The “noughties” (or whatever lame pet name you want to give to the previous decade) saw sludge rise to the top of the bubbling cauldron that is extreme metal. Suddenly this everyman genre comprised of granite-filled Sabbath riffs merged with hardcore/crust punk, was on all the hipsters’ lips. This recognition of sludge metal in areas of the music community beyond the underground was down to a select number of emerging bands with similar musical influences and socioeconomic backgrounds, which were adept at stretching the seemingly limited genre into unexpected territories.
Is it a mere coincidence that the majority of these new pioneers (such as Mastodon, Baroness and Kylesa) were in fact sonically influenced by one band in particular, High on Fire? It would seem unlikely as High on Fire’s tempestuous approach to songwriting, towering riffs, cascading drum fills, knee-buckling, bottom-end and gravel-churned vocals have been repeatedly ransacked of their resources as a means of divine guidance. Talismanic Matt Pike, a journeyman and lifer like no other, who formed High on Fire in 1998 after his previous band — seminal doomsters’ Sleep drowned in a wave of their own bong water — deserves utmost credit as being a catalyst for the evolution of this genre.
A common trait that these sludge behemoths share is an intrinsic need for artistic progression and these groups are mindful of stagnation, and have no intention of remaining static in the sound that they have shaped for themselves. On previous album Snakes for the Divine, High on Fire attempted a new production sound, the mixing approach of producer/engineer Greg Fidelman (Slayer/Metallica), who pushed Pike’s vocals to the forefront at the expense of the white knuckle instrumentation. This choice angered curmudgeonly High on Fire fans, who had a point in that the production sheen made the band sound less violent/dense and sat about as comfortably as Lemmy in a business suit.
The first thing that strikes the listener on latest album De Vermis Mysteriis is an impactful return to the production sound that made Blessed Black Wings so Neolithic and devastating. A large part of this cavernous sound can be credited to producer extraordinaire and Converge riff-fiend Kurt Ballou (Torche/Kvelertak/Black Cobra). His ability to capture the raw inner-core of a band’s live sound, while preserving instrumental lucidity; makes him one of the most thrilling minds in the business and the perfect medium to harness the primal power of High on Fire’s riffs.
High on Fire have always harboured an intense understanding of the importance of an unbridled album opener. “Serums of Liao” commences with the lone propulsive rhythms of drummer, Des Kensel, before a volley of roaming sludge riffs and Matt Pike’s butchered vocal-hooks lyrically signal further forays into fantasy. The marauding urgency that results from this mini-epic continues with the barbarian mauling of “Bloody Knuckles” and “Fertile Green” with Kensel again punishing his drum kit with double-bass attacks and muscle-thump fills that detonate around the high octane, battery acid doom of the guitars. This trifecta holds no surprises and staunchly keeps to the traditional vein of High on Fire’s bronzed metalisms.
It’s on the fourth track “Madness of an Architect”, where things take an intriguing and decidedly brazen turn musically. A conspicuous tempo drop is found in the song’s potent Dopesmoker introduction, which wafts into the best riff that Celtic Frost never wrote. It is likely that Tom G. Warrior would give up his left hand seat in hell to have written this crypt-slammer of a riff, as Pike exorcises his own morbid tales on top it. The song then weaves back and forth between this unyielding riff and warm stoner grooves reminiscent of Sleep, before ending with spiralling lead work that plummets to the bottomless doom abyss. With “Madness of an Architect”, it seems as if Matt Pike, after years of consciously writing riffs as far removed as he could from his past, has finally embraced his legacy and is comfortable enough to incorporate its influence as a dynamic within the confines of High on Fire’s songwriting.
This dynamic continues on instrumental “Samsara”, which is full of robust bass tones that leave the listener wishing the undulating feeling would continue indefinitely. Pike peppers this backdrop with lead guitars that sound improvised but are measured and tastefully placed. The same could be said for his choice of leads on every song here — he picks off notes like a bird of prey would its carrion. The respite ends with “Spiritual Rights” jolting you from your slumber as tempos thunder almost to the point of derailing. Lengthy “King of Days” stabilises proceedings with a more considered crawl, and its contemplative energy allows the mind to travel while its textural leads and tribal battle-drums build to a heroic conclusion. The remaining tracks are just as devastating musically with “De Vermis Mysteriis”, “Romulus and Remus” and “Warhorn” expanding lyrically on both Lovecraftian and biblical lore.
With De Vermis Mysteriis, the beauty of High on Fire is visible therein, as enjoyment may be found on numerous levels. Some listeners may find solace amongst the ashes of High on Fire’s phantasmagorical lyrical ideas. However, those of us not wielding broadswords can relish the savagery and virtuosity present in the music. The album’s ability to roar vitriol down upon the listener while keeping a keen eye on the impact of the overall flow and dynamic shifts contained within provides the source of a thoroughly engaging listen for acolytes old and new. De Vermis Mysteriis, sits triumphant upon the sludge firmament gazing down upon High on Fire’s back catalogue and contemporaries alike, with High on Fire returning as victorious and inspirational as ever.