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Album Feature: Sleep's Magnum Opus 'Dopesmoker'

Album Feature: Sleep's Magnum Opus 'Dopesmoker'

Kerry Buchanan / Tuesday 28th November, 2017 12:40PM

With stoner-doom pioneers Sleep finally headed our way for the first time in January, Kerry Buchanan of Southbound Records takes a look back at their seminal album 'Dopesmoker'... 


Great art gestates from periods of dark and difficult machinations, during which the makers become deviated and alienated from their own product. This, indeed happened to the trio named Sleep, consisting of Matt Pike (guitar), Chris Hakius (drums) and the visionary Al Cisneros (bass and vocals). Certainly, they cannot be described as prolific, having only two albums: 1991’s Volume One and 1993’s Holy Mountain (with thematic similarity to Jodorowsky’s surreal movie masterpiece of 1973) before recording their magnum opus, the dense molten edifice that is Dopesmoker. The band spent years playing it live, honing and sculpturing their vision. It was only when it came to the recording and releasing it that things fell apart.

When faced with this monolithic slab of sonic architecture, the original record company reacted with a combination of fear and a disingenuous lack of understanding and respect. By 2009, there existed four differing versions: a promotional disc, an unauthorised and heavily-edited 52 min version on Rise Above Records entitled Jerusalem, another edited version on Tee Pee Records, and out-and-out third-generation bootlegs — all of them lacking quality of sound and presentation.

Thankfully, in 2012 Southern Lord Records released a version that Sleep was in agreement with. The audio is clean and clear, with the running time of 1:03:34 secs taking up three sides of vinyl. Lovingly encased in a sturdy double cover, and illustrated with new artwork from Arik Roper reflecting the inner subject matter of Dopesmoker, featuring a sun-drenched sandy vista with the 'stoner caravan' of 'weed-priests'…

When listened to in its entirety, it is indeed an extraordinary work. Moving beyond the expected descriptions of 'stoner rock', the generic terms ‘heavy’ and ‘metal’ do not do Dopesmoker any justice. The sound — both mediative and jarring, is akin to a river in a storm; swirling and forever moving. At first, it seems solid and monolithic, a flat surface of noise. But, like similar sonic experiments (the work of abstract minimalists like Philip Glass and John Adams are perhaps better forms than 'metal' to compare with), the work evolves slowly and carefully. As time signatures shift from 4/4 to 6/8, guitars (recorded three times over) grind and glide, moving from blues to the avant-garde.

The lyrics are imagined epic poetry, and almost certainly of a Biblical nature: the narrative is of travel, with nomads (“weedians” and “weed priests”) “carrying the freedom seed”, a “chronicle of sinsemillian” onward to “sacred Israel, holy mountain Zion”.

Despite the reclusive desire and call to “drop out of life with bong in hand”, the narrative is one of positivity and action; and ritualised, sacred visions. The hypnotic simplicity opens up to a more complex and rewarding vistas. This is the ultimate version; finally what the band wanted you to hear after all their tribulations and false-starts. “Stoner-rock” it may well be, but with repeated listens, it becomes so much else!

You can listen to a stream of 'Dopesmoker' below and the Southern Lord double-gatefold vinyl is currently available over at Southbound Records if you want to grab a copy before the shows... 


Sleep's Auckland show has unfortunately sold out but there are still a handful of tickets left for Wellington at the time of this post - see below for details. 

 


Links
southbound.co.nz/shop

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