It was the late, great novelist and caffeine enthusiast Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) who said, “Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true.” And yet High On Fire have managed to do all three. Since the Oakland power trio’s inception in 1998 they’ve released six earth-splitting albums, each seemingly more unstoppable than the last. Forever haunting the halls of the Iommic Temple—the band’s own philosophical monument to Black Sabbath riff master Tony Iommi—High On Fire have become legends in their own time. As bong-huffing genre music rises and falls around them like so much windborne detritus, guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike, drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz comprise the all-seeing eye of a perpetual riff-storm, always looking toward a future in which The End is always near.
After unleashing one of the most momentous debuts in the history of heavy music with 2000’s The Art Of Self-Defense, High On Fire doubled down in 2002 with the absolutely punishing Surrounded By Thieves, an album that even notoriously finicky music website Pitchfork rated an 8.8 out of 10. “Surrounded By Thieves pushes drones to its limits, with a crushing wall of bass tones guaranteed to alter heart rhythms and weaken building infrastructures,” they gushed, before adding the obvious disclaimer: “If you’ve never experienced street drugs, it’s a safe bet you probably won't enjoy this album.”
And the hits just kept on coming: High On Fire’s 2005 album, Blessed Black Wings, was named one of the top 50 albums of the 21st century by prominent UK music weekly Kerrang! In 2007, the band’s Death Is This Communion ranked # 3 on Revolver magazine’s year-end list, while landing the # 4 spot in Total Guitar. That same year, Matt Pike was named one of rock’s “New Guitar Gods” by Rolling Stone.
Fast forward to 2012 and High On Fire’s new album, De Vermis Mysteriis. Produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou at God City Studios in Salem, MA, the record marks the next devastating chapter in High On Fire’s gloriously unhinged metal saga. “It’s a fuckin’ awesome album,” Pike enthuses. “I think it’s kind of a cross between the experimentation of Death Is This Communion and the driving darkness of Blessed Black Wings. There’s plenty of thrashy stuff, but there’s also a lot of Sabbathy doom-type stuff.”
“We didn’t try to plan it all out this time,” he adds. “We kind of waited ’til we were on the spot and had to do something. We had the basic skeletons of the songs—we were prepared—but there was a lot of improvisation. There’s a lot of soul on this one, and it’s got a rollercoaster kind of feel.”
The album’s title (translation: “The Mysteries of the Worm,”) 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. “It’s a concept record, a little bit,” Pike offers. “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.”
“Most people won’t even get it, so I’m explaining it now—once,” he concludes. “After this, I’m done telling the story to people. So please make sure this gets printed.”