I’ve gotten stoned just a handful of times in my life. Weed was never really my jam, honestly. There was maybe two times that it clicked for me, and one of those times was getting high in my cousin’s Nova as we drove around the Amish countryside waxing ecstatic about Steely Dan. Besides that, most of the other experiences were filled with great paranoia. Not very fun, honestly.
Despite my hesitation with the herb, I’m still absolutely fascinated with the band Sleep. The California doom metal trio which consists of Matt Pike, Al Cisneros, and Jason Roeder(Chris Hakius was the drummer prior to 2010) are famous for the mammoth riffs, Sabbath worship, and their love of the herb. Their most well-known release is of course Dopesmoker, a 60+ minute song that took up three sides of a double LP. It’s just as famous for the history that came with the making of the song and all the different iterations that were released of it.
I first heard Dopesmoker in 2013 after the album was reissued by Southern Lord Recordings in a remastered form, complete with amazing new artwork. Though I wasn’t much on toking up, there was something about what these three cats did that I just locked into. I think it’s doom metal in general, but Sleep were heavy, slow, and purposeful in their ear drum-splitting loudness.
Cisneros spoke authoritatively, as opposed to singing. His bass playing was tremendous, and his sound was thunderous and pummeling. Matt Pike’s riffs were like thick slabs of concrete; dense, weighty, and could be used as a weapon to bludgeon your enemy with. Chris Hakius’ drums were slow and trudging, but purposeful. And of course their tale of the Weedian people was so out there you sort of just fell into that world. It was a mixture of Dune, the Old Testament, and Cheech and Chong in outer space.
Despite the stoner fantasies, I found something deeper in there to enjoy. These three stoner heshers from Oakland transcended the heavy metal burnout thing. The first couple Sleep albums were indeed Black Sabbath worship and posturing by young, long-haired burnouts, but by the time Dopesmoker emerged Sleep had transcended their influences and had become purveyors of their own spaced-out sci fi stoner doom metal. I found something to lock into that wasn’t just getting high and tuning out. These three turned their doom metal into a true art form.
After Dopesmoker, while not breaking up, Sleep splintered off a bit. Matt Pike formed High On Fire while Cisneros and Hakius formed Om. Both became highly regarded projects on their own, but there was always rumblings of hope that Sleep would return. In 2014 the band did return, but with Jason Roeder on drums in place of Chris Hakius. Sleep released a single for the Adult Swim single series called “The Clarity”. To my ears it was a bit of a revelation. Years apart in different projects proved to be healthy for the band, as this was a new and enlightened Sleep. The song felt tighter and more focused, while still retaining the strength of a lumbering woolly mammoth in some dystopian landscape.
Then in 2018 Sleep dropped a brand new album, their first in nearly 20 years. The Sciences was a a brilliant record. It was grooves piled upon chugging riffs on top of THC-informed tales. And within a month or two the band released another Adult Swim single called “Leagues Beneath”. Yet another slab of hazy doom and slow-churning, Sabbath-inspired metal.
Recently Third Man Records put out a double LP with brand new artwork that included both “The Clarity” and “Leagues Beneath” together. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of their limited release and have been spinning it on the regular, while getting lost in the exquisite album art illustration that’s part dystopian graphic novel and part Mobius acid freak out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is about this stoner doom metal band that hits with me so deeply, and I think it’s that same element that I find in jazz and fusion music. That element of improvisation and taking your time getting to some kind of destination. Sleep possess that spirit of exploration that I locked in with in albums like Miles’ Bitches Brew, John Coltrane’s Ascension, Herbie Hancock’s Sextant and Mwandishi, and Freddie Hubbard’s Straight Life. I’m sure like Sleep, there was some elements of mind-altering drugs or hazy cocktails going on, but it wasn’t enough to cloud the artistic achievements. They were used more as a portal; a wormhole to a place of creativity. I’m not saying drugs are good or bad. I’m just saying in these instances minds were opened and something great emerged.
Sleep indulge. Really, really indulge. But it seems to work for their creative process. I’ve heard some THC-influenced records that sound like rambling, incoherent jams performed by middle school novices. It does not always work. But when it does, you end up with albums like Are You Experienced?, Rubber Soul, Wildflowers, most of The Grateful Dead’s output, and of course Dopesmoker, “The Clarity”, The Sciences, and “Leagues Beneath”.
I’m not saying that if pot is legalized in my state that I won’t indulge in it. Maybe if the cloud of marijuana criminalization is lifted I might be able to relax a bit more and enjoy it. But for now I’m pretty okay with enjoying a nice, dank high ABV IPA and dropping the needle on some THC-soaked vinyl. Something like Sleep’s The Sciences, or “The Clarity”. Or “Leagues Beneath.”