THE RETURN OF SLEEP
Southern Lord’s physical release of The Clarity marks the start of some proper Sleep activity this year, so what better prep for rock’s heaviest slumber than a nod or ten to the unstoppable Dopesmoker? This review was first written for Julian Cope’s Head Heritage Unsung back in 2004 so the time references are a bit out now, but that don’t matter … it still stands true, the bong remains the same.
Now spreading its hefty gut over 3 sides of vinyl is the fully restored, who-ate-all-the-pies mix of Dopesmoker, the last album by cult doom/stoner trio Sleep.
Although the tale of its original recording and subsequent non-release has long since passed into underground lore, it deserves a hazy recap.
As the follow-up to Sleep’s Holy Mountain from 1993, this was supposed to be the band’s third full-length release. After spending a couple of years on the record, Sleep eventually dished up the mouldy fruits of their hard-smoked labours to London Records: a single track clocking in at over an hour. That, in itself, might not have been a problem (for the label) had their been some light and shade, some variety or even, dare we say it, a recognisable concept… but no. This is Sleep – the really deep, molten-eyelids stuff that’s just a stoner’s throw from Coma Tose Island. And that means one riff (pretty much) equals one song equals one hour, the simplest equation in the history of rock. Didn’t add up for the label, though. They refused to release it, Sleep refused to change it and a deadlock ensued; the threesome split and the album remained on the shelf, cementing Sleep’s legendary status. Rise Above did manage to put out a shortened version called Jerusalem but, finally, in 2003, Tee Pee Records did the honours. Here’s what the sleeve notes say:
“Dopesmoker is an alternate version of Jersualem that we felt our fans might enjoy. This early version, as yet unheard, contains a more dynamic recording and a heavier mix. So get high, crank it up and listen with open ears and mind…”
So… let’s get started, eh?
Well, nearly. Dopesmoker almost doesn’t start at all. Beginning with a slow, arthritic guitar line that just about musters the energy to lumber out of bed, it sounds a wee bit lost, trying to work out where it should go and which path to follow. Once the rolling percussion kicks in, however, a massive revelation comes to pass: “Fuck it. I AM the path.” And from thereon, there are no questions – you go with it, or you don’t: The Riff has been set free, swaggering ahead with all the ludicrous brilliance of a hundred-mile tractor ride, and that is what sucks you into the vinyl… the compelling absurdity of an hour-long opus that warps the fabric of time itself. Never mind Superman flying the opposite way around the planet – too many rotations of this platter and the world would stop for good. Aside from the occasional solo, lyrical interlude or brief excursion into more subtle terrain, Dopesmoker just keeps going… and going …and going. Not in an interminable, ultra doom slo-mo sense because Chris Hakius’ busy drum fills give it urgency, or at least the illusion of urgency. Nope, this obstinate mass of Sabbath-inspired heaviosity is an exercise in endurance, momentum and constancy. Even when the needle nears the very end of its marathon run, there is no cornball climax or pyrotechnic finale, just a soft fadeout which suggests the Sleep guys could have carried on for another couple of earthly rotations. In fact, they probably did. I like to think so.
But there’s more to this album than one gargantuan ode to weed. Closing the record on side four is Sonic Titan, a live track with a groove so loose it almost shits itself, guitar strings flapping like flares in a force 10. Doom garage, anyone? At 9 minutes, it’s a mere slip of a toon.
Stubborn? Stupendous? Absolutely, but the sublimely ridiculous never went down this well. If thick guitars, repetition and maximum mileage are your bag, succumb to the temptation of Sleep. Your body needs it.