I had graduated from radio metal (and high school) and started getting into heavy metal in earnest during my first two years of college. Seeing Isis open for Tool in fall 2006 – and later Amon Amarth in the winter of 2007 – were nothing short of formative experiences, but the point at which I truly became a card-carrying member of the Church of Real Metal came in the fall of 2008 when I saw Opeth on tour supported by Nachtmystium and High On Fire. I was already a pretty devoted Opeth fan, and Nachtmystium’s mix of black metal, catchy riffs, and psychedelia quickly won me over, but it was High On Fire’s uncompromisingly brutal stoner metal assault that sealed the deal for me. Jeff Matz’s bass provided a solid under-running groove while Des Kensel did the best one-man imitation of a mumakil stampede I’ve ever heard since, and if you’ve never seen Matt Pike perform in a live setting, you really owe it to yourself to catch him on tour with HoF or Sleep. He strides across the stage shirtless with a wicked snaggletoothed grin and a demonic flair, roaring into the mic with all the gravelly whiskey-fueled force of a devoted Lemmy acolyte, fingers flying effortlessly across the fretboard of his custom-built nine-string guitar – to put it bluntly, that man is a fucking force of nature. It was at the moment when they began the mammoth and lumbering “Death Is This Communion” when I pledged my soul in earnest to the Dark Gods of Metal,* and I don’t think I’ll be able to ever properly thank Pike enough for that!
High on Fire has generally sounded about the same ever since their inception in 1998. Sleep’s final recording, the magnificent and still-unsurpassed Jerusalem/Dopesmoker, did a good job of spelling out the new directions for both projects formed from the band’s ashes. While bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius would take all the weed and write weaving and flowing noodlefests stretching long past the twenty-minute mark in Om, Pike would bring his ferocious fuzzed-out guitar tone and chunky riff sensibility to his new band on their solid debut The Art of Self-Defense. High On Fire would later find their groove on the phenomenal Surrounded By Thieves, refine the formula even further on the Steve Albini-aided Blessed Black Wings, and perfect their successes on the mammoth masterpiece Death Is This Communion and infectiously catchy Snakes For The Divine. They have bestowed their latest release on us, De Vermis Mysteriis, and it builds upon their previous winning streak to create one of the tightest and freshest-sounding albums from the band in recent memory. This is helped in great capacity with Kurt Ballou’s always-spectacular production work,** resulting in a record that’s already on my shortlist for best of 2012.
“Serums of Liao” kicks off straight away with a galloping groove and guitar snarl that fans of the band should be well familiar with already, and the momentum continues across “Bloody Knuckles” and the ungodly faceripping “Fertile Green,” two more songs offering a perfect display of the Motorhead-plus-Slayer-plus-a-shitload-of-weed stylings the band’s specialized in for so long. This is one of the best opening trilogies of songs I’ve heard in an album for a while – along with absolutely slaying, they relentlessly twist and turn through multiple riff progressions and do so much more than just sit around and be angry like the filler tracks on Snakes For The Divine did. While the full-on rhinoceros-mounted cavalry charge has always worked incredibly well for High on Fire, they manage to mix things up a bit on the monstrous molten-lava crawls of “Madness of an Architect,” “Warhorn,” and “Romulus and Remus,” the epic lighter-raising war paean of “King of Days,” and the progressive-tinged Mastodonish*** instrumental “Samsara,” but aside from those excellent changes of pace this is the same High on Fire we know and love at the very top of their game. Oh, and I forgot to mention the lyrical concept – Jesus’ twin dies at birth, gets reincarnated as a time traveler, and goes on a shitload of Lovecraftian adventures across the gulfs of space-time. So yes, you should be as high as humanly possible while you listen to this.
What I really love about this album – well, more specifically the band – is that every member knows their place in the greater arrangement. Pike’s solos are squeedly and soaring without being self-indulgent, Kensel’s drumming is absolutely relentless and never overpowering, and Matz brings his bass to the forefront with some monstrous fuzz, excellent riffage, and even the occasional subharmonic noodle without inducing the usual cringes a bass solo often does. High on Fire is the perfect example of a power trio at their absolute best on this release – they sound so monumental and unstoppable that it’s almost impossible to believe that they’re just three dudes. And if they sound this unconquerable on record, just imagine how many disfigured bodies the tour will leave in its wake!
*That show also marked the first time I ever crowdsurfed. You should try it if you haven’t already, it’s great fun. Just try your best not to kick anyone in the head.
**Aside from being the guitarist and producer for Converge, you may also recognize Kurt Ballou from his production work with Trap Them, Kvelertak, Nails, Torche, Genghis Tron, Cave In, Black Breath, Magrudergrind, and countless others. He is also God.
***Fun fact: the members of Mastodon met at a High On Fire concert! The More You Know.
Artist: High on Fire
Album: De Vermis Mysteriis
Label: eOne Music
Release Date: April 3rd, 2012