High On Fire picks up where Mastodon left off.
Where the latter eschews fantasy worlds on its recent The Hunter, the formidable West Coast power trio embraces such concepts on De Vermis Mysteriis, which translates to “The Mysteries of the Worm” and honors the fiction of late novelist Robert Bloch. Song narratives involve a time-traveling twin brother of Jesus, an ancient Chinese scroll devised by an alchemist that invents a serum named Liao out of a black lotus, and the twin appearing in other individuals’ bodies. Got it?
Of course, storytelling has always taken a backseat to Matt Pike and Co.’s mountain-moving fare. With High on Fire, the riff takes priority, plundering bottom-end rhythms come in a close second, and everything else follows suit. While unquestionably the deepest-reaching psychedelic effort in the group’s six-album catalog, De Vermis Mysteriis doesn’t significantly alter the threesome’s approach. And there are not many reasons it should.
Long recognized by heavy-music aficionados as a mammoth guitarist, whether with his current outfit or during his tenure in pre-reunion Sleep, Pike lives and breathes metal—relishing its physicality, power, pace, and attack. Conscientious of the irony surrounding the hyperbolic praise from the mainstream press that’s greeted his band during the past few years, he’s likely getting a laugh from reading comments that lazily (and wrongly) label High on Fire “stoner metal,” drop vacuous drug references, and/or strike faux outlaw poses in attempts to feign shared interest in the bandleader’s outsider persona.
True to the demon-skull rings hugging his fingers and devilish tattoos decorating his hands and chest, Pike wields his pillaging six-string instrument akin to a battle axe on roto-tilling tunes such as “Madness of an Architect” and the title track without a trace of self-consciousness or inauthenticity. Thrashing (“Fertile Green”), grinding (“Spiritual Rights”), and pounding (“Serums of Liao”), High on Fire is the sound of the underground—not in the cultural sense—but literally, meaning, the band projects what the earth’s outer core, boiling with iron-nickel alloy, sounds like as viscous fluids and rocks perform a constant dance of collision and tension. Framed by Des Kensel’s aggressive double-kick drumming and Jeff Matz’s flexible bass lines, Pike’s hoarse, throat-straining growls and barks couldn’t demand a more fittingly dense, swinging, and scraping background.
Despite the familiar no-quit nature of a majority of the material, several changeups substantiate High on Fire’s ongoing evolution, however slight. Pike taps into an effects-laden solo on “Serums of Liao” that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Van Halen record had Eddie an extreme interest in punk and distortion. The instrumental “Samsara” seemingly doubles as a tribute to fallen Metallica bassist Cliff Burton and his memorable contributions to Ride the Lightning. “King of Days” slows down the tempo and recalls Pike’s early works.
Deviations aside, De Vermis Mysteriis is blood sport. While not entirely on par with the band’s past three superior records, it’s a witching hour that haunts, shakes, and crushes in the manner that anything connected to Pike should. —Bob Gendron