After seeing High On Fire play with Converge back in 2009 (along with Mastodon and Dethklok), I’m a little surprised it took so long for the band to utilize the production skills of Mr. Kurt Ballou, but I’m glad they finally did. The biggest issue with 2010’s Snakes for the Divine (Other than its single-mindedness) was the muddy production of Greg “Death Magnetic” Fidelman. Thankfully, De Vermis Mysteriis is a step up from its predecessor in almost every manner and early contender for metal album of 2012.
Where Snakes for the Divine had one speed--fast, De Vermis Mysteriis is a lot more eclectic and thoughtful. The opening one-two punch of “Serums of Liao” and “Bloody Knuckles” bludgeon the listener as hard and fast as anything High On Fire has ever done, but De Vermis Mysteriis has a lot more on its mind than just aggression. The instrumental interlude “Samsara” may be the most melodic piece of music the band has ever laid to tape, and the mid-paced moody “King of Days” features some of the smoothest vocals we’ve heard from guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike since the days of his Kalaas side project. It’s an old-school doom metal song in the vein of Trouble or Candlemass, and it sounds absolutely crushing when played at full volume.
High On Fire has often been compared to Sleep, Pike’s former band, although his membership is really the only thing the two groups have in common. However, when listening to the droning intro of “Madness of an Architect,” it’s impossible not to think of Dopesmoker, Sleep’s 63-minute opus, and one of the finest sludge metal albums ever created. The track keeps a mid tempo pace throughout, and shows that High On Fire can be just as interesting, if not moreso, slowed down than when at full-throttle. Also beneficial from this approach is album closer “Warhorn,” a Melvins-esque brooder that doesn’t quite sound like anything else in the group’s catalog.
Ballou’s expansive production is just as big of a factor in the album’s eclectic nature as the songs themselves. The massive sounding flanged drum intro to “Fertile Green” adds a unique tinge of flavor to a track that is otherwise straightforward Slayer worship.
The title De Vermis Mysteriis (English translation: "The Mysteries of the Worm") immediately brings to mind Mayhem’s infamous 1994 black metal masterpiece De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, and the album art, displaying a Christ-like figure surrounded by wolves shooting lasers from his eyes, make this a complete package for metalheads.
For the most part High On Fire still chugs along like Mötörhead if Lemmy switched from speed to pot, and Pike still solos like Kirk Hammet before he started using the wah pedal as a crutch, but there are enough surprises on De Vermis Mysteriis to keep things interesting. 2007’s monolithic Death Is This Communion still stands as the group's crowning achievement, but De Vermis Mysteriis is a close second. It’s hard to imagine a metal fan not finding at least something to like here.