Though there’s rarely an award for such an accomplishment, High On Fire have proven themselves over the past decade to be one of the most consistent bands in metal. From their meaty and raw stoner metal beatdowns on Surrounded by Thieves and Blessed Black Wings, on to the ever-so-slightly more epic recent releases Death Is This Communion and Snakes for the Divine, the Oakland-based trio has continued to perfect their beefy and barbaric sludge, each time delivering a reliably furious offering that never fails to hit like a Louisville Slugger to the jaw. And it’s pretty much always as awesome as the hour-long smack to the kisser that preceded it.
Taking this into account, it’s a wonder, then, that since 2005’s Blessed Black Wings, recorded by Steve Albini with a trademark dry wallop, the band has hopped producers with subsequent releases, for better or for worse. Seattle veteran Jack Endino, a man who knows his way around a grungy sound, captured the band at their grimiest and most raw on Death Is This Communion. Yet Greg Fidelman, the man behind the sound of Snakes for the Divine, added a little extra polish, smoothing out some of the band’s rougher edges. Though that wasn’t too much of a detraction from the otherwise brawny set, for sixth album, De Vermis Mysteriis, the band has paired with Converge’s Kurt Ballou, who brings out the kind of crunchy, guttural perfection that only a true hesher could appreciate.
De Vermis Mysteriis sounds fantastic. It pummels and it groans, it grunts and it bellows. And this is strictly the colossal instrumentation we’re speaking of here, not that frontman Matt Pike doesn’t also grunt, groan and bellow with the utmost conviction. Ballou captures the essence of High On Fire’s doom-laced sludge masterfully, though production only gets you so far. But, thankfully, being one of metal’s most consistent also means a continual showcase for top-notch songwriting chops and instrumental wizardry, never so showy as to distract from the momentum, but impressive enough to warrant repeat freak-outs.
The album’s first three songs probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many listeners, their punchy, high-speed assault the kind of thing you not only expect from a High On Fire album, you demand it. Among these, “Fertile Green” is the real standout, and one of the album’s best songs overall, opening with Des Kensel’s warpath drums before snapping into a menacing sprint, driven by Pike’s dense and jagged riffs. But from there on, the band takes a much less direct route, slowing down for a Sabbath-style doom dirge on “Madness of an Architect” and dropping some of the volume for a druggy, exotic instrumental in “Samsara.” Some surprisingly melodic clean backing vocals provide an element of grace to “King of Days,” and the slow grooving “Romulus and Remus” could almost pass for The Melvins or Helmet during its righteous intro.
Consistent, though, De Vermis Mysteriis is, that shouldn’t be confused for boilerplate. High On Fire know their strengths as a band, and they play the hell out of them through as many permutations as they see fit. Sometimes you get an acoustic riff, in other places a slow, droning doom progression, but it’s always delivered with the utmost ferocity. So it is with this album, as hellacious a release as a metal band’s sixth should be, but satisfying every big, sludgy craving in the process.
Stream: High On Fire – “Fertile Green”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.