves” to the more refined and polished “Snakes for the Divine” from 2010, High On Fire have always managed to create something unique. While I personally loved the album, many people thought the production on “Snakes” watered it down a bit, taking the edge off of the music and reducing its impact. Does “De Vermis” continue in the same vein? No. Right from the beginning this album smacks you in the face like a lead-coated sledgehammer. The production is handled by Kurt Ballou from Converge, and he’s done a damn fine job. It's very heavy, cranking up the lower end of the mix as it smacks you in the gut. Frontman Matt Pike’s vocals seem extremely close, as if he’s shouting just a few centimetres away from your face.
Tracks like blistering opener “Serums of Liao”, “Fertile Green” and “Spiritual Rites” tear the air around your ears to pieces. Another great thing about this album though is that High On Fire balance these manic assaults with slower, doomier and sometimes even beautiful songs. “Madness of an Architect” is the first of these songs, opening with around a minute of solid distortion, before slowly and steadily building up into a huge riff that rolls on and on while Matt roars over the top like a man possessed, before ending with a fantastic solo as the song unravels around it. “Madness” leads straight into “Samsara”, a three minute instrumental piece with beautiful melodic guitar work, and a wonderful repeating bass line.
“Warhorn” is probably tied with “Madness” for the heaviest song on the album, and “King of Days” is almost a sludge metal ballad in a bizarre way, with melodic guitars and even melodic vocals, or at least as close to melodic as Matt’s vocals can get. Matt’s vocals are possibly career best on this record, his voice instantly recognizable and unique, and as always he cranks out some of the most engaging riffs in modern metal, and also some pretty good solos. Jeff Matz’ bass is also probably his best yet on here, emphasizing the heaviness on the heavy songs and even increasing the atmospherics on the more stoner-like songs such as “Samsara”, and as usual Des Kensel’s drums are superb. From the opening of “Fertile Green” (a beat that pops up again at the end of “King of Days”, similar to the end of “Razor Hoof” from “Surrounded By Thieves” bleeding into the beginning of “Devilution” from the album that followed it), to the tom-heavy beats on the title track of the album, he once again shows that he’s quite possibly the best drummer in sludge metal.
“De Vermis Mysteriis” is also a concept album, telling the story of Jesus Christ’s forgotten brother, who gave his life at birth so that Jesus could live but his spirit travels through time and he keeps finding himself in the body of his ancestors. Or something. Whatever it is, it’s a typically surreal concept for an album of this style. There are plenty of fast, intense metal albums, and there are plenty of doom-filled and atmospheric albums too, but very few bands have managed to create an album that balances the two so perfectly. “De Vermis Mysteriis” is brutal yet beautiful, claustrophobic yet expansive. Adding another 10 song strong collection to the bands increasingly impressive back catalogue, this album is a many layered sludge metal masterpiece. Any nay-sayers who disliked “Snakes for the Divine” have been silenced.
High On Fire have come back with a thirst for vengeance. With the release of De Vermis Mysteriis, the first album by the band to hit number 16 on the Billboard Charts, High On Fire have defined themselves as the alpha and omega of the stoner metal genre.
Not every track here is exactly the same. The first three tracks (Serums of LIao, Bloody Knuckles and Fertile Green) offer arguably the best album open from this band since the days of Blessed Black Wings and Death Is This Communion. Early on, you'll notice that the production has been scaled back in some areas, which is a change of pace since the last album, Snakes for the Divine, an album that is wonderful in it's own right, but which I thought was a disappointment in the grand scheme of things. There, Greg Fidelman produced an unfamiliar, heretofore unknown version of High On Fire that was crisp and ultra clean. The music still kicked ass. But Matt Pike sounds cooler when his vocals are in the foreground, as if you're at a live show. That is how I interpreted the first several albums from this band, take it or leave it, but I think that bringing these elements back was a great decision on behalf of the band.
Madness of an Architect is the highlight on this album. It stands out because it takes down the pace quite a bit, but maintains the ass kicking brutality we expect from this trio. It improves on the formula of the title track of Death Is This Communion, where the song is taken down tempo and the rhythmic chops of the band members are showcased. But it "only" clocks in at 6:57, making it more streamlined and conscious of being catchy than many of HoF's longer epics like "DITC".
I am giving the album an 85%, mostly because I find that the HoF formula over the longevity of their career is being worn thin. Stoner metal is not dying, but I think that the dynamics of the genre-and the dynamic of the main bands within it- needs to change in order for it to still feel fresh. Crushing riffs and fuzzed out instruments with an emphasis on the boom are great ideas, but they aren't the only things that play to the sensibilities of the listeners of music such as this. But that doesn't mean this is a bad release from the band. It is the most brilliant piece, in my opinion, since the formative years of the band. However, this does not change the fact that I myself have grown weary of this particular strain of stoner metal.
High On Fire's sixth full-length finds the band in fine muscular form. Aided and abetted by an excellent production job from Godcity Studio's Kurt Ballou, the band roars through a strong set of heavy psychedelics. De Vermis Mysteriis features some of the strongest songwriting of the band's career. From the slow burn groove of "Serum Of Liao" through the thrashing assault of "Spiritual Rites" to the mournful call of the "Warhorn," High On Fire display a passion and intention that few other bands can currently match.
Most long-lived bands flame-out, front-loading their careers before tottering into a painful obsolescence. Not so High On Fire. Though their recorded output has taken some less than stellar turns, they have continually managed to hone their craft, offering new and innovative twists even in their mistakes and never once settling down to just go through the motions. De Vermis Mysteriis continues that pattern yet deepens it.
Clearly challenged in the studio, everyone steps up: Matt Pike lets loose with some deep 70's psychedelics, channeling a diverse cosmos through his fretboard. Check out "Madness Of An Architect" or the instrumental "Samsara" for some of his best soloing ever. Jeff Matz's bass is thick and he loosens his grip on the riffs, bring more flow to his playing. Between him and Des Kensel, the rhythmic swing is stronger than ever. The drums are also extraordinarily well-captured. On previous recordings, he was either too distant or completely overwhelming. Here the balance is flawless, dominant and muscular without blowing the others away. I can't say enough good things about the production -- it really brings out the best in High On Fire's playing.
Unlike previous albums, my quibbles here are marginal. I dislike the chorus on "King Of Days," it really brings out the worst in Pike's voice, that strained off-key kinda bellow he affects when trying to actually sing. That the song drags too doesn't help. Otherwise, his voice is in fine fettle throughout. The title track is also drag. I keep waiting for it to open up but it never does. These criticisms aside, De Vermis Mysteriis is High On Fire's best album since Surrounded By Thieves.