IN SEARCH OF SPACE #20 - Dopesmoker - Sleep

“[The] song was getting slower and slower...
and then it got weird...” -Matt Pike
“[Marijuana] was pretty integral to... my life at the time. The lyric “drop out of life with bong in hand” was kind of a creed at that point.” -Al Cisneros

You presumably all knew this day was coming. In writing about drone and ambient and allowing such sacred names as Om, Earth, Bongripper to grace these pages, it was inevitable. Like prize-fighters squaring up in the ring, we have danced around and toward each other all of this time and now comes the moment where we must grapple. This is the uber-weedian. The ultra-heavy, omni-powerful belt-fed cold-heart unstoppable freight-train-through-your-consciousness that is Sleep’s Dopesmoker. The first time I heard the version of this song known as Dopesmoker, it was when I was 16 and listening to a late night radio metal programme. I didn’t have much money and taping metal was all I could do to be able to listen to it outside of the nine-till-midnight Wednesday metal slot on the local radio station. It was 2005 and for the most part the radio show played nu metal garbage that I didn’t like even then. There were mainstream classics mixed in, and one night the show finished with Dopesmoker, presented uninterrupted in its 63 minute entirety. I was only 16, it was a school night and I was stone cold sober but Dopesmoker blew my mind. A veritable odyssey through superb technical mastery and the only acceptable love song to weed. I just remember thinking that I wasn’t sure what I was hearing, some crazy long hairs droning on about the ‘riff filled land’, but I liked it and my parents definitely wouldn’t. This is the posthumously released Sleep record that caused such a rift between the band and the label that it led to the Sleep break up, as London Records refused to release the song at all. A crime against vision to be sure, but it also lead to the beginnings of Om and High on Fire, so London Records move could be called karmatically even in retrospect. Dopesmoker was of course remixed and cut and released as the absolutely excellent Jerusalem, but compared to the definitive longer cut, that record seems cut down, messed around, spoiled and lacking that crucial punch. This is by no means the ultimate version, this is the ultimate studio recording and it seems unlikely it will ever be re-recorded, the band members are variously happy with it as the definitive version of their masterpiece.
I remember listening to it for the first time, not really comprehending it. Just lying and letting the sound wash around me. Within a minute of Dopesmoker I am always cursing my audio apparatus for not being able to play the music any louder. It makes me want to invest all of my money in kitting out all C.I.A. spy satellites with gigantic amps so they can fly around the world blasting Dopesmoker on repeat and blowing the minds of people across the planet. Sonic waves could be used to mellow out the Americans and chill out the Arab spring. It could end wars and bring peace, end religion. We’ll all worship the noise in the sky. It is god. Let us all attest to your holiness and your infinite power oh thunderous unstoppable racket. In contrast with his peaceful Dal-high Lama vocals with Om, Al Cisneros sounds young, raw and hungry.
Someone stop these men! They’re playing with their guitars slung around their knees! Can nobody see this is just wrong? The low end is so immense it overwhelms anything else. A thick slime hanging over the guitar strings and covering the drum skins. Walking while listening to Dopesmoker becomes arduous. It is a monolithic block of megasludge. A foot-thick sheet of white blubber freshly ripped from the still flapping corpse of some sea leviathan and draped around the shoulders of all three uber-weedians as a proud display of kingship. And then out of nowhere, three times, comes a blistering solo that calls forth the spirit of lord Jimi. Rise my god Hendrix and manipulate my hands, drop my pretences and let me channel you through the fret board! Oh mighty Jimi deliver us from our plight as mere mortals and elevate us into guitar heaven. And lord Hendrix did look upon Matt Pike, and pass to him the magic reefer. Pike did taketh it and get mighty high. Then he played this. Especially solo number three, the astonishing thing is the way the music has become progressively sharper and harsher and more noisy over the last fifty-odd minutes and then for Pike to drop into a solo of the magnitude found here and it really takes your perception of what the song is trying to become and smashes it over a rock, watching as your expectations shatter like cold glass into the weed and bourbon sea of what Sleep want you to believe. To do that in a song takes brass balls of the size that can knock down buildings, and it takes a stroke of genius a sober mind couldn’t possibly summon up. This is opening the doors of perception on a thundery night and letting the rain lash through onto this celestial plane.

It could be said that Dopesmoker is the metal world’s Apocalypse Now. The story of the creation of Dopesmoker is at least as big and exciting and riddled with bullshit traps for the gullible as the record itself. Just like Coppola’s masterpiece, there are two distinct official versions and many other unofficial ones. Myths that have fallen into common metal parlance of ten and twenty minute songs also written by Sleep that never even saw the inside of a studio (true), that the band rolled up most of their unusually large advance and smoked it away (not true) and the immense interpersonal frictions (true) along with personal problems suffered during the four year writing and the many month production of Dopesmoker (true, Matt Pike’s mother was suffering with cancer during recording) and that the master was delivered in a skull bong (not true, though Matt Pike says ‘it would have been cool if we’d have thought of it). Of course there are also the official problems; the changing of the band’s conduit with the record label midway through recording meant a new gap in understanding of the concept between the band and the label. That the album suffered a huge delay is a matter of record, and because of the Sleep break up between recording and release, no release interviews or statements exist to perpetuate or disavow these rumours. Listening to Dopesmoker it is a wonder that they were allowed to make it, when you look into the history surrounding the record, it’s a miracle that it got made even after they were given their marching orders.

I have read articles criticising Dopesmoker for being too samey. An hour long song ought to evolve, they say, ought to culminate in a recognisable and tangible zenith. Sleep never claimed they were progressive. The song does move through territory different to where it begins; the four minute interlude of quiet guitar work after the second solo and the subtle but marked increase in pace by the end signal this as the defining mind blowing love ballad to the herb and a noisy monolith to the human truth that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Written under duress by Steven

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