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Friday, March 4, 2011

Flashback Friday - Sleep

I have to be honest, my inspiration for this week's Flashback Friday came while listening to Tia Carrera's latest opus Cosmic Priestess which I recently reviewed here on Heavy Planet. You see, that album has an epic stoner rock jam called "Satellite Missile Battery" that clocks in at over thirty minutes in length. That got me thinking about other ridiculously long songs and experiments with song combinations…like Kyuss' Welcome to Sky Valley, which was originally released with all ten songs lumped into three tracks, a strategy intended to force listeners into experiencing the full "album", not skipping only to their favorite songs. This of course led my thought process to possibly the most famous "extended" song concept of all…Sleep's Dopesmoker. But now I'm getting ahead of myself, so let me start at the beginning…

Believe it or not, San Jose, California's Sleep started as a trio that did not include Matt Pike (who we all know and love now as the vocalist/guitarist of seminal doom lords, High on Fire). Around 1990, the band went by the moniker Asbestosdeath (yikes!) and consisted of Al Cisneros on bass, Chris Hakius on drums and a guy named Tom Choi on guitar. Pike would eventually join as the band's second guitarist and Choi would move on to pursue other musical ventures. Upon replacing Choi with Justin Marler on guitar, the band decided to change their name to Sleep.

In 1991, Sleep released their debut album, appropriately titled Volume One. The sound on this record was a far cry from the legendary doom metal for which these guys would eventually become famous. It featured indecipherably screamed vocals courtesy of Cisneros and production that could best be described as…well…shitty. Marler subsequently quit the band (to become, of all things, an orthodox monk…look it up) forcing them to soldier on as a three piece. An EP called Volume Two was quickly released in 1992, featuring a live cover of Sabbath's "Lord of this World" in addition to two original tracks. Unbeknownst to fans at the time, that Sabbath cover would be a significant sign of things to come for Sleep, as their next studio album would see a huge shift towards the retro, groove heavy sound that would ultimately become their calling card.

Sleep immediately returned to the studio to record the proper followup to their debut, this time with producer Billy Anderson, who would become legendary in his own right for his work on albums by a virtual who's who in stoner, doom and noise rock…Cathedral, Neurosis and Pike's latest outfit, High on Fire, just to name a few. The result of these sessions was the classic 1993 album Sleep's Holy Mountain, which impressed Earache Records so much, they released the demo without any re-recording or re-mixing whatsoever. This album cemented Sleep (along with Kyuss who had released their amazing album Blues for the Red Sun just a year before) as one of the cornerstones of stoner rock. It saw the band delve into extensive improvisation featuring a sort of heavy blues sound with plodding riffs, echoed vocal effects and a whole lot of fuzz. The album was messy, it was slow and it was heavy as fuck.

On the heels of Sleep's Holy Mountain, major label London Records stepped in and quickly snatched up Sleep in hopes that they'd found something altogether new and different in the world of heavy rock. In fact those hopes would prove to be fatally true for the band. Sleep entered the studio yet again to record their third full length album and fueled by a love of all things heavy and a shit ton of weed, they emerged in 1995 with possibly the biggest "fuck you" ever to be presented to a major label. Dopesmoker was an epic slab of doom metal, but instead of 10 or 12 snippets of retro-Sabbath styled goodness, the band had hit record on their jam sessions and produced a 73 minute non-stop tour-de-force of doom. Needless to say, London Records was not pleased and as a result, refused to release the album.

The ensuing battle with the record company ultimately spelled the end of Sleep. A trimmed down, 52 minute version of Dopesmoker titled Jerusalem was eventually released by Rise Above Records in 1999, but by then the damage was done and the band was no more. Financial troubles and general frustration with their lack of artistic freedom (which coincidentally had been promised by London Records at the time of the band's signing) were to blame. Cisneros and Hakius would go on to form Om, an experimental drum and bass duo. Pike of course would resurface in 1998 as the vocalist/guitarist of the blistering stoner metal trio High on Fire.

As an epilogue to this story, I should add that the original version of Dopesmoker (total running time 73 minutes) was eventually released by Tee Pee Records in its entirety in 2003. As with a lot of music in the stoner/doom genre, it is an amazing listen requiring a patient (or stoned) ear. In addition, the band reunited in 2009/2010 to play a festival in the UK and a string of dates in the US (with Jason Roeder of Neurosis on drums). I'm sure a great deal of the Heavy Planet faithful are already well aware of the influence this band had on the genre we all hold dear…but for those of you who aren't…it's time to get caught up on your Sleep.

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