Rise of the sonic titan - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #21

NOTE- this is a companion piece to my Dopesmoker retrospective, and as was to be expected with the whiskey-infused production that attends this series of margin doodles, this chronicles the release before Dopesmoker, Holy Mountain. Read them in chronological order if you prefer. Savour.

Rise of the Sonic Titan – Sleep’s Holy Mountain

As one might be forced to do when ascending Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai or Mount Everest; in the bong mist surrounding the change from 1991 to 1992, Sleep shed a guitarist. Leaving a man behind is never an easy decision to make, but Justin Marler’s time in Sleep was sort lived and characterised a band feebly scratching at the doors of perception, not realising the key lay in human sacrifice. Marler’s departure was simply the key to a greater puzzle. With three men, the caravan that was Sleep could move higher up the increasingly impassable mountain tracks of each of their respective minds, their first product after this split was the Volume Two EP, the fifteen minute album that marked out, like a warning shot fired across a bow, that these Sabbath devotees were about to lay down a trip so heavy it would be completely undeniable that the masters had been surpassed and supplanted by the (until then) apprentices. The following record was the now deemed classic Sleep’s Holy Mountain. With Sleep being such titans of their genre, defining it in many ways, and their discography so heartbreakingly small; every Sleep release and recording we have needs to be treasured.

The two releases by true Sleep were Sleep’s Holy Mountain and Jerusalem; Dopesmoker, the more comprehensive version of Jerusalem was released posthumously after the bands untimely demise, showing up the previously conventionally good Jerusalem as a sham and a corporate whore even though it is still a harder and more rewarding record than 99% of all music. The upshot of this rather perplexing line-up shift and early demise essentially leaves Sleep with two full length records to completely call their own. There are some nostalgic voices who hark back to the Asbestos Death days, and some who consider Volume One a Sleep release when essentially it isn’t. Their two records represent an apotheosis of the form, the two fringes of the stoner metal genre laid out in a slab for all to admire like Moses descending from the mount with the 14 commandments on two tablets. Nobody checked at the time, but those were the reverse sleeves of Sleep’s Holy Mountain and Jerusalem. On one side the frivolous and instant Holy Mountain, and on the other, the dense inaccessible Jerusalem, a record so great that the only upgrade was to drop its vestments several years later and giving us a look at what it really had swingin’ round down there. Between these two records Sleep defined the walls of what would be considered Sabbath parody at one end, and verging on the dense, dreary, deep droning compositions of doom metal at t’other.

Nain’s baptism – Sleep is reborn

The first four Sabbath records, to a distortion-head like me, are holy (apart from Changes on Volume 4, that didn’t happen); before the world properly knew what metal was, Sabbath went and aced it with four albums of unabashed, unrelenting (except Changes, see above) drone, doom dirge of the highest order. Those records are still cheat sheets for metal bands with no imagination today. Sleep’s Volume 2 EP used the same artwork as Sabbath’s Volume 4, and they covered a Sabbath song on that record too. It was the turning point, 20 years after Every Day Comes and Goes with its cymbal fades out, it was time for another group of men unconnected to the bonkers Brummies that started it all were picking up their weapons and dealing a powerful axe-blow to the head once again. Volume 2 in retrospect really isn’t interesting. It plays more like a first demo, featuring hollow exo-skeletons of songs more fully fleshed out on the true sonic titan, Sleep’s Holy Mountain; but to look at it as an almost parabolic moment in rock and roll. In that very brief moment, as the Sleep caravan drew alongside the Sabbath wagon, stalled for many years now, edges ragged and the tired pilgrim faces of the desperately overcrowded Sabbath wagon look upon the fresh faced, lightweight Sleep wagon. Sleep were now within sight of the promised land, not so much in distance but in what they still could do. Sabbath were done after Volume 4, Sleep took those holy tablets to the mountain and wrote the hell-bastard hum-dinger Sabbath could never have done. It was the next stage upon that road, and it would eventually lead to Dopesmoker, but for now, Volume Two was the first tentative steps along the untrodden path, not knowing what lay ahead.

What lay ahead, the Holy Mountain: Sleep become kings

The album starts. That is all that can be said. Like the large caravan of biblical stature that the Sleep oeuvre undeniably came to represent, the album slowly grinds into life, with what seems like great effort with the guitar horse straining itself to pull the huge weight composed of expectation and power. Soon it is moving with gentle but unstoppable force. Dragonaut as the opener really sets the scene; Al Cisneros’s vocals aren’t up to the plateau they reached in Jerusalem, and are largely gibberish, but the key is the throbbing and grinding power that they exhibit right next to the guitar and bass. Unlike later releases, there is space here, depth and ambition for technical displays of skill with solos to be had for Matt Pike. What becomes clear very quickly and never dissipates is that Holy Mountain is a record that smiles. The slack-jawed hash-hack grins smeared across the Tres amigos faces during the whole proceeding is unmistakable. Al Cisneros even steals himself a cheeky bass groove spotlight right at the closer.

I feel a track-by-track analysis, not something I usually partake in, is worth doing on this voyage because of the subtle diversity, experimentation and chutzpah just bleeding out of my speakers. Each song is a tiny movement in a much greater whole. Taking the Sabbath sound higher and heavier while also making it more groovy and acceptable, spreading themselves across rock history and sonic space to the point that almost no corner of heavy understanding goes un-rocked.

The record moves at such a blistering pace and is so instantly and repeatably enjoyable that I’m struggling to get my mind blown and document it. Al Cisneros’s (what became characteristic) Tibetan droning marching chant is in place on this album, but taken in some songs from the quiet, reserved and adult philosophical beard-stroker found on Om’s latest opus and transformed into a metal shout and scream; it is most manifest here in the lyrics, churning forth like an ever-reliable stream, sometimes loud and sometimes quiet but forever in constant and dependable motion. Something those early Sabbath records had was what could be charitably described as restraint and uncharitably described as frustrating brevity. Sometimes you just want to hear the same riff repeated a hundred times; sure the riff needs to be damn good but then Sleep seem to have a fuckin’ monopoly on that commodity. The songs cascade by like sitting at the side of a waterfall, stunning riffs and ideas come and go by stay just long enough to be satisfyingly savoured before moving on to the next sonic landscape.

And the bass. Holy Mountain and holy shit the bass. I haven’t even spoken about the bass. That thick-set football hooligan with a broken nose and a bum eye stampeding down the street knocking pensioners into the path of a speeding car and not caring a fuck for the state or consequences. Keeping up with the much lighter, nimbler guitar which dodges and ducks and weaves. The technicality of the bass in its moment is astonishing. More than one bass solo comes throughout the record and it holds up just as well as the guitar; languid notes sprawl forth, each occupying a huge lounge in some stately home, spread-eagled across a chaise lounge apiece and just waiting to see how you react when they all suddenly rush you. Knocking you to the ground with furious intensity and beating at you until you’ve admitted defeat.

Inside the sun, hymn of doom: Side two

The album escalates to an almost unbearable intensity on the second side. Built from the chilled beginnings and bridged across the interlude in Some Grass, side two opens with Holy Mountain, in many ways the centrepiece and the thudding heart of the record. Side two infuses the Sleep sound made familiar in Volume 2 and the first side, and infuses it with so much claustrophobic distorted energy. Holy Mountain, Inside the Sun and From Beyond form an escalating mountain slope of sonic abuse, almost 25 minutes of intense and unforgiving distortion replete with all of the punk-rock aggression missing from the stoner rock laid down on side one. Really the vinyl is the best option to take on this record, if you have a non-corporeal record, or a CD, you may find it difficult to coalesce the two sides without the spiritual partition of getting up and turning over an LP; although whatever version of Sleep’s Holy Mountain you get your hands on, you are going to be pretty staggered.

It is almost like Sleep get more and more into their stride as the album continues. Side one is almost like treading water, a warm-up we get to witness, side two is where we really get down to business, everything gets heavier as if someone accidentally turned up the gravity dial instead of the volume, the songs get longer and more complex. The drugs begin to take hold.

Whether you prefer Dopesmoker, Holy Mountain (or like some nostalgic voices, have a strange attachment to Jerusalem) is up to your own taste. Certainly Holy Mountain offers more common and relatable thrills while Dopesmoker is more of an envelope pusher, I’ll always love it for that but Holy Mountain is less work for no less reward. Whatever your preference, Sleep are true genre definers and pioneers. They didn’t invent stoner rock, but they were the apotheosis of the form and picked up where Sabbath left off 20 years before. With a discography as sadly short as this, it’s common to ask of a band, what if they had gotten to make their masterpiece? My answer for Sleep, they already made two.

Written under duress by Steven

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