High on Fire’s last album, 2010’s Snakes for the Divine, was like a long night drinking cheap beer: starts out strong, has a lot of cool moments here and there, but after a while, it feels bloated and sluggish, and despite a strong finish, doesn’t have enough transcendent moments in between to justify the massive abdominal pain, dry mouth, and heightened photosensitivity at work the next morning. And while Snakes may not have literally given me stomach discomfort, the filler-to-killer ratio was tipped a little to far toward the former to live up to the mighty standard the band have set for themselves. Fortunately, a couple of years and a Sleep reunion later, they’ve rebounded in epic fashion with De Vermis Mysteriis, an embarrassment of Lovecraftian riches simultaneously dark, pummeling, and catchy. It’s an album of sludge-punk peaks and smoky psychedelic valleys. Even for a band as esteemed as High on Fire, it’s a career high point.

If anything, it’s a fitting reminder of how the band are one of the premier power trios in metal (or rock in general, for that matter). Drummer Des Kensel is thunderous and propulsive, sounding equal parts martial and versatile. Matt Pike is at his damn best, providing some fine Sabbath-meets-Motorhead riffs and evocative, multi-layered leads. And the bass solos… oh, the bass solos! Who doesn’t love bass solos? Most people? Well, they’re incredible here, reclaiming metal’s most ignored instrument (hell, Ihsahn, Norway’s Shining, and even Napalm Death have made sax more prominent) as a sinewy agent of groove. While there will always be folks that argue that the band sounded best on Blessed Black Wings or Surrounded by Thieves, I’d posit that they’ve never sounded better than they do here.

Of course, that wouldn’t mean a damn thing if they didn’t have the songs to go with it. And while they may not match “Snakes for the Divine” or “How Dark We Pray”’s focus, every song on Vermis is its own unique bruiser. “Serums of Liao” once again illustrates the band’s penchant for kick-ass openers, with Kensel’s driving rhythm propping up Pike and Jeff Matz’s mudslide riffing, weaving into a wonderful sea chantey chorus. “Madness of an Architect” marks one of the album’s many ebbs and flows, slowing after the ferocity of Vermis’ opening three tracks. And “King of Days”… Oh, “King of Days.” A soulful stoner-doom epic that trails off into some inspired jamming, it’s the album’s centerpiece, a fine summary of what the band are capable of. Admittedly, De Vermis Mysteriis drops off a little after that, but it’s more a testament to how great “King of Days” is. But even when taking that into consideration, the record is a master class in how to sculpt an album, terrifically sequenced and sporting an actual arc to complement its concept, with all its Jesus twins and Lovecraft allusions and time-traveling and… I don’t know, orcs? It’s moving and earnestly metal, not shellacked with irony or an embarrassing lack of self-awareness. It conquers, pounding on a chest as bare as Mike Pike’s most likely was while making it.

And you can’t talk about De Vermis Mysteriis without mentioning its production. While the band has worked with some of the best producers/engineers there are (Jack Endino, Steve Albini, and, um, that Death Magnetic guy), Kurt Ballou brings something remarkable out of them. While their earlier triumphs had an endearing murkiness and their last album had a different (though ultimately off-putting) sheen to it, Ballou combines them both for something great, per usual. While it’s apparent that some work went into making the record sound great (Pike’s solos, in particular, are hydra-headed beasts), it still retains a grit that a band like High on Fire need. Vermis finds High on Fire at their limber best, returning to the stride some crossover attention couldn’t knock them too far from. This isn’t an Icehouse and Tina’s Burrito affair. An album as dense-yet-tangible as this requires all the class and grace that Miller High Life and that taco in a Dorito shell imply. Great taste, less filler.

(4 out of 5 horns)


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