Stone age drop out

Pub date September 7, 2010

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.

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)

Regency Ballroom

1290 Sutter, SF