All hail the mighty riff
In spite of the fact that High on Fire have been *cough* hot property for a decade now, I have to be perfectly honest and state that they’ve never really done anything for me. In fact, if we’re really laying our cards on the table, I’ve actually tended to find them boring and massively overrated, so the decision to cover the band’s sixth full length release, De Vermis Mysteriis, was one that I wrestled with but am ultimately glad I made because, for once, I’m seeing a glimmer of what it is that people have been talking about all of these years.
I think the primary reasons I haven’t appreciated the band in the past are twofold. The first is that I’ve tended to approach them with expectations derived from guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike’s history in Sleep which, in fairness, is completely unfair and stupid (and is also not a prejudice I carry regarding the other Sleep offshoot, Om, which makes it all the more ridiculous) and, secondly, in spite of their generally excellent vibe, I’ve found the song-writing to be a sticking point for me. Now, it’s true that my only exposure to High on Fire comes from 2005’s Blessed Black Wings and 2007’s Death is this Communion but, even still, the general consensus seems to be that those two albums are favourably viewed and neither of them has been able to make much of a positive impact on me. Thankfully, however, De Vermis Mysteriis keeps the vibe that those other albums have but pairs it with a non-stop barrage of great riffs and excellent song-writing overall and is, as I mentioned above, the first album that has provided me some insight into what people have been saying for some time now.
The first thing that struck me about De Vermis Mysteriis is the incredibly warm though thoroughly dirty production on display. The lack of a strong production has, from my admittedly limited experience with the band, been a real thorn in their side but the sound they’ve been able to achieve through Kurt Ballou (from Converge) gives them the rough, sludgy sound they desperately need in conjunction with a pronounced underlying power that accentuates the backline (especially the drums of Des Kensel) and gives heft and drive to the already strong riffing. Having never seen the band live, I imagine that this is very close to capturing the kind of sonic presence they would exhibit on stage.
Of course a solid production job would be meaningless if the music itself wasn’t up to scratch and this is where De Vermis Mysteriis delivers for me in ways the band has been unable to before. Pike’s worship at the altar of the riff has clearly paid off with ample lashings of fuzzed out sludge in amongst psychedelically charged drone numbers and upbeat Motorhead styled stompers but where I think Pike really shines is in his tasteful solos. The instrumental track, Samsara, is perhaps the finest example of Pike’s thoughtful fret-wanderings, though examples can be found throughout the album’s 52 minute running time including on my personal favourite cut, King of Days, with its heavy Sabbath leanings and progressive tendencies.
It isn’t just Pike’s playing that raised my eyebrows this time around either because his vocal performance stands out as the best I’ve heard with the band. I’m sure we can all agree that he’ll never be recognised as a great vocalist in the traditional sense but, unlike the previous encounters I’ve had with the band, I don’t find myself recoiling from him this time around. It’s not so much that his vocal ability has improved by any technical measurement but rather that it seems to be somewhat more restrained and thoughtfully applied this time than in the past. His gravelly croons seem to compliment rather than sit overbearingly atop the music and the result is excellent.
I won’t go as far as to say that I’m now a convert to High on Fire as a band because I still can’t find a way into the band’s previous albums but I can definitely say that I love the hell out of De Vermis Mysteriis and that their appeal to those who consider themselves converts or fans is now less a mystery to me than it was before I received this promo. High on Fire, you’ve delivered one hell of an album and you’ve made a pretty good case for finding yourselves on a lot of end of year lists.
(E1 Music/Shock Distribution)