Sunday, April 8, 2012

High On Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis

There's no lack of things in the world that we should be outraged about but, being a nerd, the things that make me angry tend to be frivolous and not a very big deal in the long run. Once or twice a year, I'll read a news article somewhere that High On Fire is going out on tour. There will be loud excitement for a half-minute because they are a tremendous live band and I never pass up an opportunity to... ah shit. They're near the bottom of a bill full of shitty metalcore/kindercore/nu nu-metal bands. Well, fuck that.

Given their history and their pedigree and the six albums worth of absolutely killer heavy metal, High On Fire should arguably be the biggest metal band in America. It's certainly not for a lack of trying. Frontman and guitarist Matt Pike was one-third of the legendary stoner doom behemoth Sleep and brings all of his weed-obsessed hesher awesomeness to High On Fire. The warrior imagery and triumphal riffage he brings cannot be fucked with. After three albums working together, Des Kensel and Jeff Matz are absolutely locked in as a rhythm section. The guys are also a hard touring band that's sure to come through your town once or twice a year. Musical trends may have moved more towards the giant pussies wearing girls' pants and asymmetrical haircuts but there's always been something honest and undeniable about H.O.F's no-bullshit approach to metal.

This iteration of the lineup, together since 2007's Death Is This Communion, is the tightest and gnarliest the band has ever been. Their previous album, Snakes For The Divine, is most memorable to me for it's opening track. The riff is just amazing.

There are other great tracks on it ("Frost Hammer," "Bastard Samurai") but that first track overshadows everything else for me. There's no such problem on De Vermis Mysteriis. There's a one-two-three-four punch of "Serums Of Liao," "Bloody Knuckles," the absolutely killer "Fertile Green," and "Madness Of An Architect"  before you get a chance to take a breath with the instrumental "Samsara."

In interviews, Matt Pike has talked about the record being a loose concept album posing the question "what if Jesus had a twin in the womb that had to die so Jesus could live... and what if that twin became a time traveler who found a scroll that teaches him how to make a serum which allows him to view his brother through the eyes of an ancestor and goes on a quest to see why he had become this religious figure that inspired all this war and bloodshed?" Which is fucking banana cakes crazy pants. It's also, like most metal albums, completely superfluous to your enjoyment of it. "Samsara" is the only point in the record where you'd have time to think about what's happening and when. "Spiritual Rights" kicks off the back half of the album with aplomb but leads into the sludgier, more ponderous "King Of Days." The end of the track highlights one of the biggest strengths of the album, the new found focus on the sound of Des Kensel's militaristic drums. Producer Kurt Ballou (metal uber-producer and member of punk mainstays Converge) gives those drumbeats an oomph that no previous producer has managed to coax. Whenever the songs open up enough to give Des the attention he deserves, it sounds fantastic. Hopefully future producers of the band will take note.

The second half of the record isn't as epic as the first but it's still rock solid. They lock into a steadier groove and ride it into the big, menacing closer "Warhorn." Jeff Matz's bass takes point over Pike's growling dissection of a battlefield. It's not the uppercut knockout the first half would lead you to expect but it's also never less than engaging.

If you get a chance to see High On Fire doing a headlining gig: take it. Or if you can put up with the prancing ninnies they seem to open for most of the time, go right ahead. The perpetually shirtless Matt Pike always makes for a compelling frontman and the band as a whole is tight as hell. It's always a good show. They may not be the biggest metal band in the world but I can think of few who are better.

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