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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.