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Let's see if we can get the story straight: Jesus' twin dies at birth, gets reincarnated as a time traveler and has some nightmarishly awesome H.P. Lovecraft-ian adventures along the way. No, this isn't the latest Christopher Moore novel, but rather the narrative behind De Vermis Mysteriis, the sixth album by the Bay Area hesh-hammers in High on Fire, out April 3. Guitarist and vocalist Matt Pike's concepts become more abstract with each record, and as a matter of course, the songs keep opening up in ways that once didn't seem possible.
Songwriting has never been a problem for Pike — the guy knows his way around hooks, sledgehammer riffs and keeping the movement forward. It's the overly picky metalheads who are particular about producers, almost one for each album: Billy Anderson (God in a metalhead's eyes), Steve Albini ("I dunno, man, Albini is compression-happy"), Jack Endino (Seattle grunge cred), Greg Fidelman (latter Metallica and, uh, Slipknot) and now Kurt Ballou of Converge. Each one has brought something different to High on Fire's sound, but the Ballou pairing is inspired. His typically raw and sharp approach can sometimes overwhelm a new band obviously influenced by Converge, but on De Vermis Mysteriis, a simpatico collaboration transpires. And, without dwelling on production too much — too late! — High on Fire sounds rejuvenated, as if it's conquering the world all over again.
The one-two-three punch of the first three tracks may be High on Fire's best since the "Nemesis"/"Thraft of Canaan"/"Surrounded by Thieves" combo on 2002's Surrounded by Thieves. Des Kensel's five-second drum solo sounds the attack in "Serums of Liao" and continues to serve as the highlight of the chugging six-minute opener, mostly because it's the first time drums have ever sounded this present on a High on Fire recording. Pike's Cthulhu-ian wah-wah guitar solo also hits at just the right spot over Jeff Matz's mean bass line. "Bloody Knuckles" is classic Motorhead-worshipping High on Fire, with some Slayer riffage thrown in for good measure. And Kensel is yet again the hero in "Fertile Green," first setting it up as a ninth-level-of-hell drum circle before declaring a full-on thrasher, capable of tearing through Lucifer's jaw.
Here is where High on Fire starts to surprise. The slow, sickening riff that opens "Madness of an Architect" nods to Pike's past in the '90s doom titan Sleep, all caveman-like in its knuckle-dragging heft, but it essentially turns into a heavy blues as Pike croons his most soulful yawp. If it weren't so fuzzed out, the instrumental "Samsara" would seem to signal a Mastodon-like turn to prog, but the track is so fluid and sing-songy that it makes the damn-near ballad "King of Days" a sensible addition to High on Fire's typically rage-on catalog.
Without fail, this no-BS stoner-metal band delivers yet another skull-bashing record, in the process challenging the metal world at large. This is becoming a year in which lifers release some of their best efforts (Asphyx, 16, Saint Vitus, Inverloch by way of dISEMBOWELMENT), and at 40, Matt Pike shows no sign of mellowing with age. Oh, and if someone out there would like to make a movie based on De Vermis Mysteriis' whacked-out narrative, some of us wouldn't mind.