High On Fire - "King Of Days" (De Vermis Mysteriis)
It’s been quite a road for Oakland’s High on Fire since forming (roughly speaking) from the ashes of Sleep over a decade ago. Matt Pike’s power trio began with a combo of nodding doom and dirty anthems that placed the group somewhere between Motorhead and Electric Wizard. Since then, though, the group’s development has been consistent and often impressive. After breakthrough album Blessed Black Wings, Pike has (along with bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Dez Kensel) expanded his compositional range considerably. From an initial flirtation with melody, Pike’s growing confidence with structure and hooks (rather than sheer heavy fury and head-nods) has given subsequent records a balance and infectiousness that the group quite simply lacked on early efforts, as fun as they were.
One listen to De Vermis Mysteriis’s opener, “Serums of Liao,” and it’s clear that the band’s now got a knack for leavening the crunch with sing-along choruses and hooks. Mind you, Pike will never be mistaken for a crooner, and the band still trades mainly in heavy thunder, as on the pummeling “Bloody Knuckles,” “Spiritual Rights,” or the biker fury of “Fertile Green.” But the reason De Vermis Mysteriis lingers in the memory is the balance and craft behind the histrionics. In many ways, it’s during the mid-tempo stuff that Pike and Co. are most effective, as in “Madness of an Architect,” which is buoyed by a truly wicked distorted bass from Matz, or the rather majestic “King of Days.” And whereas just about every “metal” band in the universe is now eager to display their Floyd propers, High on Fire show here that they can get expansive, too, with the Hawkwind groove vehicle “Samsara.”
Not all the details merit such praise. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of woodblock on the rolling galleon of the title track. Nor am I usually taken by those noisy tangles that are Pike’s solos. But the whole is so relentlessly nasty and the riffs so good that a multitude of metal sins are forgiven.
Those who won’t admit to liking Bruce Dickinson will still grumble that High on Fire lost their way since Surrounded by Thieves. But De Vermis Mysteriis shows that you can hold fast to grit and sheer misanthropy while actually developing beyond Conan soundtrack music.