It’s hard not to give in to hyperbole, because listening to De Vermis Mysteriis, I absolutely can’t picture anything but High on Fire standing triumphant with a pile of skulls at their feet. Whether it’s Des Kensel’s war drums resounding at the beginning of the aptly-titled “Bloody Knuckles” – one feels inclined in listening to put out a corresponding track and call it “Bloody Nose” – or guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike’s thick, groove-minded swagger on “Madness of an Architect,” or the sheer grit bassist Jeff Matz puts into late-album high-point “Romulus and Remus,” De Vermis Mysteriis (released through eOne Music) makes its success complete. Front to back, it is confrontational, Pike reciting his warlord’s incantations of battles, Lovecraftian horrors and the planted weed that grows mankind – for that, see “Fertile Green,” perhaps the most lyrically stoner song of High on Fire’s career, masked by the band’s characteristic raging thrash – while he, Matz and Kensel tear through torsos like paper and assert their dominance over, well, everything. An alliance with producer Kurt Ballou, who also contributes guitar on the still-substantial interlude “Samsara” and the closing “Warhorn,” has resulted in a dense, pulsating atmosphere, and everything from the guitar to the drums to the balance of the vocals in the mix seems to speak to the singular idea of “big.” Ballou brings a similar level of presence as engineer and mixer to De Vermis Mysteriis as he did to Black Cobra’s excellent 2011 outing, Invernal (review here), finding an energy within High on Fire’s performance seemed lost on 2010’s Snakes for the Divine (review here). I said in that Black Cobra review that their record made “the last High on Fire sound tired,” which was true. Well, so does De Vermis Mysteriis. Snakes for the Divine lacked nothing in development of the band’s craft, but came across as more staid and clinical than ferocious or given to the kind of dynamics one hears here in the tradeoff between “Samsara” and “Spiritual Rites” or the even within the songs themselves.
That said, the fact remains that the kicked-up dust that seemed to cake High on Fire’s earliest releases – whether it was the resin-soaked initial EP or 2000’s The Art of Self-Defense or 2002’s Surrounded by Thieves – is simply gone, and to approach De Vermis Mysteriis thinking that you’re going to get it is flat-out the wrong way to go about it. There’s nothing regressive about these 10 tracks. In no way is High on Fire going backwards even to what I’d consider the high points of their Relapse Records era, 2005’s Blessed Black Wings and 2007’s Death is this Communion. Rather, De Vermis Mysteriis takes the lessons from those albums and indeed from Snakes for the Divine and develops them another logical step forward while also finding a presentation well suited to the band’s history, live show and current style, which no longer relies just on Venom-by-way-of-Slayer riffing to get its point across. High on Fire in 2012 are well at home in a variety of paces and approaches, and De Vermis Mysteriis is stronger and more cohesive for it. Each of these songs has a personality of its own that functions to serve the 52-minute whole of the album – which is the best case scenario for something that’s not based on an over-arching lyrical or musical narrative. When they pummel – and they do – that pummel is more effective for not being lost in an overwhelming mash. There is clarity in the songwriting, clarity in the philosophy behind the structure, and blood on the boots of the performance. Frankly, it’s more than one could’ve hoped for from High on Fire, who manage now to accomplish what they seemed to be setting out to do last time – incorporate increased melody while still maintaining their trademark and increasingly influential brand of heaviness. The album is the victory it declares.
As regards the production value, though, a band simply doesn’t get to where High on Fire are at this point in their career without being decipherable to the ear. What De Vermis Mysteriis does excellently, however – and given his past work, it’s something I’d credit in large part to Ballou – is present clarity as a function of the band’s take on heavy, serving the songs even as it enhances them. A solo break that starts roughly halfway into “Fertile Green” is even more raging for the crispness of Pike’s playing, and it seems he’s found a way to expand his vocal approach – something he’s been knocking at the door of since the days of his sans-guitar work in the side-project Kalas – without letting go of the visceral, guttural throat-searing that many have tried to capture but no one else seems to be able to replicate as well. He shows that immediately on opener “Serums of Liao,” which seems as good a point as any to launch an honest track-by-track look at De Vermis Mysteriis, with the ultimate hope of showing how through their individual characteristics, these songs come together to feed the whole. Here goes:
“Serums of Laio”
The chorus is bound to sit well with anyone who, perhaps because of their potent tour ethic or general musical sway, has ever thought of High on Fire as having some marauding sensibility. Pike takes the lines, “Be thy eyes ancestors reign/Past attune and paravased/Serum drunk reflect and chased/Bloodline trip enters their graves,” and crafts one of the most potent hooks in the band’s catalog and the perfect lead for De Vermis Mysteriis, which isn’t always so accessible, but purposefully winds its way through various levels of aggression and intensity, Kensel’s drumming showing both Dave Lombardo-esque character and technical prowess. Even if the fills and snare hits he so liberally strews about these tracks are probably triggered, it’s not so processed as to wholly lose the natural vibe, and the toms sound so huge you can almost feel the wind of the air they push. As ever, he is the perfect answer to Pike’s guitar, and where that has in the past left Matz as the newcomer and somewhat odd man out, he’s the most integrated into the band he’s ever been here, and it’s not so much a question of, “Can he keep up?” as, “How are they functioning as a trio?” That switch alone speaks to Matz being more present in the sound than ever before.
Shorter by almost two full minutes than the opener, its crunch is no less intense and its verse is made all the more punishing by Kensel’s steady double-kick and snare, which might as well be fists landing on flesh. Pike’s vocal is essentially a scream, like heavier Motörhead and in that way in line with some of what High on Fire has done before, but no less glorious for the fact that it might be familiar to fans. Anyone who’s ever seen High on Fire live has seen Matt Pike’s posture as he plays guitar is at least completely upright – if not leaning back – and the central riff of “Bloody Knuckles” sounds like it was written that way as well. The production is as much a factor as the music itself, however, though the guitar solo seems almost restrained in comparison to some that follow, whether it’s the layered rippers that cap the title-cut or the spooky sustained fractures induced by “Madness of an Architect.” Still, “Bloody Knuckles” is High on Fire playing to their traditional strengths and one can almost hear a crowd erupt as one final shout of the title line cuts the song to silence.
Kicks your ass before you know it’s been kicked. Kensel starts the song on drums and while the music feels like the lyrics should be about decapitation and nothing but, instead lines like “Earthen plant, fertile land, ready for caravan/The girl of the world plants her plight” both reference Pike’s stoner rock legacy in Sleep (the “stoner caravan” being a particular image from the lyrics to the 63-minute epic, “Dopesmoker”) and serve as a fascinating contrast. Delivery-wise, Pike loses nothing of the madness in his presentation for the subject matter, and if anything the song appears to be working in defiance of expectation, as if to say, “I’ve got your stoner rock right here.” Part of the band’s appeal has always been the creative niche they’ve carved for themselves between thrash metal and heavier, more thickly-toned rock, and if they’re taking the opportunity with “Fertile Green” to consciously refuse what they seem to have subconsciously refused all along, it’s time well spent. Stoner rock heads will eat it up and those who can’t or won’t be bothered to read the lyrics have another earth-shakingly heavy High on Fire thrasher to show for it.
“Madness of an Architect”
Come to think of it, “Madness of an Architect” kind of has musically what one might expect looking at the lyrics to “Fertile Green.” The pace is slower, the riff more lurching. Kensel still provides the intro, but right away it’s clear they’re not going for the same kind of musical aggression, and when the verse kicks in, its nod-worthy groove makes the track an immediate standout. Pike throws a lead line at the end of each verse, and that’s more than swaggering enough for a chorus. Of all the songs on De Vermis Mysteriis, it’s easiest to imagine “Madness of an Architect” came simply out of jamming on the main riff until it was a song. The last minute and a half are devoted to long-held echoing notes, frenetic lead work and Kensel and Matz holding the song to ground while Pike seems bent on working it into orbit. If they had wanted to do this for 63 minutes, I wouldn’t have been disappointed or even argued with the impulse, and for a song that’s essentially a couple verses and a freakout at the end, “Madness of an Architect” proves there’s more to a memorable track than dumbed-down hooks or capitulation to commercial interests. Sometimes there’s killer riffing and dudes yelling about spaced-out mythologies. Right on.
It’s the natural division point in the tracklisting, the end of a 25-minute side A that leads to a 26-minute side B as well as only instrumental on the whole of De Vermis Mysteriis. Ballou steps in on guitar alongside Pike, but I’m still more drawn to Matz’s playing, striking in its warmth in a way one probably wouldn’t expect for an album both his heavy and this guitar-centric. After the feedback and noise end to which “Madness of an Architect” comes, Matz underscores and thickens Pike’s fuzzy guitar in a way that more complements than follows. While Ballou adds melodic flourish, High on Fire do more than offer a breather from the melee that’s soon to resume with “Spiritual Rites,” they also show the track their growth as a unit has taken. Two albums ago, they couldn’t have pulled “Samsara” off, and here it sound not only natural, but necessary.
Is a steamroller. In the same vein as “Bloody Knuckles” was playing to what has always worked in High on Fire’s sound, “Spiritual Rites” kicks off the second half of their sixth album in what has turned into being their classical form. In the song’s second half, Pike seems to be in a far-back gang chant with himself, fighting back his own soloing only to be overcome as the verse’s bludgeoning resumes (he wins in the end) and a surprise guest scream from Ashley Redshaw tops a final runthrough of the track’s also-upright riff cycle. There’s a sense of lumbering to the music despite its speed, Kensel working at double-time to add energy to the verse riff, which ends high, ends low, ends high, ends low, in a swaying trade that’s doomed in its origins and execution. The chorus is more frantic, but still under control, and by the time Ms. Redshaw contributes her terror to the final seconds, it feels well earned by Pike’s threats to scourge your ghost and “burn you as the dead is.” Fucking lethal.
“King of Days”
A similarly open feel gave “Fire Vein” from Hull’s 2011 album, Beyond the Lightless Sky, such a sense of conquest, but High on Fire’s path and interpretation are different, so that there’s a mournful sense in Pike’s vocals as he recounts tales of falling to pride – the wars and monsters have always been a stand-in for personal wins and losses – atop slower-paced grooves and more low-end righteousness from Matz. As much as his time in Zeke prepared him to take on heavy rocking at whatever speed it might come, also not to be ignored is the groove he can underscore, whether it’s something raging and complex or, like “King of Days,” subtler in construction. For his part, Kensel brings back the war-drum cadence that started “Fertile Green” and fits it well as an outro and lead-in for the ensuing title-track, adding fluidity to side B and congruence with the first half. At 7:09, “King of Days” is the longest track of De Vermis Mysteriis, and though past albums have seen material top eight and beyond, it’s worth noting that nothing here feels overly stripped down or like it’s somehow failing to get the band’s point across.
“De Vermis Mysteriis”
They have their formulas set, though, and “De Vermis Mysteriis” – if it had to – could probably get by on anger alone. It doesn’t seem to have to. Pike wields Lovecraft incantations like a broadsword, but the song is as much about the drums as anything he’s doing either vocally or on guitar. Kensel spends the whole verse engaged in what feels like one long fill, keeping time on his toms even as he runs back and forth through the kit, opening up for a chorus that feels like someone took “epic” and turned the gravity up on it to condense and compress it into something smaller. A pair of killer lead sections fill out the structure, and though the title-track of De Vermis Mysteriis is right in line with what one might expect given the course the album has taken, the song is nonetheless a turn away from High on Fire’s general approach, which is to match grandiosity of feel with a longer songwriting modus for titular cuts. To wit, “Snakes for the Divine” was the longest song on that album at 8:24, and likewise for “Death is this Communion” at 8:35 and “Blessed Black Wings” at 7:43. In fact, if one wants to find the last time a title-track wasn’t the longest song on a High on Fire record, it requires going back a full decade to Surrounded by Thieves. I don’t know if that’s something the band wanted to shift away from doing on purpose, or if it had to do with the lyrical schematic or if they just didn’t want to call the album “King of Days,” but it’s a surprise all the same.
“Romulus and Remus”
Undeniably metal and undeniably grooved, “Romulus and Remus,” presumably is the lyrical basis Pike discussed in some of the pre-album info (see here) about a “Jesus twin who can see the past through his ancestors’ eyes.” Just as well, the building of Rome discussed in the lyrics – “Rome shall be/An empire not seen in the past/Divinity” – and the “Geminis suckled of the wolf” (a reference to the titular mythological twin brothers who founded the city that became Rome) could be a metaphor for Sleep and Pike’s work with Al Cisneros as the two remaining members in that reunited band. If that’s the case or it isn’t, it ultimately doesn’t have much effect on the listening experience, which is typified by a landmark verse riff and strong chorus; something High on Fire doesn’t always rely on but usually uses well when they do. Its place in the tracklist speaks to functioning as a late-arriving pickup, and where other bands might bury filler, Pike, Kensel and Matz have put the band’s past bombast against thickened sludge undulations and come out of it with the apex of De Vermis Mysteriis. Like a lot of what they’ve done in the past, the louder it gets, the better it gets, but at whatever volume it’s approached, the song undeniably has power on all fronts, whether it’s the classic rock drumming from Kensel, keeping it relatively simple, Matz’s tonal heft or Pike’s blistering solos that bring the song to a close, the rhythm track playing underneath all the while as it has been in my head ever since I first heard it.
Doesn’t quite have the same level of effectiveness as “Bastard Samurai,” which for my money was the best cut on Snakes for the Divine, but works in a similar vein of letting the guitars take a back seat during the verse while Matz carries the riff and Pike starts a build that pays off in the chorus. It works, and it works well, with Ballou adding his second guitar guest spot to help finish the second half of the album as he helped finish the first. The symmetry there is analogous for the symmetry of the album as a whole, which almost in spite of itself – because “Warhorn” is a departure from what a lot of De Vermis Mysteriis does musically – the track summarizes. It ends cold at 5:27 and feels somewhat cut short, but it’s clear that was the intent. Still, it’s interesting to see the band want to return to the quiet/loud switches as a side of their sound to develop and incorporate with the rest of the thrashing, riffing and battery. They work well in the form, even if “Bastard Samurai” had a more gripping tension, and close out the album on a note that hints their adventuring isn’t over yet and there’s still growth to be had and creative realms yet to be explored and, one can only assume, decimated
It seems needless to conjecture where De Vermis Mysteriis might rank at the end of the day among High on Fire’s works or the influence it might have on other bands or artists. More interesting is the turn in direction it presents from the course Snakes for the Divine seemed to be charting and what it seems to say about the weight and abrasiveness the larger metal market (i.e. whatever they call the not-underground) will bear — because it is remarkably, unremittingly heavy and there isn’t one second in these 52:14 that feels like it’s holding back, even when it purposefully is. Even the Tim Lehi cover art is a departure from what they’d established as a norm for themselves. With what they bring to the table on what I have no doubt will be one of 2012’s best albums when the year is done, High on Fire are perhaps more than ever in the position of being able to go anywhere from here. Thanks partly to the sounds Ballou was able to capture and the performances he was able to get from Pike, Kensel and Matz, De Vermis Mysteriis affirms High on Fire as one of the best metal bands making music today. If the intimidating sonic largess of these tracks is any indicator of their intent going forward, long may they reign. It’s not about losing the dirty thrash, but about taking all that dirt, mudding it up into a giant boulder and running you over with it. Pike himself says it best in “Bloody Knuckles” when he says, “Concuss the blow and find the targets placed pinpoint, exact.” With De Vermis Mysteriis, they hit the mark dead on.
Took a long time to get here, but it’s worth putting on a line of its own: Highly recommended.
Thanks for reading.
Tags: California, E1 Music, High on Fire, Oakland