In or out of metal’s seedy musical ghetto, there are few records as epically conceived or grandly ambitious as Sleep’s Dopesmoker. A single-track, hour-plus song about weed composed over four years, it is an enduring curiosity that has been released and re-released several times in the past 13 years, on bootlegs and official albums. The first time was in 1999, with a cut-down, remixed version called Jerusalem that bastardized the record’s conceptual scale by shearing it into nine separate tracks. Then in 2003, Tee Pee Records released a version of Dopesmoker that Sleep bassist-vocalist Al Cisneros faintly hailed as being the “closest” to the song the band originally conceived. Now Southern Lord Records has procured the original studio masters and prepped another authorized release heralded as “a true representation of Sleep’s hour-long Weedian chronicle.”
Formed in 1990 in San Jose, Sleep made a name for itself in the revivalist doom metal scene, playing slow, thick, and most of all heavy riff-driven metal indebted to acts like Candlemass, Trouble, Saint Vitus, and of course, Black Sabbath. Against the cresting, major-label popularity of fast, shredding thrash metal, Sleep’s plodding numbers were a return to genre’s brooding, apocalyptic origins. The band’s 1991 debut, Volume One, remains a solid, fairly straightforward doom metal effort that’s maybe too directly indebted to its spiritual forbearers. Guitarist Justin Marler then left the band to become an Orthodox monk, further stoking the quasi-spiritual stoner mystique encircling the band.
Cisneros, drummer Chris Hakius, and remaining guitarist Matt Pike regrouped as a three-piece, cut their follow-up, 1992’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain, and effectively invented modern stoner metal. Where fellow West Coast stoner pioneers Kyuss played a nippier, grungier kind of hard rock (usually called “desert rock”), Sleep kept things sluggish, steeping their record in the bleary-eyed languor of pot smoking itself. “Stoner caravan from deep space arrives,” Cisneros moans on “From Beyond.” Sleep was that caravan. With Holy Mountain, the band landed like interplanetary scions from some gaseous, dope-smoky stone wobbling on the edge of another galaxy.
Released by U.K.-based Earache Records—better known for the sorts of extreme metal and grindcore acts Sleep defined itself against—Holy Mountain was a hit. The band signed with London Records (once home to the Rolling Stones and, er, Ace Of Base) and began recording what would become Dopesmoker in 1996.
It was later rumored that Sleep rushed it out as one long, unbroken jam in order to fulfill its contract, but this is unsubstantiated. Dopesmoker isn’t some modern, high-concept prank. It’s not Heavy Metal Machine Music. The song had been gestating in rehearsals and sound-checks for years. But releasing an uninterrupted hour-long recording, as opposed to the next Holy Mountain, led to quarrels with the label. This plus the stress of developing, practicing, and recording the song eventually led to Sleep’s breakup. Pike would go on to mint the influential sludge act High On Fire, while Cisneros and Hakius would indulge their more sprawling, experimental tendencies with Om.
All this drama—the tension between Sleep and London Records, the stress on the band itself—feels like it’s being worked through on Dopesmoker. It sounds like a band that has reached its end. Sleep’s obsession with rock’s essential component, the riff, reaches a point of near-religious devotion. Riffs typically give shape to a song, offering a simple melodic musical phrase that functions as its scaffolding. Sleep tests the hardiness of this scaffolding, repeating a simple riff over and over (and over and over) like a mantra, until it finally becomes transcendent. The result is mesmerizing.
In a way, what Sleep accomplishes with Dopesmoker isn’t so unique. It’s akin to what Brian Eno and Robert Fripp and other post-pop progressives tried to do with their so-called “furniture music.” This is an album of atmosphere. It works not only to fill space, but to shape it. Dopesmoker creates an aural texture, like a deep pile wall-to-wall shag carpet that reeks of spilled bong water.
Getting to the core of Dopesmoker is like getting the core of an idea. That all these different versions of it exist, circulating through record stores, bootleg tape circuits, and file-sharing websites is part of its appeal. It is always unfinished, as if its ponderous riffs are consecrating some greater mystical cause, some numinous higher power. It’s like there’s some larger concept of the album that exists out there beyond the pale of the recording itself. “We tried to stop the song and it just felt awkward,” says Cisneros in the 2008 documentary Such Hawks Such Hounds. Even at one hour, three minutes, and 32 seconds Dopesmoker somehow feels clipped, like it go on forever, spinning into the cosmos.
At a time when metal was caught in a post-thrash race-to-the-bottom, with bands slapping on corpse paint and spike-studded belts to grind out the most “extreme” articulations of the genre, Sleep had the nerve, the inclination, and most of all the patience to play things slow and steady. Dopesmoker took a whole genre to its apocalyptic endpoint. It’s an album of endless pleasures, and its arcane, foggy-headed mysteries never stop revealing themselves.