So I had this incredibly weird dream last night. I dreamt that when Jesus was born he had a twin brother. The twin brother died so that Jesus could live, and then the twin brother became a time traveler at the moment of his death. He could only travel forward through time until he locates a scroll from an ancient Chinese alchemist who created a serum from the black lotus. This allows him to travel back in time. He can see the past through his ancestor’s eyes, but his enemies can kill him if they kill the ancestors he’s currently inhabiting. It’s basically a sci-fi biblical version of Quantum Leap.
I woke from the fever dream thinking that I might have been touched by some cosmic hand from the ether and shown an existential truth that no one else knew about. But then I realized that the dream was just an after buzz from listening to High On Fire’s excellent 2012 album De Vermis Mysteriis(translated from Latin it means “The Mysteries Of The Worm”.) I’m guessing that worm can be found at the bottom of a tequila bottle, as the album is completely bat shit crazy and also near genius.
Matt Pike comes across as this philosopher hesher that crawled from a dirty sleeping bag lying in a watery ditch you pass nearly every day to work. Inside that sleeping bag is a portal to some THC-powered alternate reality where there’s not much difference between an IQ of 40 and 180. Pike is this heavy metal warrior that is constantly sweating and wheezy, espousing stoned philosophy and warning of conspiracy theories pertaining to alien abductions, government experiments, and hash laced with galactic dust which allows ones mind to expand and see the true meaning of it all. Though if you’re not open-minded enough you’re liable to go completely insane. Pike and High On Fire take Pike’s other band Sleep’s slow churn doom and crank it up to 14. HoF rumble through stacks of Orange and Marshall amplifiers at breakneck speed that would make fans of Slayer and Black Sabbath equally happy. Pike writes songs that are part Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft tales, while musically its as if Reign In Blood was equally influenced by Loose Nut and Master Of Reality.
I got into High On Fire after a few late night beer fests with an old friend. He left several of their albums on my hard drive for me to peruse. It took a couple years but I finally got around to listening to Blessed Black Wings and Death Is The Communion. I can say without a doubt that High On Fire single handedly got me back into metal. I’d moved away from the darker, heavier fare years before thinking I’d “outgrown” that stuff. Of course the real reason was that I’d simply lost my way in the ways of the dark metal arts. High On Fire scorched a path for me back to classic speed and thrash metal I used to love in my younger days. They also led me to Pike’s other epic band Sleep. But this isn’t about Sleep, or any other band. This is about Matt Pike and High On Fire and, in my opinion, their masterpiece De Vermis Mysteriis.
How do you think the meeting went between Matt Pike and the record executives when he came to them with the concept for De Vermis Mysteriis? “Well, it’s a concept record about Jesus’ twin brother who dies at birth so Jesus can live out his destiny, and in turn this dead twin becomes a time traveler. What do you think?” I’m sure there never was a meeting like that because by 2012 Matt Pike had made his musical intentions very much known. Scream about demons, wizards, warriors, battles, and make the music as hard and heavy as possible. Who gives a shit what Pike is screaming about, just as long as the skin on my skull begins to rip from the bone by the time we reach the first chorus. Actually, I do care about what he’s singing about because that’s an important part of the High On Fire trip. He may be a dirty hesher, but Matt Pike is a hell of a story spinner(as well as a shredding fiend.)
When you have a song like “Madness Of An Architect” you’re pretty much set for sensory annihilation. This song is like a sludgy trip through 40 years of doom, death, and blues all in the course of 7 minutes. This is a slow ride as far as High On Fire go. Usually things are at a breakneck pace, goosing the tempo just short of South Of Heaven territory. But on this track this metal three-piece take their time. Things even get downright melodic on the excellent “Interlude”, a song that has the bass sound of Cliff Burton and even the vibe of something like Metallica’s “Orion”. It leads right into “Spiritual Rights”, which is like dropping acid at an amusement park and you peak just at the top of a 200′ high rollercoaster. Pike gargles blood and Jameson as this truly power trio pummels minds like Thor tenderizing his steak with Mjölnir. I can’t help but think of the late great Lemmy Kilmister when I hear Matt Pike on this track. I feel there’s a thru line from Lemmy to Matt Pike. Both made extreme music and lived extreme lives, yet you talk to anyone close to either and they’d tell you they were the nicest guys. Down to earth guys that took everything in their lives to extremes(R.I.P. Lemmy.)
There’s a lot of melodic moments on this album, which I think was a precursor to 2015s Luminiferous. But there’s also plenty of blood-boiling and gnashing of teeth here as well. Album opener “Serums Of Liao” charges through the speakers with the dexterity of a baby xenomorph bursting through John Hurt’s chest. Not graceful; forceful, violent, and with deadly precision. As metal as these guys are there’s still plenty of progressive rock oomph here, too. High On Fire are the epitome of “power trio”. Pike is one of the premier metal guitarists working today, but the rhythm section of bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel are a force to be reckoned with. Kensel gives Dave Lombardo a run for his money while Matz lays down some thick, barb-wired bass lines that fill whatever spots Pike might not with his massive guitar tone. “Bloody Knuckles” sounds like Slayer on steroids, man. Seriously, if Pepper Keenan-led Corrosion somehow devoured the violence of Slayer it might sound like this song. Then there’s “Fertile Green”. It’s like the battle hymn of the stoned republic. This is how 21st century metal is supposed to sound. Those kids in River’s Edge would’ve totally gotten drunk and stoned to this track. I could see my brother at 18 driving in his Cutlass with this bashing through his Pioneer Super Tuner whilst wearing my dad’s army trench coat covered in rock patches and the faint odor of prime “Tijuana Magic” stinging the nostrils. Hell, I bet my brother would’ve hung with Matt Pike if time and happenstance would’ve allowed.
Elsewhere, “King Of Days” hints at more introspective work that would be put out on Luminiferous, while “De Vermis Mysteriis” sounds like a thousand demons howling from a near empty bottle of absinthe. “Romulus and Remus” is slow-churning dread that’s part desert biker knife fight and part end-of-days blood orgy. “Warhorn” sounds like Black Sabbath on mescaline. Pike brings things down for the album closer, his vocals gurgle tales of battlefields and muskets blowing fire.
It’s a hell of a period at the end of one blood-soaked, sweat-drenched sentence.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Matt Pike and High On Fire for bringing me back to the true ways of metal. I think High On Fire are keeping metal dark, mysterious, and something your parents might be wary of. That was always a good thing for me. But also, High On Fire place musicianship very high on their albums. They can bash with the best of ’em, but they bash like the best jazz musicians bash. There’s conviction in those brutal riffs and speed demon drumming. De Vermis Mysteriis is a batshit record, but it’s also a near perfect metal album.
In the immortal words of David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and…clever.” Indeed.