Dating back to his days in the metal leviathan Sleep, Matt Pike has been obsessed with the arcane. But where Sleep’s opus, Jerusalem/Dopesmoker, lets its godlike drones do most of the chanting, Pike’s subsequent band, High On Fire, is far more articulate—in a guttural sort of way, of course. Even the outfit’s most conceptual album, 2010’s Snakes For The Divine, wraps its love of gnostic apocrypha in sky-shredding squalls of thunder. De Vermis Mysteriis is High On Fire’s sixth full-length, and it’s steeped in a relatively contemporary lore: the metaphysical horror of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. It isn’t the first time Pike has translated Lovecraft into song, but on De Vermis, he’s less of an interpreter and more of a floodgate.
Granted, Pike’s lyrics have never been the main focus of High On Fire, and De Vermis is no different. The riff, as always, is king. From the hammered thrash of “Serums Of Liao” to the bloodcurdling blues of “Madness Of An Architect,” Pike uses his guitar to summon yet another host of monolithic, archetypal licks from the jaws of eternity—or at least the songbooks of Venom and Motörhead. (“Spiritual Rights” even has blatant callbacks to the latter’s “Ace Of Spades.”) As blackened and foreboding as the music is, though, Pike’s vocals are as terrified as they are terrifying. Like the narrator of a Lovecraft story, he’s both victim and villain. On the incantatory “King Of Days,” he lets his reptilian voice uncurl into a sinuous, hypnotic vibrato; on the album’s title track, he reworks stoner-rock boilerplate into a mantra of transcendental awe.
At this point in its 14-year existence, though, High On Fire feels trapped by its own consistency. Barring the slow evolution of Pike’s solos—which continue to slip further from melodic majesty and closer to screechy Slayer-shred, especially on the otherwise flawless “Bloody Knuckles” and “Fertile Green”—De Vermis offers nothing but variations on Pike’s well-established fixations. But what stunning variations they are: The disc closes with “Warhorn,” a sprawling chronicle of cavalry, muskets, and bayonets that could pass as a Civil War-era retelling of Jerusalem/Dopesmoker’s epic quest for oblivion. It would be total conjecture to assume that Pike, at some point in his life, has glimpsed the creeping, cosmic chaos that Lovecraft wrote of. But if De Vermis Mysteriis is any indication, Pike seems to believe so. And he has another fearsome document to prove it.