Psych album of the week: Sleep’s Dopesmoker (1995)

Time becomes relative and you surrender to the experience, track markers and breaks in the music be damned

Dopesmoker

The Dopesmoker LP is one single song that clocks in at 63 minutes. An impasse with the band's label over how to release it prevented the album, recorded in 1995, from seeing the light of day until '99.

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San Jose, California, has given us the influential metal band Sleep. The year 1995 saw bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros, guitarist Matt Pike and drummer Chris Hakius record Dopesmoker, the follow-up to their seminal stoner metal album, 1992’s Holy Mountain.

Unfortunately for Sleep and fans of progressive, heavy music everywhere, London Records was seriously unimpressed with the band’s submission.  The Dopesmoker album was one single song that clocked in at 63 minutes.  The impasse over how to release this unconventional format prevented the album from seeing the light of day until 1999. It also pushed the band to disband until a 2009 reformation.

In the meantime, Cisneros and Hakius formed the band Om while Pike formed High On Fire. 

Sleep and their splinter groups all share the same sonic approach: detune the hell out your guitars, fire up all of your distortion pedals at once, and grind out filthy, hypnotic post-thrash metal. Imagine Rust Never Sleeps-era Neil Young guitar tones meeting slowed down Black Sabbath riffs. Add some guttural, death metal vocals on top and you have Sleep.

Press play and dive into Dopesmoker

So how do you approach 63 minutes of uninterrupted, stupefactive bludgeoning as a listener? Like any other concept album, just press play and dive right in. On “Dopesmoker” the guitars are gloriously gnarly throughout and the rhythm section absolutely hammers their way through the epic piece. The music ebbs and flows, with occasional lead guitar breaks that showcase Pike’s soloing sensibility. Again, think Neil Young rather than Randy Rhoads or Kirk Hammett. 

Tuning into an extra-long piece like “Dopesmoker” is no different to immersing yourself in a set of hypnotic electronic music or meditative chanting. Time becomes relative and you surrender to the experience, track markers and breaks in the music be damned. 

The lyrics, meanwhile, lead us on a pilgrimage through the desert. “Drop out of life with bong in hand/Follow the smoke toward the riff filled land.”   Along the way we meet the crimson-eyed cultures the “Weedian” and the “Hasheeshian”. The mission statement here is best encapsulated in the last line of the song “Onward caravan prepare new bong”. With that, what is left to say except “pack that bowl”? 

A cannabis-fueled odyssey

How does a band approach the recording of such an odyssey? It is said that Sleep was working on “Dopesmoker” for as long as four years before going into the studio. They continued to tinker with the arrangement even after they began recording. Early versions of the song were known as “Jerusalem” but as work progressed “Dopesmoker” became the final title. Unsurprisingly, the band was consuming large amounts of cannabis during the process (more on this later). 

Sleep are known for tuning their guitars four semi-tones down. In 1995 this was quite uncommon but has since become a standard for many types of metal and extreme music. This makes the guitars sound much heavier and allows exploration of sonic territory far below what standard tuning allows. 

And where would a heavy-as-hell-guitar tuning be without amplification to match? Dopesmoker producer Billy Anderson has said that the sessions used so many amps at such a volume that it was completely impossible to be in the same room. 

In addition, with digital recording still in its infancy, the reel-to-reel tape machines used by the studio could only record around 22 minutes at a time. Therefore, the band needed to plan to record the song roughly in thirds. 

Critically hailed

An unauthorized version of the album surfaced in 1999 under the title Jerusalem and by 2009 four different versions of the album had been released in one form or other. The band apparently prefers the 2003 Tee Pee Records release. That version includes a second track, a live version of the song “Holy Mountain”. 

Critics hailed the album when it finally emerged. Mojo magazine declared it “A benchmark by which all that dares call itself stoner rock must surely be judged.” The New York Times proclaimed: “What seems disorienting and monochromatic at first grows richer and more rewarding upon repeated exposure. It’s like a Mark Rothko painting hitting you over the head with a bag of hammers.”

Dopesmoker is a buzz-sawing success thanks to the band’s “all-in” commitment to their creation. Sleep will have everlasting street cred for having helped to push the boundaries of guitar frequencies and decibel thresholds everywhere. Perhaps even more so for their irony-free, cannabis-infused storyline. Most importantly, sticking to your guns regarding releasing your über-long-form music as intended is as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets. 

How much weed do you need to record something called Dopesmoker?

Based on comments the band made to Decibel Magazine which were compiled in the book Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, it was roughly calculated that the band consumed 7.5 pounds of weed during the making of the album. 

Pike said, “Between us all, we were probably smoking two ounces a day or more.” He revealed that recording took “about two months, altogether”. Two ounces per day for 60 days is 120 ounces, or 7.5 pounds.  That is a hell of a lot of weed.       

Pike’s lungs are now thanking him for having largely switched from joints to pulmonary-friendly tinctures in recent years. 

Trippiest lyrics

“Lungsmen unearth the creed of Hasheeshian/Procession of the weed-priests to cross the sands/Desert legion smoke-covenant is complete/Herb bails retied on to backs of beasts”

In their own words

“Since the early days, when Al [Cisneros] and I concocted Sleep together, those were the essential parts: weed and Black Sabbath.” (Matt Pike, speaking with Kerrang! in 2020)

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