High on Fire set the bar high with their last effort, the critically acclaimed Snakes For The Divine. Two years on from that record, they’re back with De Vermis Mysteriis. Not one to shy away from exploring conspiracy theory imagery through the medium of the concept album (Snakes… was about the illuminati being descendents of Adam’s reptilian first wife Lilith), frontman Matt Pike (formerly of Sleep fame) had this to say on the concept behind High on Fire’s new opus:
“I got this idea about Jesus Christ and the Immaculate Conception: What if Jesus had a twin who died at birth to give Jesus his life? And then what if the twin became a time traveller right then? He lives his life only going forward until he finds this scroll from an ancient Chinese alchemist who derived a serum out of the black lotus, and then he starts traveling back in time. He can see the past through his ancestors’ eyes, but his enemies can kill him if they kill the ancestor that he’s seeing through at the time. Basically, he keeps waking up in other people’s bodies at bad times. It’s kinda like that old TV show Quantum Leap.”
I thought that might be the most tenuous idea for a concept album I’d ever heard, until I remembered that High on Fire are, at their core, a stoner metal band, and if you were stoned that little plot summary would be the best thing since Queen Anne’s tits. Why, one of my own bandmates once wrote the script for a film about an evil corporation making elephants extinct by stopping people believing in them, so they could build a giant spaceship made of ivory while similarly under the influence, (its tagline, which shall live in immortality forever was “Elephants never forget… and they never forgive!”).
If you’ve never listened to High on Fire, a handy reference point is Mastodon (though High on Fire actually predate them by two years). Their overall sound is similar, but more muscular and without the prog. Drumming that, while less replete with hyperactive fills than Mastodon’s is nonetheless nimble underpins massive powerchord riffs that punch the listener in the face, with Matt Pike’s gruff bark soaring over proceedings like a scruffy eagle. Openers ‘Serums of Liao’ and ‘Bloody Knuckles’ burst right out of the gate, confidently battering the listener with chugging and skank beats and swaggering groovily by turns, but it isn’t all high speed aggression. Highlights are often slower parts, such as the intro of ‘King of Days’ which is almost stately, and some of the album’s best moments are undeniably when the band chill out and jam ambient grooves; the riff 2.21 into ‘Madness of an Architecht’ and ‘Interlude’ really show off Pike’s stoner roots and add breathing space to the relentlessness of the other tracks.
The whole thing is wrapped up in an earthy, naturalistic production. Plenty of hiss and heat in the guitars, and big, naturalistic drums are the order of the day, and it suits the band’s style perfectly. Despite all this in its favour though, De Vermis Mysteriis is not an immediate album. I certainly didn’t get into it as quickly as its immediate predecessor. It’s just not as obviously hooky. That said, it is a decent album, and if you liked their previous efforts, or if you just like stoner metal, it’s worth checking out.