High On Fire
De Vermis Mysteriis
[E1 Music, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, August 8, 2012
Listen: “Madness Of An Architect”
When playing High On Fire’s De Vermis Mysteriis, I find that it is best to be sitting down. Try your hardest to find some sort of remote control or booby trap situation to start the music player of your choice, because you don’t want to be army crawling to your seat, in fear for your life, as the machine-gun drums that seem to have you surrounded open the sludge metal trio’s sixth full-length album. Not even a second of silence elapses after the christening needle pop of the record before the band is barraging you with fiery intensity and virtuosic musicianship, and it isn’t until the last bombs drop fifty-two minutes later that you can truly feel safe again. The opening moments of the record set the pace for the bulk of the material throughout De Vermis Mysteriis, which is—to put it mildly—unrelenting.
The same could really be said for the level of intensity throughout the band’s career. Since forming thirteen years ago, the Oakland, California trio has consistently been making noise far outside the confines of what the number of their ranks should indicate. Across the five albums of material prior to De Vermis Mysteriis, there have been plenty of moments where it just doesn’t seem possible that only three people—singer and guitarist Matt Pike, bassist Jeff Matz, and drummer Des Kensel—could be playing something so heavy, so brutal. Surely there is some unsung hero behind a curtain backstage, matching and beefing up Pike’s riffs, running back and forth from bass and drums to elevate High On Fire’s rhythm section to the level of absurdity that they boast on record. Alas, tireless studies have shown—it is just the three guys, and they are immensely talented at making music together. Elements of all types of metal have been touched upon throughout their tenure, from the slow drip of doom to ferocious thrash, High On Fire expand each style with the level of twenty-first century grandeur that we have come to expect out of today’s music—with metal in particular, it seems, years passed has a direct relationship to decibel level.
“Serums Of Liao,” the opening track of De Vermis Mysteriis, is a perfect example of the concept of High On Fire’s steroid-injected take on classic metal sensibilities. Over a boisterous, frenetically clipped rhythm laid down by Matz and Kensel, Pike rips off a chugging, thrash-style riff—the three creating an abyss of sound, while simultaneously filling it with otherworldly soil, cryptic lyrics of a biblical time-traveler. Pike describes the tale spun within De Vermis Mysteriis as loosely conceptual, based around the idea that Jesus Christ had a twin who died at birth for Jesus to live, and was given the power of time travel in doing so. Pike says that the character can only travel forward until he finds a Chinese alchemist’s scroll, allowing him to start traveling backwards in time. It’s all a very loose, psychedelic concept used as a means for Pike to menacingly scream lines like, “Drug of days, time malaise, shape taken enters the line / Ceremony ingest a poisonous fate known to time / Alchemy, black lotus ferment is carried afoot / Betwixt among relatives hiding a past that’s a fold and aloof,” carrying all the weightless pull that lyrics rooted in fantasy tend to have. Though nothing is truly at stake, the lyrics are delivered in such a way that they seem to have the fate of the entire universe relying on them.
The trio thunders through high speed, high intensity numbers like “Serums Of Liao,” “Bloody Knuckles,” and “Fertile Green,” each track more punishing than the last. “Fertile Green” is a veritable clinic of each instrument, beginning with Kensel laying the foundation, seemingly jackhammering the band’s way into the room until a blistering guitar riff played by Pike, sounding distant and ominous, finally blasts through the wall, leaving the band’s all-encompassing rumble wholly in your face. Though a fierce, fast attack is High On Fire’s primary means of delivering the depth of their message on De Vermis Mysteriis, they are a band who understands that there are other methods of achieving heaviness.
Before forming High On Fire, Matt Pike was the guitarist of the highly influential doom metal trio, Sleep. A stark contrast to the technical, relentless riffing seen on the bulk of High On Fire’s work, Pike employed use of slow and foreboding playing on Sleep’s work, very reminiscent of Tony Iommi’s playing on Black Sabbath records. The peak moments of De Vermis Mysteriis show that Pike hasn’t forgotten what he had, at one time, mastered as a member of Sleep. The concept that space and subtlety can result in some of the heaviest music imaginable is fully on display as the band plods through the dark, swampy depths of “Madness Of An Architect.” The song stretches out for seven minutes, featuring thick, rolling riffs that build tension until it bursts at the seams, giving way to a soaring guitar solo that elevates the album right out of the depths of the earth from which the band has so laboriously dug themselves. It never seems to stop cease in its crescendo, feedback and drum fills piling on top of one another until the track turns in on itself and gives way to the instrumental burner, “Samsara.” The concept of samsara is the cyclical flow of suffering throughout the world and the beings within it, and it is accurately represented with a rolling, repetitive guitar riff buoyed by Matz’ soporific bassline, constantly being deconstructed and built back up again behind a wall of wailing guitars. The placement of these two tracks, a reprieve in the middle of hell, not only amplify the magnitude of the songs surrounding them, but stand on their own as achievements in heavy metal.
The feeling of relative calmness that seems to wash over you with “Madness Of An Architect” and “Samsara” is quickly hammered out of you with “Spiritual Rites,” a song about bloody salvation, High On Fire once again demonstrating the level of control they have as a group when playing at high speeds. As Pike screams, “I’ll scourge your ghost / Salvation’s tomb / Dark fanes my cloak / Deny my power and I’ll burn you as the dead is,” the band navigates technically astounding breaks with an almost mechanical proficiency. The record continues at this breakneck pace, each riff tumbling into the next, what little space is left to the imagination of the listener is quickly filled with the next menacing thunderstrike. The record reaches its climax with “Romulus And Remus” and “Warhorn,” the former a track that sees everything come to a head, Pike shrieking like a raptor as Matz and Kensel grind out a bouncing rhythm. The song sees another heaven-piercing guitar solo from Pike, one final stand against everything good in this world, before the forces of evil convene and celebrate their victory in “Warhorn.”
If you were unlucky enough to not make it to your seat in time, left holding the back of your head, trembling on the ground for fifty-two minutes, praying that the firing will stop, you can find solace in the fact that all of that commotion was just the record you had played. The intriguing thing about De Vermis Mysteriis is, for all of its abrasive, merciless aggression, it is incredibly tempting to give it another spin– after you peel yourself up off the floor, that is. The band’s uncanny musicianship, playing some of the tightest and incredible metal around, continually has a loose, uninhibited air about it. The fact is, these guys are having fun playing this stuff, and they also happen to be at the apex of what is going on in the metal movement, after all these years together. All we can do is pray for a comfortable seat while we are simultaneously glued to and scared of their records. That, or a helmet.