High on Fire “De Vermis Mysteriis” Album Review

What if Jesus had a twin who died at birth to give Jesus his life? And then what if the twin became a time traveler right then? He lives his life only going forward in time until he finds this scroll from an ancient Chinese alchemist who derived a serum out of the black lotus, and then starts traveling back. He can see the past through his ancestors’ eyes, but his enemies can kill him if they kill the ancestor that he’s seeing through at the time.

— Matt Pike, on the  concept for De Vermis Mysteriis

If there’s one thing you should take away from High on Fire’s latest album, De Vermis Mysteriis, is that at age 40, frontman Matt Pike hasn’t slowed one bit. In fact, in many ways this latest album shows a refreshed and focused High on Fire, able to mix things up even 7 albums and 24 years deep into their career.

Perhaps the biggest and most apparent shift is in the album’s production. Certainly High on fire have always been well-regarded in the metal scene, building upon their trademark fuzzed-out sound with skillful and memorable guitar work — a sound they established on Art of Self Defense and refined on Surrounded by Theives and On Blessed Black Wings. But on their 2007 release Death is this Communion, that heavy low end was mix-out some, allowing for experimentation to take center stage. That new sound was continued on 2010’s Snakes for the Divine, though the experimental moments were traded for passages of shredding and riff worship.

But here, on their latest record, a new sound emerges. It shouldn’t be any surprise at this point, but once again Kurt Ballou (Black Breath, Every Time I Die, Kvelertak, Trap Them) takes the producer helm on this album. Mr. Ballou is certainly making quite a name for himself, especially now that he is working with long-established bands like High on Fire. De Vermis Mysteriis proves he has an ear for much more than metallic-hardcore or mathcore; now applying his skills to stoner-metal, High on Fire’s sound has been taken to new heights. Instead of rehashing or recapturing the tone of past albums, here the band feels more refined. Each element is present and clear — drums punch, bass roars, and guitar rips. It’s wonderful to hear and feel the bass mixed so perfectly. It’s classic Ballou, creating a mix where every instrument rings through, yet the raw, dirty tones of each create heaviness without excess distortion or fuzz. Put simply, the production is excellent, and a standout aspect of the record.

That clear-yet-heavy production gives the band the freedom to display just how great of songwriters and musicians they are. We always new Matt Pike could melt faces with even the simplest of riffs, but here he gifts us with melodies and vocal harmonies heretofore unheard of on their previous albums. But don’t fret, those grooves and riffs that define High on Fire’s song writing are here in full force (as on “Madness of an Architect” and “King of Days”). His vocal delivery is perhaps is most passionate and aggressive. Quite often, his harsh vocals are the sharpest they’ve ever been, reaching violent new heights(“De Vermis Myteriis’), and his “cleans” create powerful harmonies that elevate the melodic passages of the record (like in the opening track, “Serums of Liao”). Lyrically, the record is classic High on Fire, but the concept behind them is something else entirely (see above quote). All I can say is that Pike’s creativity shows no sign of slowing.

The rest of the band bring just as much to the table. Jeff Matz’s grooving bass lines have never been quite as audible as on this album, and it’s a shame to think  we’ve missed out on so much all this time. It was always apparent Matz was a great bass player and could support Matt Pike’s guitar work well, but now we can hear the personality and power he can put into those four strings. Metal is rather notorious for mixing out the bass, but between Kurt Ballou’s production and Jeff Matz’s skill, every note is heard, adding layers to the High on Fire dynamic.

Completing this holy trinity is Des Kensel behind the drum kit. His snare hits are tight and stab through the production cleanly; his symbols are clear and crisp, never tinny or muffled. Many metal records suffer from having the drums mixed either too quiet or too over bearing, or, which is most often the case, just sitting behind the other instruments, providing a beat and occasional fill, but never really impressing. De vermis Mysteriis is not one of these albums. Kensel’s offering is just as important to the song structure as the riffs, and (once again) the production creates such a perfect interplay between the three musicians; no one dominates, and every element feels important.

It’s hard to find much wrong with De Vermis Mysteriis. There are certainly points where the album simply “sounds like High on Fire.” Which, to be fair, isn’t a bad thing, but it bears mentioning for those who want something radically different. There’s some predictability, but this is probably the band’s most unique and well-crafted album, while still remaining true to their legacy. It’s the first High on Fire record I feel compelled to listen to in its entirety every single time I spin it, something I can’t say about any of their past releases, with the possible exception of On Blessed Black Wings. I had my reservations and apprehensions about this record. I thought it would just be Death is this Communion pt. III. But instead, we’re gifted with a refreshing, refined High on Fire; a downright amazing metal album in every right. I have no reason not to recommend this. I you like High on Fire at all, you’ll love this. And if you don’t, give it a shot, you may be surprised. There’s something here for any metal fan, even if doom or stoner metal aren’t your normal genres of choice.

De Vermis Mysteriis drops April 3rd, via E1 Records. You can stream it in its entirety for free at NPR, and be sure to order it here, and check out High on Fire’s official page.

Genre: Stoner/Doom Metal

For fans of: Sleep, Mastodon, The Sword, Yob, Red Fang, Black Sabbath, etc.

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