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Stoner Rock’s vanguard wakes up after two decades

'The Sciences' is another masterpiece from Sleep. The six songs on the album last 53 minutes; but, more important, it's an album you can like instantly even without the aid of a bong

Sleep performing at The Fillmore Detroit on 31 March. Photo: Austincxiv/ Wikimedia Commons
Sleep performing at The Fillmore Detroit on 31 March. Photo: Austincxiv/ Wikimedia Commons

For a second or two at the beginning of the second song on Sleep’s new album, The Sciences, there is a gurgling sound that will be unmistakable to anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with a certain kind of filtration device commonly known as a “bong". In a bong, which is primarily used to smoke substances such as marijuana, smoke passes through water, which cools it down but also makes a characteristic bubbling sound when the partaker sucks deeply on it. That’s the sound with which the song Marijuanaut’s Theme opens, and my copy of it on iTunes is quaintly marked E (for explicit content). The lyrics certainly are explicit: There are references to loading new bowls, to getting stoned, and to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the cannabinoid found in marijuana. But then Sleep has always been unabashedly upfront in its dedication to making music that is inextricably intertwined with the partaking of marijuana.

Formed in the early 1990s in northern California, Sleep is acknowledged to be one of the best proponents of a genre labelled “stoner rock". It’s an unlikely hybrid of two styles—heavy doom metal and psychedelic rock. Ordinarily, the two wouldn’t seem miscible; the sludgy, drone-y sound of doom metal and the improvisational jamming of psychedelic rock can seem irreconcilable. Try getting a Grateful Dead fanatic to listen to Black Sabbath or the other way round, and (with an exception or two), you’ll probably see what I mean. But Sleep is among the few bands that have mated the two genres most successfully. Their music has both, the primordial, ultra-heavy sound that metal bands are known for, as well as guitar riffs and spur-of-the-moment solo explorations that have always been the hallmark of the trippiest psychedelic bands.

Although formed in 1990, Sleep have released only four full-length albums, including this April’s The Sciences. And, for more than a decade between 1998-2009, the band broke up. The break-up happened over an iconic album unambiguously called Dopesmoker that was recorded in 1996 but over which the band and the record label it was signed with then sparred. The stand-off involved several complications but the gist is this: The band recorded the Dopesmoker album as one song that was over an hour long and wanted it released exactly like that; the record company (London Records) wanted it broken up into several tracks; the band said no and stood its ground but some band members differed; and then the band broke up.

Dopesmoker in its definitive, uncut form was released only in 2003 but it wasn’t until 2009 that Sleep re-formed and played a few shows. It was (and continues to be) a trio with two of the original members, singer and bassist Al Cisneros, and guitarist Matt Pike, with the addition of a new drummer, Jason Roeder. During the “broken up" period, several versions of Dopesmoker were released, including one called Jerusalem in which the single track was broken up into six separate ones. Excerpts from Dopesmoker can be heard on the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film, Broken Flowers, starring actors such as Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Sharon Stone and Julie Delpy.

If you want to ensure that you like Dopesmoker in its hour-plus-long entirety the first time you listen to it, you either have to be an ardent fan of stoner rock, or, well, a dope smoker. The song opens with the lyrics: “Drop out of life with bong in hand/ Follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land." And then goes on to talk about “weed-priests", “spliffs" that are aflame, and of how the “grow-room" is the “church temple of the new stoner breed". But, if you persevere, either stoned or sober, the album offers an impressive array of infinite aural experiences. There are countless opportunities to get lost in the twists and turns of the music, chiefly provided by the guitar riffs and the drums. Sleep’s line-up then also had Cisneros and Pike but the drummer was Chris Hakius, whose trademark style is a major part of what makes Dopesmoker a classic stoner rock album. Incidentally, Hakius left Sleep and eventually quit music to go back to being a truck driver. In the band’s early days, another member, Justin Marler, had quit Sleep to become a monk.

It has taken nearly two decades after Dopesmoker came out for Sleep to release The Sciences. The easy way out—and one that many veteran rockers resort to—would have been for the band to play it safe and produce something that gives loyal fans a taste of the familiar past. But Sleep haven’t done that.

The Sciences is another masterpiece from Sleep. The six songs on the album last 53 minutes; the sound is sharp and excellently recorded at Jack White’s Third Man Records; but, more important, it’s an album you can like instantly even without the aid of a bong (although having one handy will not be a disadvantage!). As I mentioned, the lyrics on The Sciences’ songs are typically abstruse, Sleep-style, but then, for this band, the lyrics matter less than their sound does. Guitarist Pike’s riffs sear on every song; drummer Roeder melds jazz and hard rock into his beats; and, while the multiple lyrical references to cannabis could seem annoying sometimes, Cisneros’ vocal style keeps Sleep reassuringly in doom metal land. Stoner rock’s seminal band still has it.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘The Botanist’ by Sleep from ‘The Sciences’

2. ‘Marijuanaut’s Theme’ by Sleep from ‘The Sciences’

3. ‘Giza Butler’ by Sleep from ‘The Sciences’

4. ‘Sonic Titan’ by Sleep from ‘The Sciences’

5. ‘Dopesmoker’ by Sleep from ‘Dopesmoker’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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