Sleep is a hard sell.
This is a band whose magnum opus is the 63-minute masterpiece Dopesmoker, a sprawling symphonic paean to marijuana whose first lyrics, dropping more than 8 minutes into the song, are “Drop out of life with bong in hand / follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land.”
If that description makes you roll your eyes, you’re not alone. Sleep isn’t a band you get after a casual listen.
But Dopesmoker, and the band’s earlier albums, Sleep’s Holy Mountain and Volume 1, have ascended to legendary status in the realms of heavy stoner metal. They have inspired countless imitators and progeny of bands tuning down, turning up, and dropping out into a smoke-filled abyss of doom riffs and bass.
At the Van Buren on June 9, the band’s magnetism was on full display, as black-clad metalheads hooked into the mysticism the band offered.
Stoner metal is slower than most metal. It’s also more physical. The genre is best experienced at high volumes with high-end equipment capable of reproducing the deep, earthshaking growls and snarls of the guitars. The sound needs to envelop you. It needs to penetrate to your bones for maximum effect.
Sleep spared no expense in bringing its legendary tone to the stage — this is the band that famously spent most of its $70,000 advance for Dopesmoker on amps, weed, and studio time. Sleep took enough amps to power an arena tour to the 1,800-capacity Van Buren.
Spiritual journeys are a recurring theme in Sleep’s music, and before the band took the stage, recordings of NASA mission control came on through the loudspeakers. Then the band blasted the heavy opening notes of “Marijuananaut’s Theme,” a song from the new record that manages to simultaneously be groovy, and heavy, and loud, with lyrics mentioning the “hashteroid field” and the “Iommosphere,” a tribute to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.
The band continued with “Holy Mountain,” written in 1991, and proceeded triumphantly into “The Clarity,” a single released in 2009. Riffs dropped like anvils into the crowd. The next song, “Sonic Titan,” has a main riff that is half-heartbeat, half-earthquake played over a time signature that sounds ripped from a DMT trip. All four songs, written over a span of decades, felt like the extension of a single idea honed and developed through years of playing together. Maybe it’s the mind-numbing volume that bludgeons you into submission, and straps you into the passenger seat as the musical journey continues.
There is a funny oxymoron at the heart of Sleep’s music. You can picture a long-haired dropout giggling when thinking about how to work “CBDeacon” into a lyric. Yet weed and Sabbath puns (see: The Science’s “Giza Butler,” named after bassist Geezer Butler) and songs about psychedelic, marijuana-driven sojourns bely a methodical and disciplined approach to music. Sleep worked on Dopesmoker for four years, after all. It takes an incredibly singular focus to push an idea as ambitious as a 60-minute metal song into fruition. Few bands (well, just one, so far) can germinate and nurture a project like that.
And the band held together a plodding, high-gravity groove for two hours at the Van Buren. An impressive, workmanlike display of dedication to a musical ethos.
On April 20, that holiest of stoner holidays, Sleep released The Sciences, its first album in nearly two decades. The album didn’t just cement the band’s legacy, but expanded on it. In the interim between albums, its members had kept busy honing their crafts and sharpening their riff-writing skills. Bassist/singer Al Cisneros released six albums and one five-hour-long concert recorded in Jerusalem, and guitarist Matt Pike released seven albums with the more aggressive stoner metal outfit High on Fire. The Sciences wasn’t a cheap attempt to cash-in on the band’s legacy, but rather a confident return to form. It’s an assertion that Sleep and Sleep alone know how to best push the boundaries of the genre it pioneered.
The band strode through the rest of its setlist without hardly speaking a word to the audience, giving the music the spotlight. Each song took you deeper into the band’s musical vortex, as the band spun weedian tales and pummeled the audience with sound. As the show neared its end, the band walked off stage, letting their guitars echo feedback into the air until all that was left was a whisper of distortion. They came back on stage and launched into “Dragonaut,” probably the closest thing Sleep has to a single. They finished the night by playing a cut from Dopesmoker.
When the concert ended, it felt like awakening from a dream. Time resumed as normal. The journey ended. And Sleep solidified itself as masters of their craft — translating the internal journey of a marijuana high into unforgettable riffs and songs.
Saturday Night: Sleep at the Van Buren.
The Crowd: Metal shows make for the best people watching. Old heads and young kids all turned for this one, wearing band shirts from all eras.
Personal Bias: I don’t smoke weed anymore, but listening to Sleep makes me feel stoned.
Random Notebook Dump: Al Cisneros looks like Gandalf, if the wizard had told Middle Earth to fuck off when he was 20 and moved to California to start a stoner metal band.