Sleep is back, creating vast and mysterious sonic worlds-without-end
MUSIC Dopesmoker (Tee Pee Records, 2003) begins with a move characteristic of Al Cisneros' style. Striking a series of low to mid-range notes, Sleep's bassist and incantatory vocalist draws forth a series of monster bass tones that warp and disassociate as they decay.
As the listener focuses on the subtle permutations in the drone-overture — sometimes Cisneros' bass notes vibrating into ever-smaller tonal subdivisions, at other moments, they radiate volume ever-outward — the DNA sequence for an unfolding doom metal magnum opus begins to take shape. The double kick bass follows in a steady trek to the foreground of the mix, followed by the guitar, which sounds almost grafted onto the bass, like a membrane of barbed amplifier fuzz circumscribing Cisneros' hypnotic line. The riff snakes Geezer Butler-like into crevices and apertures, then rises to a Tony Iommian trill before pausing against a rain of cymbals — Black Sabbath as ancient, unstable organism.
With its relentless, uninterrupted hour-plus length, Dopesmoker unfolds like one of those naturally occurring geographical wonders that embodies thousands of years of passing time. Granite sheets, city-sized coral reefs, and Sleep's culminating musical statement: all sprawling patterns dependent on vast expansions and mutations. This is what the undiluted version of Sleep's masterpiece has over the abridged Jerusalem, released unofficially five years after Dopesmoker was completed. Where Jerusalem is divided and fragmented, seeking to place this freakish growth in track-length components and excising some of the weird arabesques of feedback that emerge at the margins, Dopesmoker, like Sleep's music itself, evolves into ever more bizarre shapes via its own unintelligible logic.
Sleep broke up in 1995, after the band's then-label, London Records, famously didn't "get" Dopesmoker. The label felt (probably correctly), that a 60 minutes-plus quasi-Wagnerian "fuck you" to brevity would be career suicide for a band making its first foray on a major. In a sense, it was. It's almost poetic that the album — a time-bending epic about traveling through sonic time and space — was released posthumously and out of chronology.
In the interim, Sleep has become the quintessential band for people who like their metal baked and ponderous. Following two discrete reunion shows at London's All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2009 with Jason Roeder of Neurosis replacing Chris Hakius on drums, the group is set to reunite for a series of U.S. dates. As if this long dreamed-of tour wasn't enough to make metal heads across the country flip the fuck out, the band's set is to be comprised of Sleep's Holy Mountain (Earache, 1993) played cover-to-cover, as well as excerpts from the now semi-mythical Dopesmoker. The returning sonic titans are set to once again engulf the Bay in a haze, one which smells mysteriously like the backroom of a T-shirt shop. But even if the band is notorious for its heroic weed consumption and all-around stoney pedigree, Sleep's body of work — as challenging as it is impenetrably heavy — demands a staggering attention span on the listener's part.