By their second record, 2002′s Surrounded by Thieves, High on Fire had established themselves as thunderous gladiators battling along with tempos that swayed back and forth from trudging doom to full-throttle gallops. Through the cloying heat and frigid winters, consistency has always been the band’s forte, whether their sword-grasping hands were being guided by the production of indie maverick Steve Albini on 2005′s groundbreaking Blessed Black Wings, Seattle scene pioneer Jack Endino on 2007′s axe-slashing Death is This Communion, or Rick Rubin protÃ©gÃ© Greg Fideleman on 2010′s slicker, but more musically diverse Snakes For the Divine.
With Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou hired to handle the knobs for De Vermis Mysteriis, fans had every reason to expect High on Fire would continue to reign as the Motorhead of amphetamine doom. Then frontman Matt Pike had a moment of clarity, possibly due to the extra time he had to think last year when he stopped binging on painkillers. Perhaps inspired by his friends in Mastodon, Pike wrote a full-fledged concept album with surreal plot points that guide the tone of the songs.
The story is as warped as Pike’s main inspirations — HP Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard — revolving around Jesus’s twin brother who is put to death so his sibling can live as the purported son of God. But instead of going to heaven or hell, or rotting underground, the second son becomes a time traveler who can only go forward until he discovers the “Serums of Liao” in the simultaneously unremitting and infectious title track, which allow him to zip back and examine the havoc his brother and his followers caused the world in the name of love and organized religion.
With a psychedelic, quasi-theological map to guide him, Pike and his bandmates, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel mounted their fiery steeds and began what might be their most memorable path of destruction. De Vermis Mysteriis isn’t any less thunderous than its predecessors, but it’s more cohesive, even with rhythms that often only repeat for a few bars and guitars that pause just long enough for a tumbling drum fill, of which there are many. The influences of old are ever-present (Motorhead, Black Sabbath, Celtic Frost), but Ballou’s low-end production draws emphasis to the booming atmospherics of the songs, especially Kensel’s tribal, hyper-kinetic drumming, which melds wondrously with Pike’s downtuned guitars.
More significantly, High on Fire triumph by taking us on a memorable journey filled with more riffs per song than Metallica’s â€¦And Justice For All. Over the years, Pike has learned how to toy with meter and structure so that even when a tune uses a discernible melody, the hook doesn’t kick in until a beat or two after is seemingly should, keeping the listener simultaneously off balance and tuned in.
Throughout De Vermis Mysteriis, High on Fire explore new paths and revisit old trails. “Bloody Knuckles” is a more complex, Medieval (instead of just plain evil) Slayer, “Fertile Green” starts with marching drums that sound like the prelude to a firing squad execution, then blasts into an angular thrash riff. The song builds into a freewheeling lead before briefly slowing to a trudging chug. It’s hard to tell which sounds more furious, Pike’s atonal screaming or his string-strangling guitar solos.
“Madness of an Architect” opens with a wah-wah-saturated bassline that summons the specter of Cliff Burton, then breaks into menacing Saint Vitus/Sleep stomp that’s only stoner rock if the weed you’re smoking makes you wanna leap from a fifth-floor window. And “King of Days,” another slow burner, features raspy melodic vocals, a serpentine solo and more tribal tom-tom-heavy beats.
With De Vermis Mysteriis High on Fire have constructed a concept album that’s complex, yet totally unpretentious, with songs that trample and plunder with such ferocity it’s easy to forget there are lofty ideas and spellbinding musicianship propelling the unrelenting storm.