Dopesmoker is a cult album; its back-story almost as prominent as the music itself, destined to mentioned in dispatches as often as Bon Iver’s log-cabin or the unresolved grief and bullying that led to the bass-less sounds of …And Justice For All. Dopesmoker is one track, an hour long, a singular ode to weed and trippy, psychedelic heaviness. A swirling vortex of black lunged riffs, circular rhythms and chanting vocals – beauty and the beast on one disc – that was roundly rejected by the band’s then major label, London Records.
The legend that built up prior to the record’s first unedited release in 2003 has elevated what was once, presumably, considered a daft, dope fiend idea into a touchstone overshadowing the band’s other releases rendering them footnotes. An unfair summary perhaps, but such is the weight of Dopesmoker‘s legacy.
Now in 2012 Dopesmoker gets another re-release this time via Greg Anderson’s heavy metal label extraordinaire, Southern Lord, remastered by Brad Boatright of From Ashes Rise, approved by original bassist Al Cisneros and presented in some Tatooine referencing new artwork from Arik Roper. Dopesmoker is thus given the grand treatment it always deserved.
The band split following the album’s aborted original release sending rhythm section Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius into philosophical mantras with new band OM and six-stringer and vocalist Matt Pike into super-charged grit metallers High On Fire. Sleep, however, never really died reforming in 2009 for occasional shows and most recently took the roof off Alexandra Palace supporting Slayer playing a condensed version of their magnum opus and Holy Mountain.
The music they created for Dopesmoker was, and is, a heavy proposition: 52 minutes of interlocking riffs and hypnotic bass and drum combinations and a heavy fug of a production job that has been made slightly clearer on this release.
The album starts slowly with down-tuned droning strings from Pike and an unhurried, eyes closed, foundation of crashing cymbals and bass rumble before the first movement dissolves into a distorted and frazzled guitar solo around the ¼ of an hour mark. See, that’s unhurried. As Pike’s solo burns out over sheets of power chords cries of “Proceeds the Weedian – Nazareth” emerge. The trio then lock into a zonked out groove for the next seven or so minutes.
Fade and decay are common musical themes throughout with the band unbound by traditional rock song structures. A new isolated riff appears before the rhythm section return and Cisneros bellows as Dopesmoker turns dark descending into tantric drone. Despite the off the cuff title and fantastical lyrics Dopesmoker feels serious in its exploration of tone and rhythm something that OM would explore further on their records.
A dazzling solo brings the curtain down on the 2nd movement and Dopesmoker is reconfigured yet again into a quiet, lysergic meditation free of oppressive volume and tone but with ten minutes to go there’s a great, big crashing unified band riff before a guitar break and the final cataclysmic blast of snarling guitar, bass and drums that slowly fades out.
Ultimately, the legend is unimportant. Of course it’s possible that Dopesmoker’s greatest legacy is that there are no more heshers like them on major labels. Aside from that though, Sleep stand alongside the likes of Black Sabbath and St. Vitus as cornerstones of the stoner/doom genres and a line can be drawn through them to modern volume abusers like Electric Wizard and Sunn O))). Disregard the history because the music is still stellar and a heavier and more ambitious trip into the reaches of the stoned mind you will not find – “Drop out of life with bong in hand. Follow the Smoke toward the Riff filled Land.”