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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?
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.