Stoner metal trailblazers Sleep were intoxicating at Danforth Music Hall


SLEEP at the Danforth Music Hall, Monday, July 30. Rating: NNNN

“Do you still have that joint?” an irate, at-his-wits-end bouncer asks a tiny, older guy in a t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts, long hair thinning around the crown of his head, skullet-style. “No!” the guy snaps back. “I already smoked it.” 

And that’s that. He’s stamped and admitted, and he gets lost in the teeming masses of mostly white men gathered at the Danforth Music Hall to see Sleep – arguably the biggest name in weed-worshipping stoner metal, a band whose idolatry of marijuana defines their aesthetic, their heavy-as-hell sonic explorations, their shaggy cult of personality. 

As for the stressed-out bouncer? He and his colleagues have their work cut out of for them. Monitoring the ebb and flow of marijuana into a Sleep show feels about as pointless as checking for goofy pants at a golf tournament. Weed is the reason for the season. It’s the tie that binds. It’s the dank, sticky-icky into which all differences of class and taste and musical subculture dissolve.

Formed in San Jose in 1990, the band dug into super-heavy, vaguely sludgy sounds of seminal doom bands like St. Vitus and Trouble on their 1991 debut album. It’s a largely unremarkable record (though I’ll go to bat for The Wall Of Yawn as a grade-A banger). It was 1992’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain that defined the group. With its leafy album art, references to a “new stoner sun,” and impossibly heavy, Iommi-inspired riffs, it provided a template for the emerging stoner metal scene and remains its definitive document (yes, even more than their infamous single-track stoner jam Dopesmoker). 

The band broke up around 1998. Bassists/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius formed the experimental metal band Om. Ever-shirtless guitarist Matt Pike went on to formidable sludge-thrash outfit High on Fire. A 2009 reunion saw Hakius (who left music to focus on family life) replaced by Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder. Given its members’ post-Sleep (or, in Roeder’s case, non-Sleep) pedigree, the reunited Sleep have the weird distinction of seeming like something of a supergroup after the fact.

This isn’t the only thing that makes Sleep singular. A high-profile 2012 reissue of Dopesmoker via Southern Lord saw write-ups in the A.V. Club, the New York Times and other mainstream publications that don’t normally pay much mind to the heavy metal underground. A 2014 single released via Cartoon Network/Xbox One-sponsored Adult Swim Singles Program further expanded their profile. By the time of this year’s surprise album The Sciences, their first full-length since 1992, Sleep’s legend ballooned like an aquamarine mushroom cloud. Their shows started drawing in the curious and the metal-ambivalent, anyone who felt compelled by the refrain of, “Dude, you gotta see Sleep.”

It’s hard to argue against. Even at this, my fifth show since they reunited, the band was in extraordinary form. Cisneros and Pike grooved in tune, the riffs thickening like layers of resin, as Roeder’s flailing drum lines weaved in and out. Playing behind walls of noise and thick blankets of stage fog, Sleep were hypnotic, entrancing anyone (stoned or otherwise) with the intoxicating power of the riff. Heads didn’t so much bang as nod, like the bodies of apostles supplicating at the altar of borderline-cartoonish heaviness. It’s the rare experience – often talked about in regards to Phish or Grateful Dead shows – in which a band feels so perfectly in tune that one might reasonably believe there’s something like magic at play.

Stalwarts and hardened headbangers may bristle at the comparisons to noodly jam bands. But they’re offered up in earnest and extend past clichés about the presumed drug use of their fans. Like the best of the good-time jam band set (or, like Neurosis, Earthless or other like-minded heavy metallers) Sleep’s appeal proceeds from their experimentation and their elongation – from their ability to take a musical idea to its sonic extreme. Theirs is a musical pocket universe, a sprawling microcosm contained within a single riff. 

And if you haven’t seen ‘em, well, dude… you gotta. | @johnsemley3000



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