Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” is something of a seminal album. Yes that term gets bandied about like nobody’s business, but hearing “Dopesmoker” for the very first time is akin to a terrifically exhausting journey across some a great expanse of the earth. On the receiving end of quite the overhaul, the record also features new artwork. The sight of “lungmen” or the referenced “weed priests” of the lyrics, wandering across a dry, arid desert on their way to the legendary “riff-filled land” does more to describe this behemoth than the original cover art ever did.
The life of “Dopesmoker” has been fraught with cut-up versions (most notably as Jerusalem in 1999), bootlegs and the subsequent 2003 release that was hailed as the closest version to the bands original vision of this one track juggernaut. Seemingly never-ending and crushing and completely mind-melting, the album has been given a new lease of life by the mighty Southern Lord. We take a trip into the cavernous vaults of “Dopesmoker” and the pristine remaster the hour-long track has had. And damn, does it sound good.
The hypnotising and repetitive riffs bear down upon you, seeping deep into the subconscious whilst waves of hazy light filter through the smoke of Al Cisneros’s rumble-laden vocal and his thick slabs of bass. Not quite singing, or shouting for that matter, his vocal is mesmerising in its almost monotone approach. It’s occasionally difficult to make out what Cisneros is even saying but that’s the beauty of “Dopesmoker”; it’s the way things are said and the rhythms and movements induced by the rolling tones of bass and fuzzed up guitar that give it depth and feeling. Of course it helps if you’re out of your mind, but “Dopesmoker” is so otherworldly that just the act of listening to it is enough to transport you to another dimension.
The remastering, helmed by Brad Boatright (From Ashes Rise) and produced by the legendary Billy Anderson (pretty much every band ever) is delectable in its nuances. “Dopesmoker” gains forceful guitar lines that structure the track, the vocals shaping the direction of the song at times and sitting at the very foreground with a profound authority. Echoing bass riffs bounce off the walls and reverberate with a mighty resonance. It is truly massive in sound and Sleep has never sounded better. Also included on the CD version is a live version of “Holy Mountain” from 1994 and the monstrous energy of Sleep is echoed in the fuzzily recorded track.
It would be lazy to just tag Sleep in the stoner doom category and be done with it. For all their praising of the glory of weed, Sleep had (and still do) the proverbial balls to back it up. Many bands that wade into this genre tend to widdle away for entirely too long, sitting in the same groove for minutes on end and not particularly ending up anywhere of note. Sleep however, take those grooves and build upon them with fantastical lyrics and hidden harmony, the ambitious riffing of Matt Pike, heavy as fuck low-end and a subtle yet powerful performance on drums from Chris Hakius. It’s not the most accessible of Sleep records; the absolute weight of the composition is difficult to comprehend for a first time listener but if you’re coming to “Dopesmoker” already well versed in the smoke fuelled sounds of Sleep you’ll find much to appreciate and get involved with here. Drop out of life indeed, you won’t have time for anything else.