Review: High on Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis

A master stroke of evolution, High on Fire's latest is a true game-changer.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

So High On Fire has a new album out. It’s called De Vermis Mysteriis. Loosely translated it means
"Mysteries Of The Worm". It comes from author Robert Bloch (Psycho) and was incorporated by HP Lovecraft into the lore of Cthulhu.

And none of that matters at all.

What matters, what really matters, what stands atop the mountain and matters like the final days of man as the tidal wave of death slaughters every living thing, is that this album is the game changer. Bands have a life. They only last a certain amount of time before they fade into the horizon unless they have a game changer. Metallica had Master Of Puppets, Black Sabbath had Paranoid, and Slayer had Reign In Blood, just to name a few. These are the albums that changed bands into institutions. Recently Mastodon had their game changer with The Hunter. Now it’s High On Fire’s time to evolve into something else.

What’s happening here is a culmination of everything High On Fire has done previously. De Vermis Mysteriis offers up a really challenging brew of music that enlists the power, the crushing rhythms and huge riffs of High On Fire. Taking that brew the new albums adds a clarity that hasn’t been there before and raises the level of songwriting to new heights. The band has never sounded so sure of themselves or committed to their sound with such fury. This is no longer a band living in the shadow of Sleep, High On Fire have corroded that entire idea away with the opening note of De Vermis Mysteriis.

“Serums Of Liao” cracks the Pandora’s box open with thunderous drums. The opening riff is a pounder, a force that beats your skull without mercy.  Structurally, “Serums Of Liao” is intriguing. The drums are the core, but also constantly moving. The center of this tune is a never-ending drum fill that holds down the black vortex of swirling guitar and bass.  “Serums Of Laio” comes together like Satan’s bathwater running down the drain of evil. There shouldn’t be a groove here, not with this much going on, but there is. A thick groove created within the subtext of so much chaos is exactly why De Vermis Mysteriis is the game changer.

“Bloody Knuckles” allows for some breathing room. This is classic High On Fire, a steady groove that’s risen to abusive levels by drums and bass. Guitarist/Vocalist Matt Pike screams over the track with his standard infected growl mixed with a bit of Lemmy from Motorhead. “Bloody Knuckles” highlights nicely what makes High On Fire so different. Most guitar heavy bands allow the bass and drums to only play at being the anchor. No matter how talented a rhythm section is, they usually get stuck playing within the parameters of the other so the guitarist can go off.  On “Bloody Knuckles”, like other High On Fire songs, the bass does its thing, the drums do their thing and the guitars do something else. The frenetic energy all comes together for the chorus and the power is undeniable.

With “Fertile Green” we have to talk about drummer Des Kensel. Seriously? Fuck this guy. I’ve know Des for many years and while he’s one of the better people I know in this industry, his ability to play drums makes me angry. Why does he get to be so good, so effortlessly creative and make it look so easy. The opening drum work on “Fertile Green” is so good I wanted to drop kick my skull into traffic. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, High On Fire drop new elements of what they do into the song by playing it fairly straight. “Fertile Green” is a much more streamlined exercise in rock fury than most of High On Fire’s work. It’s another element that steps up the band’s game. Not only can they write swirling songs of infinite destruction, they can also lay down a badass metal groove as well as a blast beat.

“Madness Of An Architect”  is a showstopper. Matt Pike’s guitars have never sounded so epic or angry. Pike’s guitar work is always natural, like an extension of who he is as a person. “Madness Of An Architect” is Pike’s interpretation of insanity. The opening riff builds, breaks down and rebuilds within itself to the point of, well, absolute madness. Then the entire tune switches to halftime and now we’re involved in the slow descent of what crazy can be. Underneath this ode to being mentally fucked, Pike lays down a bluesy lick every now and then. When it comes in the whole song becomes an unstoppable monster. “Samara” is the epic instrumental.  The one you can see the band performing at the sold out stadium show to fifty thousand incredibly high and incredibly happy fans.

“Spiritual Rights” is more classic High On Fire, while “King Of Days” has the band showing the whole doom genre exactly how slow, plodding and thick is done. You think your shit is molasses on a cold January night? Run that riff up Matt Pike’s tree and see how good you really are. “Romulus And Remus” is a groove lover’s wet dream and the title track is nearly black metal. High On Fire wisely chose to end the album with “Warhorn” a weird Melvins-esque track that tips into a more experimental area than the band is known for. Pike’s vocals are singled out with only drums and the odd guitar noise behind it. “Warhorn” ends the album by giving a hint at what might come next for the band.

One other thing I have to discuss, is a message for the young metal heads out there. The difference between “heavy” songs and song with “weight” comes down to bass. So often metal bands think tuning down is the key to giving their songs body and thickness. Wrong. Dead wrong. High On Fire understands that songs with weight must have a gigantic bass sound. Cue Jeff Matz, a man to whom the bass is a weapon and a tool. As a weapon Matz swings his bass sound around like a buzz saw, cutting through Matt Pike’s guitars and weaving into the gaps of silence within Des Kensel’s drumming. He clobbers you with it, makes you feel that the bass is a real presence. As a building tool, Matz’s bass is the concrete structure by which High On Fire’s music is contained. Without his bass work, this band would not be who they are.

Finally we must all send our heavy music love to Kurt Ballou, a man who is establishing himself as the best producer in heavy music today. I don’t know if it was all Ballou, or part his input and the band, but the production on De Vermis Mysteriis is awesome. So often High On Fire has fallen victim to their own heaviness, to the point that some of their work sounds like it was recorded underwater in a swamp. That’s gone here. De Vermis Mysteriis is crisp and clean, with each note heard and each drum hit clear.  What makes Ballou so fucking ridiculous is he never sacrifices the heavy for the clean, he never gives up the thickness for the clarity. How do you do that? How do you make a thick and heavy monster that also has pin-drop clarity? I don’t know, but that sound is another part of what makes this a game changer.

Now it’s time to sit back and watch as High On Fire become the next heavy band to step into a new arena. De Vermis Mysteriis is the album that announces to those unaware that High On Fire is part of the future of heavy music. The tide comes crashing in with thousands of bands. When that tide rolls out only a few truly gifted artists are left clinging to the rocks. High On Fire is one of those bands and De Vermis Mysteriis is the calling card of their legend.