Sleep is back, creating vast and mysterious sonic worlds-without-end
None of the San Jose trio's albums reveal themselves on first listen; nor is Sleep's catalogue by any means "feel good music." Sleep purveys dark, unsettling grooves; its music ruins your buzz. Consider "Holy Mountain," where Cisneros' chant-vocal — like a Gregorian monk after a particularly harsh bong rip — approximates the desolate textures of his "earth drenched in black," while Pike's insistent riff (here anticipating High on Fire, perhaps) circles back in on itself like it's spiraling toward the menacing "ohm" that distends across the mix of the titular track. This is heavy metal warped and skewed; an exercise in bad vibes that pulverizes thought in the same way that ultrasonic waves are used to crush kidney stones.
I can't recall the specifics of picking up my copy of Sleep's Holy Mountain, but what I do remember is hearing Matt Pike's opening lick on "Dragonaut," and the ensuing maelstrom of psychedelic electricity — maze-like and abstract, like the interlocking web of shapes on the album cover, only suffused with dripping, inexpressible colors. This is perhaps why Sleep's sound has always been infinitely more compelling to me than feel-good psychedelia. Of all the bands to engage in the doom tradition, Sleep makes the increasingly relevant (sub)genre entirely its own. Familiar Sabbathisms — pentatonic bass grooves, monolithic power chords, a savvy manipulation of the lexicon of the blues — become building blocks within a phantasmal landscape of drones and echoes.
I also can't help but feel that, as natives, Sleep has created a sound that forever superimposes itself over the Bay Area, so that cityscape surroundings, such as an ivy-choked chain-link fence or the cavernous opening of a BART tunnel (which doesn't extend to their San Jose home) take on a weird, fantastical dimension, oscillating between solid matter and buzzing amplifier fuzz like the weird nebulas that seem to obsess Cisneros.
The way I hear music has been informed by Sleep since I first heard Sleep's Holy Mountain in high school. Seventeen years after the album's initial release, it still manages to yield stretches of unexplored musical terrain, as if it has been reproducing via osmosis while we were away. Like the elite cadre of spacey predecessors to the Great Drone, Sleep uses metal as a kind of vehicle for processing experience through rhythms and patterns, abstract tones and intricate layers of sound synching up with surroundings (like that Wizard of Oz/Pink Floyd thing you tried when you were 16, but in this case it actually works.)
The underlying genius of Sleep is the way the band manages to diffuse the atomic foundations of its monolithic riffs throughout entire albums and into a sprawling, seemingly endless landscape, a sonic cartography that — like a good Lovecraft yarn — perpetually expands past the next horizon point. The shape-shifting resonances of a decaying power-chord or bass fill flesh out the contours of an interminable sonic desert, a labyrinth of sound we find ourselves compelled to reexplore ad infinitum. "Drop out of life" are the first words we hear Cisneros chant on Dopesmoker.
Sun/12–Mon/13, 8 p.m.; $23–$25
With Thrones (Sun/12) and Saviours (Mon/13)
1290 Sutter, SF