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High on Fire, ‘De Vermis Mysteriis’ (E1)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 03, 2012
Label: E1

Stoner-metal gods High on Fire’s sixth album, De Vermis Mysteriis, is rife with red flags. It was hastily assembled, it’s got a lofty biblical-time-travel concept, it’s the 46,542nd metal album featuring themes inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, the title is Latin, and so on. But between vocalist-guitarist Matt Pike’s burly, overdriven riffs and his bandmates’ raucous cacophony, these blemishes are smoothed over pretty quickly.

The Oakland, California, trio has always sounded a bit like the lovechild of Motörhead’s ragtag hard rock and Black Sabbath’s beefed-up blues metal. Which means the music itself is so compelling that fans don’t have to know that De Vermis Mysteriis (that’s “Mysteries of the Worm,” for those who prefer living languages) was a fictional magic text invented by the guy who wrote Psycho (and later appropriated by Lovecraft) as a prerequisite for headbanging to the double-time riffing or Pike’s raspy, Lemmy-like proclamations (like “I’ll burn you as the dead is”). Nor does it help (or hurt) to know that the Liao, he of leadoff track “Serums of Liao,” is supposed to be the twin brother of Jesus Christ who died at birth and can travel through time to assess his brother’s global impact; what matters is Des Kensel’s crystal-clear tom-heavy drumming and Pike’s catchy vocal melody(!) in the chorus. And it’s only marginally useful to realize that the female oracle burning male babies in “Fertile Green” is actually a metaphor for marijuana farmers (but hey, the solo is pretty dope, too). From years of practice — including one record about Adam and Eve accepting “reptoid DNA” to become shape shifters — High on Fire have perfected the art of wrapping high-concept pulp fiction in appealing weather-beaten covers.

Their true art and power, however, lies in their careless abandon. Since forming after the 1998 dissolution of Pike’s previous band, the slow-lane stoner-doom legends Sleep, they’ve specialized in rattling, full-throttle, primal metal. Early efforts sounded like forces of nature, wherein Pike — always more of an ampist than a guitarist — and the group’s first couple bass players emitted a low rumble, akin to static with the mids cranked, as Kensel bashed out complementary rhythms in stereo. But gradually, Pike & Co. fine-tuned their formula to work in tandem, honing catchy guitar melodies while maintaining their trademark chaos. By 2007’s Death Is This Communion, which debuted current bassist Jeff Matz, they’d begun crafting intricate, furious mini-epics that still retained the positively Paleolithic low-end vibrations of their early stuff. They played a little looser on their last album, 2010’s reptoid-inspired Snakes for the Divine, but now, on an album Pike has said he felt “rushed” writing, fleshing out riffs he’d been sitting on for awhile just to have a record out in time for summer touring, the trio has returned to what they do best: a meat-and-potatoes metal record, no acoustic interludes, no drum solos.

Still, while HOF’s riff-collaging skills dominate De Vermis, producer Kurt Ballou (guitarist for noisy Boston hardcore crew Converge) is their secret weapon. Energizing a group that’s already worked with everyone from Steve Albini to Jack Endino to Greg Fidelman, he penetrates to the group’s gloomy essence — namely, the roar emanating from Pike’s amp — with a newfound clarity that makes the songs sound distinctly alive, or at least just live. Just try not to get swept up with Pike’s echoey blues-guitar solo on “Madness of an Architect,” the doomy guitar/bass harmony of “King of Days,” or Matz’s snaky bass and Pike’s improvised-sounding guitar solo on instrumental “Samsara,” which all feel like they’re happening directly in front of your face.

That live feel is the intangible thing most metal bands strive for (and mostly fail to reach), and it’s what separates De Vermis Mysteriis from the rest of High on Fire’s catalog. Sure, their other records boast imaginative song topics and propulsive riffs, but it all works together best when there’s that unspoken sense of spontaneity pouring out of it. Maybe they should rush every album: It worked this time.