The war on weed may soon be over. Despite the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, states are decriminalizing pot, and Washington seems to be losing its will for the fight. This is good. You don’t have to be a marijuana enthusiast to favor this federalist approach — pot should never have been part of a national war on drugs.
In related news, the legendary doom/stoner metal band Sleep released its latest album, “The Sciences” — on 4/20 of course. It had been fifteen years since their last studio album, “Dopesmoker,” was released in full after years of wrangling with the studio, which had been unhappy to receive a single hour-long song about a drug-fueled religious pilgrimage. Amidst the fallout, Sleep dissolved for some years, and then spent more infrequently reuniting for live shows, before recording this album.
The years, the drugs, and a new drummer have not dulled the band’s skill. “The Sciences” holds up well compared to their earlier material. Sleep’s resumed excellence follows other old-guard metal bands that have been revitalized in recent years. For example, Iron Maiden’s “The Book of Souls” was a great album, and Metallica produced its best work in decades with “Hardwired … to Self-Destruct.” The metal vanguard is well into middle-age, but these efforts show that they do not have to descend into the self-parody of aging nostalgia acts.
Although metal’s tendency toward darker themes has often had ridiculous results (what was edgy and shocking in the 80s now appears as cartoonish attention-seeking), at its best it produced something more mature than the adolescent themes that drove most classic rock. It is pathetic to watch the Rolling Stones totter around the stage playing their hits from 50 years ago, but Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” speaks more than ever to our opioid-ravaged nation, and the presentation does not suffer from being delivered by an aging frontman.
Sleep, however, was never mature and has not grown up. Thematically the band’s music is still the same: weed is amazing and getting high is a quasi-religious experience. A fascination with mind-altering chemicals has been part of rock from the beginning, but Sleep made it the dominant theme of their music. How alluring such lyrical tributes to pot will be in a time of legal THC remains to be seen.
However, Sleep’s lyrics are sparse, and have always taken a backseat to the music itself. The lyrics, which are half-sung, half-chanted by bassist Al Cisneros, add to the ambience, but if you’re paying much attention to them, you’re listening wrong. Even for their highest fans, who insist that being high enhances their enjoyment of heavy riffs, this band is in the “I listen for the music, not the words” category.
The appeal of Sleep is in their riffs, the quality of which sets them apart from most of the stoner/doom metal scene. Anyone can down-tune guitars and basses and create sludge. It takes skilled musicianship to lay heavy melodic bass riffs between the drums and a super-saturated rhythm guitar, or to keep a great bass riff going without stepping all over the guitar solo. The ability to do so is what allows Sleep to appeal beyond the baked, and “The Sciences” does not change this.
With six songs this album is closer to the band’s more traditional releases than it is to the extended trip that is “Dopesmoker,” though with half of the songs at least ten minutes long, it is still not radio-friendly. Following a short, tension-building cacophony of an opening track, things get underway with “Marijuanaut’s Theme,” which might be the best song on the album. It is a heavy, driving example of the band’s musical skill, and blends the different sonic components expertly, creating a wall of sound that still allows individual texture and color to have their place.
The next track is “Sonic Titan,” which offers 12 minutes of pounding riffs, leavened with occasional breakouts by individual instruments. It is followed by the even-longer “Antarcticans Thawed,” which is a slow, doomy epic about … glaciers? I may be missing something, maybe not. It doesn’t matter — just relax and enjoy the audio textures. The next track is “Giza Butler,” a tribute to Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler and potheads that is full of Dune-themed weed puns and God only knows what else. These lyrics were not written by, or for, the sober, but the music is good. The album concludes with a softer instrumental, “The Botanists.”
This is a good album, albeit one in a niche genre (it seems that no musical scene has more niches than metal). What the changing legal culture will do for this scene is unclear. As pot is legalized and becomes corporate and respectable, what will happen to the culture that surrounded it? Will Sleep’s oeuvre and its musical relatives gain in popularity, or will they become a weird relic of the past — who now cares about odes to Dionysian revels and hymns to Bacchus? It would be a shame if stoner metal were forgotten, as the music transcends the fascination of the band and its fans with weed. Of course, it would also be a shame if it allowed pot to become the equivalent of the bro-country cooler of beer — an annoying, ubiquitous trope in a bastardized genre.
In either case, we may hope that the music persists and that we have learned a lesson about the limitations of government edicts. Despite decades of treating marijuana as if it were worse than heroin or meth, weed has only grown in popularity, and the efforts to suppress it have exacted a toll greater than leaving it alone would have. Enforcing laws requires force. Pot makes people dumb; government empowers them to be violent.
We should leave the potheads alone, especially if they’re making awesome music. If you like great riffs, and can either enjoy or overlook some nonsensical lyrics about pot, give Sleep and their latest offering a try. The bong is optional.