When you listen to stoner rock
and doom metal
, it's only a matter of time, after worshipping Candlemass
and holding Bongzilla
in until your lungs ache, before you will hear about Sleep
. This legendary trio consisted of Al Cisneros, Chris Hakius, and Matt Pike on vocals/bass, drums, and guitar respectively. Together they recorded four albums, though technically the third one, Jerusalem
, was an edited version of the fourth that was originally released as a bootleg
because their new label wouldn't release it. This was in 1999. The reason for the disagreement was that the album was, simply, a single 63-minute song. That was Dopesmoker. The band reluctantly cut the song down to 52 minutes, but London Records wouldn't have it. Jerusalem eventually got released as a bootleg, in its 52-minute form, and then later was released officially by the label The Music Cartel.
So Dopesmoker was out there, epic and earthshaking, albeit truncated. It seemed silly that a 63-minute song could gain any more accessibility at a slightly more reasonable 52 minutes. It just didn't make sense, and the 11 minutes barely made a difference in the song anyway. The band was unhappy with the way things had turned out, but for four years nothing was done. Then in 2003, Tee Pee records set everything right.
Dopesmoker was released as a gatefold LP, with the uncompromising full-length title track spanning the first three sides, and a second track on the fourth side, a live recording called Sonic Titan. Opening the gatefold, you encounter the following message:
- Thanks to the Almighty and the Son -
Dopesmoker is an alternate version of Jerusalem
that we felt our fans would 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.
A misnomer Dopesmoker is not. To say Dopesmoker caters to the stoner crowd
would be an understatement. The Iommi-like
opening riff, repeated ponderously for eight minutes until the drums and then the words come in, takes some 30 seconds or so to spit out about twelve notes, mostly the same one. The album is heavy, and when building something heavy you have to lay a strong foundation. Most of the riffs are centered around one omnipresent sound, which you will forever recognize as "the Dopesmoker Sound," if only because you've heard it for an hour straight. There is only so much mileage you can get from one riff though (SUNN 0)))
would argue that), so many times over the journey Matt Pike and his guitar will wander off the beaten path, contributing wild solos that last in excess of five minutes. These solos are longer than most songs, and yet in the twisted world of Sleep, that length of time is negligible.
Then there are the lyrics, recounting some bizarre, epic, quasi-Judaic trek across a desert in a world where everything is about weed. The first lines of the song are "drop out of life with bong in hand. Follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land." (Reading that, are you imagining each sentence to take at least twelve seconds to say? No? You're doing it wrong.) And it doesn't stop there. There are references to "weed priests," "hemp seed caravans," and something called a "Smoke Covenant." It's strange and campy, but when you make a Sabbath-inspired song that extends past an hour and sounds like it's capable of cracking the firmament, your hands are pretty much tied concerning subject matter. The mission to make every line about marijuana makes sense to me. On one hand it's saying "we like smoking pot," and on the other, it's so over-the-top that any chance they were being serious is out the window. By creating an alternate dimension where weed is everything, they are poking fun at the stereotype of the pothead who already believes that. It's a wonderful, self-deprecating fantasy world.
While generally regarded as a doom masterpiece alongside such albums as Epicus Doomicus Metallicus and Black Sabbath's self-titled debut, it has garnered its share of criticism. One of the more common perceived problems is Cisneros' vocals, and I'd have to agree that they are off-putting. Going along with the style and pace of the album, the vocals drone on in the same low, dull tone from beginning to end. It is reminiscent of monks chanting "om" for extended periods of time; indeed it seems to be the exact pitch as the one so often used in chant. Perhaps this was done intentionally to promote a thick, drowsy atmosphere, but for many people it was simply annoying. I would estimate that less than 8% of the song is actually accompanied by vocals, so they really don't affect much overall.
Another problem, probably the first problem that arose (and certainly the biggest), was that it was too long. This actually prevented it from being made, but as it turns out, fans of doom metal like long, slow, heavy songs. Who knew? I'm very surprised this was an issue. The executives of London Records had obviously never listened to Earth 2, a 73-minute album with three songs, no vocals, barely any drums, and the darkest, heaviest, stretched-out riffs ever written.
A third issue I have heard is that it's too boring. I can certainly understand that one, but everyone has different tastes. People who listen to drone or noise would be able to find the variety of sounds in Dopesmoker overwhelming. Sure, after Side A you're going to have a low C chord cemented deep in your ear canal from the pounding repetition, but that's why I listen to it. I want to have sounds drilled into my head. The deeper the hole being dug, the more immersed I become. As with many icons of stoner culture, the average straight will not understand the significance or appeal of Dopesmoker, but it will continue to be spun, in solemn ritual for some, and regarded as an epic of Homeric proportions. So get high, crank it up, and listen with open ears and mind.
Dopesmoker - Sleep - 2003 - Tee Pee Records