Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October 20: Sleep, "Dopesmoker"

Artist: Sleep
Album: Dopesmoker
Year: 1994 (recorded), 2003 (released)
Label: Tee Pee

Most of the time, when metal bands attempt the "symphonic" approach to their music, it leads to them having full orchestras and ending up looking like completely pompous idiots. This is mostly due to the fact that such bands have lost sight in the fact that the true brilliance of this style of metal is the fact that the classical form is being fused into the metal sound, and in many ways, it has absolutely nothing to do with the "formal" sense of the word symphonic. Understanding this fundamental truth, and creating some of the most phenomenal metal symphonies in history, California doom-metal legends, Sleep, remain one of, if not the greatest artists that the genre has ever heard. The fact that they were creating such sounds in the early 1990's, long before heavy metal had its commercial resurgence, solidifies the fact that, along with being fantastic musicians, Sleep were true musical pioneers as well. Taking heavy influence from the early metal-psychedelic sound of Black Sabbath, it is the extraordinary "wall of sound" approach of Sleep that had massive influence on bands like Om, Sunn O))), Boris, and Dozer. With a pair of full length records, and an EP to their name, it is Sleep's final album, as well as the mystique behind it that stand as their finest work. Though it was recorded as a follow-up to 1993's Holy Mountain, Sleep's final release would not see the light of day for more than a decade, yet the album in question, 2003's Dopesmoker, stands as one of the most stunning and truly unparalleled musical efforts in history.

The story of how Dopesmoker came to be released, nearly a decade after it had been completed is easily one of the most fascinating stories in music history. After their first two albums had earned them a solid following on both sides of the Atlantic, Sleep took two years of writing and recording and delivered to their album an album supposedly entitled Jerusalem. The album, which consisted of a single, sixty minute track, was completely rejected by the label, who demanded that the song be split into a number of shorter, separate tracks. Refusing to compromise their musical vision, Sleep walked away from their label, and the epic song in question never saw the light of day. Years later, after Sleep broke up (without any more albums having been released), a small label in the U.S. worked to have the now mythical track released. With the bands' tacit permission, Jerusalem was finally released in 1999...as a shortened album split into six tracks. Clocking in at fifty-two minutes, and having noticeable sonic splits, Jerusalem was a massive let down for both the bands and fans alike. The mix on Jerusalem is also brighter, and the song loses its flow and much of it's "trudge." Finally, in 2003, more than a decade after the initial recording, independent label Tee Pee Records released the sixty minute masterpiece "Dopesmoker," not only in its entirety, but with a fresh production mix done by metal master, Billy Anderson. Also, Tee Pee Records added a bouns fo fans, including a stunnign live recording of the bands' song, "Sonic Titan."

Clocking in at sixty-three minutes and thirty-two seconds, there is quite literally nothing else every recorded that can be used as comparison to "Dopesmoker." The song title perfectly captures the bands' musical approach, as well as solidifying their spot as "stoner metal" kings. The song itself is a jaw-dropping, trudging musical journey, the likes of which have never been heard, and yet even for non-metal fans, it is a truly mesmerizing musical experience. With five or six distinctive sections of the song (depending on how you justify a beginning and end), the song is clearly a single piece, and the various sections would sound strange as single pieces, as was evidenced in the Jerusalem release. Creating massive hills and valleys within the music, "Dopesmoker" also varies throughout in the mood and tone of the instrumentation. From powerful, crushing chords to more melodic, softer passages, there are few bands of any genre who can play such varied styles anywhere in their catalog, let alone within a single song. Furthermore, "Dopesmoker" is very much a song that gets better and better with additional listenings, as each time one experiences the majesty of the song, new aspects and smaller nuances are revealed. The fact that, over the hour of music, the song never becomes uninteresting is a testament not only to the amazing composition of the song, but also to the stellar musicianship of Sleep's three band members.

After experiencing Dopesmoker it is almost unfathomable to learn that the massive wall of sound that comprises the title song was created by only three musicians. Whether taking brilliant, winding solos, or playing punishing, powerful chords, guitarist Matt Pike is absolutely phenomenal throughout the song. In what can be argued as the single most awe-inspiring performance in music history, drummer Chris Hakius plays with loads of force and power, and he does not stop for the entire run of the song. Such endurance is nothing short of mind-blowing, and this feat remains truly unrivaled throughout music history. Rounding out the band, and creating the trademark "trudge" that dominates "Dopesmoker," bassist Al Cisneros is nothing short of stunning throughout the track. Finding the ideal balance between melody, and an unrelenting, pulverizing tone, Cisneros delivers an extraordinary performance on bass, as well as providing the vocals on the song. While the are vocals scattered throughout the hour long musical masterpiece, they are quite secondary to the music itself. The lyrics themselves are largely mythical in nature, speaking of caravans crossing the desert, as well as strange references to the "Weed Priests." As the song progresses, the lyrics turn far more to marijuana related, almost religious phrasing, and it is fitting in many ways, as "Dopesmoker" is most certainly a religious experience.

Serving as a true benchmark, by which all heavy metal, and more specifically, "stoner metal" is to be judged, Sleep's magnum opus, "Dopesmoker" is a song that has no equal anywhere in music history. While it took the better part of a decade for the song to finally be released in the proper manner, the wait was well worth it, as "Dopesmoker" is by far, one of the greatest musical achievements in history. Taking the idea of creating metal masterpieces, with movements similar to those found in classical symphonies, Sleep were innovating this new approach years before it would come into style. Furthermore, though many bands after them took on a similar musical approach, few of these bands have been able to come even remotely close to Sleep in terms of composition or musicianship. Though the live track found on Dopesmoker is nothing to pass off, the fact of the matter is, the title track is so imposing and staggering, that it overshadows everything else associated with the album. With their own influences, Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus being the most obvious, clearly on display, Sleep completely re-wrote everything about music with their hour long musical epic, released on the truly unmatched and breathtaking 2003 release, Dopesmoker.

Standout tracks: "Dopesmoker" and "Sonic Titan."


Rory said...

Good timing! The release of the self-titled "Shrinebuilder" does make me want to revisit its roots. I'm a huge fan of Sleep.

-cja said...

i have the 'bootleg' version (with the Arik Roper artwork) as well as the Tee Pee version on vinyl and prefer the bootleg version more.

i may have misread what you wrote, but the 'bootleg' version, despite the track being split 6 ways, plays seamless. i've never heard the TMC version which may have pauses between the tracks(?), but i've never noticed any 'noticeable sonic splits.'

but you're right... there's nothing that could ever compare to what Sleep created with this album. it's untouchable. despite having listened to it well over 100 times, it's never grown old nor boring. in fact, it was the only thing i played during my 3hr late nite drives between DC and NJ.

anyway, nice post!