ALBUM REVIEW: HIGH ON FIRE – “DE VERMIS MYSTERIIS”

Photograph by Joshua Ford

by Ryan Meehan 

I’m going to see Clutch at RIBCO on May 10th.  I’m beginning this review with that sentence is that I’d like to take a moment to discuss the recent bastardization of the term “stoner metal”.  (Or rock, depending on where the line is drawn)  To me, it’s sort of inappropriately applied nomenclature.  When I first got into Clutch I never really considered their music to be that genre at all.  To me, that’s what a “jam band” is really supposed to be.  Not Widespread Panic or any half-assed “jam” like that…a legitimate jam band that could throw down and have it be heavy the whole time.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that would sound tougher anyway.  The SM term didn’t exist in 1998 when we were listening to a metric ton of Clutch.  (At least not in the Midwest)  We just thought it was good music, and any sort of classification only limits the artist.  Unfortunately, this is a music review so it’s impossible to dance around labels.

Using the term “stoner metal” for anything implies two things – that it’s all metal (which it isn’t) and that everyone who’s listening to it is ripped. (which they aren’t)  I find that a lot of the music that’s classified under this subgenre is really more hardcore than anything.  I can grasp where that assignment might have come from, as most of the music like HOF, Clutch and especially old Kyuss (Ex-Queens of the Stone Age) has this very low and heavily distorted groove to it.  It seems laid back and less frantic than a lot of the faster sub-classifications of metal, such as thrash metal, speed metal, and most recently black metal.  I suppose when it comes down to it, it’s all metal and he point is that you’re not going to see a whole lot of these bands performing on Lifetime Movie Network anytime soon.  So it’s debatable that any of that even really matters, but I can definitely tell you that over the past decade the popularity of the internet has only increased the spreading of this terminology. 

For those who aren’t familiar, High on Fire is a three piece band out of Oakland, California that began in 1998 as the new vehicle for guitarist and singer Matt Pike from the band Sleep.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_(band)   Right around this time Josh Homme was working on the Desert Sessions because he no longer had Kyuss taking up a majority of his schedule, and the previously mentioned genre finally began to take flight.  It was just a few years later that HoF released their first album “The Art of Self Defense”.  In 2001 they signed a deal with Relapse and in the following year put out “Surrounded by Thieves”, touring extensively to promote the record.  2005 saw High on Fire’s seminal album “Blessed Black Wings” receive critical praise due to its massive guitar sounds and production courtesy of the legendary Steve Albini.  (Nirvana – In Utero, The Pixies – Surfer Rosa, but for real – I shouldn’t really need to sit here and list all of the albums that Steve’s done)  “Death is This Communion” followed shortly thereafter, and was succeeded by “Snakes for the Divine” in 2010. 

Those are the statistics, now here are the aesthetics:  With HoF you’re going to get a mouthful a lot of fuzz, a lot of really low register hooks going on, and you know you’re in for some serious business.  They’re like Motorhead without having all the miles on them, but at the same time they still have just the right amount of wear.  There will always be plenty of blood, sweat, and bong smoke to go around.  To skip the bullshitting, they’re in the prime of their careers.  But don’t take my word for it, ask Ford:

“High on Fire is NOT one of those bands that takes a while to grow on you:  you pretty much get right away where this ship is sailing and you either jump on board for the ride or dive off without a life preserver.  I jumped on board, as my head fucking fully caved in the first time I heard  “Blood from Zion”.   Still one of my favorite riffs of all time.  It was 1999, and I was lucky to get a copy of their three track CD release on 12th Records (later extended and rereleased on Kozik’s Man’s Ruin Label) in a bootleg trade via mail with some other stoner rock dude.   Three fucking tracks.  That was it, but damn if I didn’t spin those three tracks 100 times in the first few weeks. .  It was pretty clear that they would be laying waste for a long time to come.  Nothing was that heavy in 1999.  Metal had become predictable and was turning into a caricature of itself, but anyone who heard these tracks knew that there was a new “heavy” taking the piss out of all comers, reminiscent of when Seattle bands took the piss out of everyone else a few years before.  Anyway, my first time seeing High on Fire was soon after in 2001.  I drove to Des Moines to see them at Hairy Mary’s: a cement cube with a great bar.  I remember that they were playing tracks from Desert Sessions 5/6 and the Dutch band Beaver at the bar before the show.  I fucking still love DS and Beaver’s “Lodge” as well, and so it was one of those days where everything was perfect.  Beer tastes better with great music and like minded folk around.   Bought Pike a beer before he/des/george sauntered on stage without anything pretentious about them, and then all of a sudden we were in the middle of the loudest and greatest shit storm ever.   I’ve been to lots of shows, we all have.  Some shows are loud, some are louder.  This was easily the loudest shit I’ve ever witnessed.   About a minute into Baghdad, their opener, I felt straight up shooting pain in my ears and without even thinking my fight or flight responses kicked in and I broke off cigarette filters and jammed them in my ears so I could remain in front of Pike’s stack of Green cabs that were pushing shit-tons of air.  I felt like I was lucky to see them that night, early in their career: like I was in the fucking nexus of the universe and it was all right and perfect..  Have you ever seen the old footage of Bad Brains from CBGB in 79 and 82?  (http://youtu.be/5NAPYIMMbWQ) I don’t think any band in the world would have wanted to follow Bad Brains on a bill during this era.  They were top of the fucking food chain alpha predators.  That’s how I felt about High on Fire that night, and each of the many times I saw them over the following years.   Fast forward to 2010:  Jason Parris is taking names and kicking ass at RIBCO, booking amazing bands.  He pulls High on Fire.  Stoked.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a photographer by trade, and for the hell of it I contacted High on Fire’s PR people to see if they’d be interested in doing a promo shoot at my studio while in the Quad Cities.  Got the green light, met them at RIBCO and drove the three of them across the river to my studio in davenport for a 30 minute shoot.  What do you put on the radio when High on Fire is in your car?  Easy.  Fucking Slayer “Reign in Blood”, that’s what.  4 heads nodded to Angel of Death in my Dodge.  Had stocked up on booze and water for them, and we had a good time shooting and fucking around.   My big idea for the shoot was to have Pike ape the iconic scene from “Blue Velvet”, where Dean Stockwell lip syncs Orbison’s “In Dreams” into a shop light.  Ran the idea by them, and Pike was like “OK”, but I’m pretty sure he had no idea what fucking scene or film I was talking about.  No time for weird art-house films when your busy being balls deep in H.P. Lovecraft’s work while molding the sickest riffs this side of Golgotha .  Got the shot though, and it rules…”  

Link to to the photo shoot:  http://www.joshuaford.com/?splash=1#/11/2

According to guitarist Matt Pike the title of High on Fire’s sixth album translates into “The Mysteries of the Worm”, which is “a nod to a fictional grimoire conceived by the late, great Psycho author Robert Bloch in 1935 and later incorporated into horror master H.P. Lovecraft’s renowned Cthulu Mythos. 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 traveler 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—which is actually in Robert E Howard’s ‘Conan’ stories—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.  Kurt actually pointed that out to me after I told him the idea. But whatever—time travel is a killer concept.”

I’m not sure I have any idea of what the fuck that means since I’ve never been a fan of any sort of fiction, but you have to give them credit for doing their homework and making up their own extra credit problems.  (I watched Quantum Leap once but it confused the shit out of me so I’ve been scared to death of it ever since)  Let’s see if we can hear what all of this means in the music, cut by cut. 
 
HIGH ON FIRE:  “De Vermis Mysteriis” – ORD  04/03/12

1.    “Serums of Liao”  8.6/10.0
 
The drums on this track and hardcore but the guitar sound is standard HoF, noticeably much more metal.  The part where they come out of the first bridge is just rawdog.  I hear a lot of Lemmy being channeled over music Lemmy wouldn’t usually get to sing over.  (or want to sing over)  Six minutes long, not a lot of intention of a transition there at the end.  There’s a definite break suggesting that next is where the record gets its bloodwings.  And…
 
2.    “Bloody Knuckle”  9.5/10.0
 
That it does.  This song sounds a lot like what Slayer would have probably sounded like in 1993 if they had started playing in drop D earlier on in their career.   There’s this speed metal thing that sounds a little like a more metal version of Sonic Youth with the timing of the guitars hitting whole notes over speed/punk drumming.  Solo very effective here too and the point where they come out of the solo, do four bars and then the breakdown is the point where this album really gets started.  Everything sounds much more purposeful from this point forward. 

3.     “Fertile Green”  8.7/10.0
 
One thing HoF is never afraid to do is to begin a song with percussion, and why wouldn’t you?  Track 3 is particularly interesting because the drum intro has NOTHING to do with the song as a whole.  The high guitar riff at about two minutes is very trashy and Southern metal sounding, very Dimesque.  I just can’t keep going through these songs without continuing to mention how sick the drumming is.  Could you imagine how hard is would be to be 33% of the glue in a metal band like this?  You’d have to step up.  This is where the “stoner metal” thing gets to me yet again…no way this is anything close to that.  If nothing else, it hints that there is something coming soon and that’s a great place to be in a 3 hole unless you’ve got Song of the Year in your backpack.  (Editor’s Note:  You don’t – Love, Ryan). 
 
4.     “Madness of an Architect”  8.1/10.0
 
Or bass either…they don’t have a problem leading in with bass.  At the beginning of this track it sounds like there is some fretless action going on.  That or some bass breaking.  The blues lift on the postchorus is the shit.  Common, but done commonly wrong.  Usually by young white dudes at bluesfests with hats that you wouldn’t wanna be caught dead in.  Minimal disappointment towards the end, very depressive (not depressing) key change that doesn’t quite send you into the next cut with a spare tire.  Thankfully…
 
5.      “Interlude”  8.6/10.0  (8.6 as an interlude, 7.1 as a song)
 
But seriously, this is a badass interlude.  Math, math everywhere…and drink up we shall.  I bet this guy has the world’s largest collection of Octave pedals – I can see him and Jack White picture messaging each other on a daily basis.  Ends very abruptly, but clearly isn’t done for the sake of telling a long story just building something for the trolls to hide under before the shitstorm hits. 
 
6.      “Spiritual Rites”  8.0/10.0
 
The speed comes out on the title track, and from a lyrical standpoint they’re obviously coming from out there.  Stops like a punk song.  Not like Screeching Weasel punk, but a darker kind of punk where they stop the music and let the vocals go right before the chorus.  (Pennywise, maybe?)  Once again, I’d be nuts if I wasn’t rocking the way this guy handles the toms.  Leaves something to be desired though for some reason. 

7.      “King of Days”  9.9/10.0

This sounds like there’s a public hanging coming up the next block over.  I can’t tell if this track gets slower as it progresses, but it’s creepy and sometimes the simple stuff is the creepiest.  It’s just your run of the mill every day first-position, second, third, pause, then fourth and fifth.  Not out of order at all.  I like how the theme of the title kind of runs with the way the music carries itself.  It’s almost like there WAS a public hanging the next block over, and the Mad Architect from track four who had been building the gallows for the past two and a half months was upstairs above a saloon mulling over whether or not he was proud of his work by slamming bourbon and writing this song.  And while he was writing it he just happened to be doing so on an acoustic guitar which he was amplifying by resting it on a piano that he was leaning on because he had drank too much bourbon in the first place.   (think of how a tuning fork works)  I love this band because they do a lot of work on the lower strings up really high on the neck, and that’s something I would love to see more of in the future everywhere.  I’m dead serious, put it in pop music…I’ll eat that shit right up.  Easily the best song on the album, and all of the stringed instruments fade out, while leaving the drums to finish the job.  And as that architect stops his playing for the night, the drums fall silent and that’s where he hears the trap door drop and begins to cry his eyes out before finally accepting he’s constructed a death machine out of wood.  It’s the notably absent sound of street justice that we never seem to hear anymore.  It’s the thought that we could always rob the liquor store at any moment, but would likely end up being nothing more than a municipal decoration if we actually decided to do it.  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75OSo-_AKdI
 
8.       “De Vermis Mysteriis”  6.2/10.0
 
Comes out ahead…that’s kind of a rule when you follow up some top tier work.  Although I can’t draw a comparison to any public executions here, this song was sort of damned to begin with.  It’s not too exciting.  I don’t know…maybe Tim Tebow would be excited by it but I’m not. 
 
9.       “Romulus and Remus”   8.9/10.0
 
Now THIS sounds like the Sepultura type of riff I was looking for when I reviewed that goddamn Soulfly album a couple of weeks back. 
A very appropriately themed title, as Romulus and Remus were the two original founders of Rome based on the traditional foundation myth.  As the saying goes, it wasn’t built in a day and this song likely wasn’t either.  A very, very cool opening groove is constructed upon a strong frame of walking string work.  The whole story behind these two cats is that supposedly they were left to die, but then they suckled off the teets of a she-wolf in order to survive.  But then there was confusion that ensued shortly thereafter, and Remus was killed.  I certainly hope the High On Fire story doesn’t end the same way that the Mayhem one did.
 
10.       “War Horn”  6.9/10.0

Marching band enthusiasts need not get their hopes up, there are no horns in this piece whatsoever.  I do have to admit I’m alittle bit disappointed with the way this song closes out the album…there’s a lot of blank space and I don’t feel like it really does the other nine songs justice.  Ends without any warning as well and I guess I just figured that this one would fade out to wrap the record up, and it didn’t. 

Vocals:  B
 
I’m going B here because there’s so much other noise going on the vocals end up getting buried underneath it.  HoF has never really had the vocals up too loud at any point on their records.  It’s not the star of their sky and they know it. 

Guitar:  A-

Pike knows his shit because he combines the best of every horse’s race.  He said “fuck it…I’ll take King and Henneman’s thrash chops, Homme’s domination of the desert classic riff, mix in trace amount of Darrell Abbott for soloing, and in addition to all of that be myself the whole time.”  I have no idea why I’m even giving this an A minus other than maybe I’m trying to create the illusion that I would ever be able to write riffs like this. 
 
Bass:  B

Thick.  But when it’s by itself you can easily understand why when it isn’t you get lost as to where it went.  The sound of the bass is B, but the playing is an A minus. 
 
Drums:  A
 
Des Kensel is the absolute stuff.  No bones about it, being the drummer in a three piece outfit like HOF is a lot of work.  For some reason, I hear a lot of similarities between the drum sound on this album and the drum sound on Weezer’s 1996 record “Pinkerton”.  And since I love that disc, as you’d imagine I like the way the drums cut through the mix here.  There’s this very sort of large, deep snare sound – from a distance almost as if the snares themselves had been completely detached altogether. 
 
Production:  B-/C+
 
I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, I’ve never been a huge fan of High on Fire’s production.  The range of the spectrum in which they work is without a doubt a very muddy one indeed.  Any time you have a lot of mids floating around it can make for a huge mess.  Just because the remote meter bridge on the mixer is splitting all of the different tracks up in the control room doesn’t mean that’s how the listener hears it.   

Improvement achieved since “Snakes for the Divine”:  A

As many metal and rock fans are well aware of, “Snakes for the Divine” was probably not High on Fire’s best album.  In general it wasn’t positively received by critics and they had to blow the doors off of their fans’ most recent perception of their capabilities.  “De Vermis Mysteriis” does that and then some.  While the production still isn’t perfect, the subject matter and instrumentation are better than ever. 

OVERALL SCORE:   9.0/10.0
 
If you’re not a fan of this type of music, there are a couple of things that you might possibly be put off by:  First, High on Fire is ridiculously loud – even when you have the volume way down it sounds massively overdriven.  And second, the songs are much longer than what radio has trained our ears to be “of average length”.  But if you can get past those two things (and really, if you have to get past them to begin with, why are you such an asshole in the first place?) you’re home free.

To be fair I would like to say that even though the herbal amenities taken by the band remain an afterthought, it really makes me wish bands like Sick of it All or Biohazard could have let themselves go a bit because either one of those bands were capable of making a record like this.  It’s very expansive and paints a very hopeful picture with regards to the way people view a skilled guitar player’s ability to craft an album. 

So what does all of that mean to you the listener?  Put simply, it’s going to translate into more deep, fat, and heavy riffs in your rock and roll cereal bowl.  There’s going to be less focus on lead guitar playing, more focus on rhythm guitar playing, and how we define both of those things.  In other words less focus on technical ability and more on instrument placement.  (As well as less on the pressure to become a guitar virtuoso, therefore opening more doors to creativity.)

It also means that with all of the 80’s hair metal that disappeared in the eighties, several new generations of rock and metal bands have emerged with a renewed focus on song structure as opposed to “blowing the listener away” with a bunch of “licks”.  It means get used to hearing a lot of bands like High on Fire in the near future.   

Official High on Fire Website:   http://highonfire.net/ 

Bonus Video Interview with Matt Pike:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=zqCW8fVOWWQ&feature=endscreen

Official Josh Ford Photography website:  http://www.joshuaford.com/

Bonus Ford Photography link:  http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150275252342875

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying moire the internet’s finest in user generated content.
 
Meehan

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