(Our guest groverXIII (ex-TNOTB) reviews the new album by High On Fire, which is out now on eOne Music.)
I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to review High On Fire’s De Vermis Mysteriis for a couple of weeks now, ever since Islander asked me to take a crack at it. I’m not really sure why it’s taken me so long. I mean, I loved Snakes For The Divine, this album’s predecessor, and really, High On Fire are probably the biggest name in stoner metal nowadays. And yet, something about De Vermis Mysteriis just failed to grab me the way that Snakes For The Divine did.
It’s fair to say that this album will be a bit of a divisive one for High On Fire’s fanbase, perhaps even more so than the previous one. Let me backtrack a bit. High On Fire was formed out of the ashes of stoner/doom legends Sleep by guitarist Matt Pike, while Sleep’s bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius went on to form Om. High On Fire developed a pretty solid following with its first four albums: The Art Of Self Defense, Surrounded By Thieves, Blessed Black Wings, and Death Is This Communion.
2010’s Snakes For The Divine, however, brought a change in labels (from Relapse to E1) and in sound, courtesy of much-maligned producer Greg Fidelman, best known for his clip-tastic contributions to Metallica’s Death Magnetic. Fidelman brought a new clarity to High On Fire’s sound, clearing away some (but not all) of the fuzz and dividing the fanbase between those who disliked the new sound and those who liked it. Snakes was certainly the album that took High On Fire’s profile to new heights, bringing in a large number of new fans, all of whom had to be heavily anticipating its follow-up.
And that brings me back to De Vermis Mysteriis.
Now, personally, I enjoy High On Fire’s earlier work (although I have yet to hear the first two albums, something I should probably rectify), but I thought that Snakes was a step forward for the band, partially for its production, but also for its songwriting. De Vermis Mysteriis, on the other hand, feels like a bit of a step back.
Now, I would imagine that this album appeals a great deal to fans of the band’s older sound, this time brought about by the production work of Converge’s Kurt Ballou, as the production is a bit more grimy and raw. And I don’t really have much of a beef with the album’s sound. The guitars feel a bit flat, especially on the solos, where on Snakes they popped out at you a great deal, but this album is still heavy and angry. Matt Pike still sounds like he drinks a mix of battery acid and rusty carpentry nails with every meal.
But my biggest disappointment is with the songs. To an extent, in comparison with Snakes, there seems to be a spark missing. This is fairly minor, as De Vermis Mysteriis is still capable of steamrolling the listener, but there are points where it feels like the songs start to blend together and drag on a bit. I’m finding it difficult to specifically find examples of this, because when the songs are listened to independently it’s not as noticeable. It’s just that, as a whole, the comparative lack of dynamic range makes it a bit harder for the songs to stand out. And the album ends with several slow songs in a row, causing it to lose some of the energy that it builds up at the beginning.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let me just say that this is still a High On Fire album. You can practically envision Matt Pike, shirtless and glistening, vomiting black filth into the microphone in a smoky bar as massive riffs ooze out of his guitar, mixed with the sludgy bass of Jeff Matz, barely held together by the pounding drums of Des Kensel. And the album’s concept is brilliant in its absurdity: Jesus’ dead time-traveling twin brother discovers an ancient Chinese black lotus serum that enables him to travel backward through time, Quantum Leap style, by taking control of various host bodies.
The riffs on display are prototypical monstrous Matt Pike riffs, and I would expect no less. Highlights for me include the blasting album opener, ‘Serums Of Liao’, the hard-hitting ‘Fertile Green’, and the surprisingly melodic ‘King Of Days’.
I apologize for comparing this album so much to Snakes For The Divine. In the grand scheme of High On Fire’s career, De Vermis Mysteriis fits better than Snakes does. But for me, Snakes represented a new level of interest in High On Fire, and in my mind it is the band’s crowning achievement. As a result, I had high expectations for De Vermis Mysteriis, and I guess I was a little disappointed. It’s still a very enjoyable album, however, and I suspect that a lot of people will differ with my opinion. There’s still a reasonable chance you will see this album on my end-of-year list. But for me, De Vermis Mysteriis is a solid album that ultimately falls short of my lofty expectations.