By Avinash Mittur
To most metal fans, Sleep is simply one of many great stoner metal bands from the nineties that knocked out some classic albums of the genre. For more hardcore fans, Sleep is far more than a mere heavy metal band. Their story is a ganja-infused riff-laden legend, and the lack of a definitive version of it has only enhanced this tale even more. It’s been over a decade since its creation in the studio, but Sleep’s magnum opus, Dopesmoker, is finally being released and distributed with the approval of the members of the band.
With this reissue, Southern Lord has given Dopesmoker a fresh remastering and has added a live version of the title track to Sleep’s second album, Holy Mountain, as a bonus track. The sound quality of this song is pretty terrible to be blunt. It’s a neat document of where Sleep were at as a live band in 1994, but I don’t think anyone will listen to it more than once. Sonic Titan, the bonus track on the 2003 issue of Dopesmoker from Tee-Pee Records, was a far better addition to the album, and I truly have no clue why Southern Lord would choose not to include it this time around. Both tracks can be found on the double vinyl version of this reissue, even though Dopesmoker as a whole wasn’t meant to be listened to split across many sides of vinyl.
The new mastering job by Brad Boatright adds a new level of clarity to the recording, and makes the piece far less of a strain to listen to for long stretches of time. However, this newfound clarity comes with some pitfalls of modern day mastering jobs. The volume level on Dopesmoker has been cranked to oblivion at the expense of dynamic range and the entire recording sounds hot throughout. One can easily hear digital distortion on Matt Pike’s guitar near the twelve minute mark, distortion that simply wasn’t there on the 2003 edition. I’d like to the think that the vinyl edition is free from these issues, given Southern Lord’s generally phenomenal job with vinyl in the past. On the visual side of things, Arik Roper’s new artwork for the album is outstanding- I truly cannot wait to see how it looks on a 12×12 medium. This new reissue is worth having by new Sleep fans who haven’t had the opportunity to own the album before, but fans who own the prior edition of Dopesmoker may want to hold on to their old copies or spring for the double vinyl version if they desperately want the new artwork and bonus track. As far as I’m concerned, the new double vinyl edition is the closest thing to a definitive version of Dopesmoker that has been released.
Dopesmoker is still a hell of a song to listen to in one sitting- this isn’t a journey for the impatient. The first three minutes alone are made up of one power chord hit by Matt repeatedly, and the vocals don’t even come in until about eight and a half minutes in. Even when they finally do, Al Cisneros’ bellows end up serving a more narrative than musical purpose- who can forget his tale of the weedians as they and the stoner caravan traversed the desert to Nazareth in hopes of sending marijuanauts to space?
Lazy critics of this record have claimed that the song is merely one riff played for an hour straight. This couldn’t be more untrue- Dopesmoker may not have the progressive complexity of something like Close to the Edge by Yes, but it’s a sophisticated piece nonetheless. Just check out the riff chart that’s included with some versions of this reissue- this wasn’t simply any weed-fueled jam session by a trio of stoners. No, this was an extremely deliberate and well thought out weed-fueled compositional undertaking by a trio of stoners. When Al Cisneros moves up the neck of his bass to play a fill, you know a crescendo is on its way, and nearly every section has its own monolithic riff to drive into the ground. Dopesmoker can’t be separated into individual songs like other album-length pieces like The Dark Side of the Moon- every section is coherently tied with its neighbors, and to listen to them separately just wouldn’t work.
I could dive into every minute detail of Dopesmoker and give a whole section-by-section breakdown, but that would derail the mystery of the track. It’s something one should give a fair and dedicated listen to, and hopefully be surprised by at least a couple of times throughout. It isn’t a perfect song by any means, but it can be an engaging listen to fans of this style of heavy metal. The riffs are slow, yet gigantic and towering and Matt Pike’s solos were among the greatest he ever recorded. With this album, Matt cemented his status as one of metal’s heaviest guitarists. The section from about fifty minutes to the end of the track (usually referred to as Cultivator in the band’s setlists) may be one of stoner metal’s most compelling chunks of music; it’s of course even more satisfying after listening to the whole song up until that point.
To some, Dopesmoker is the pinnacle of the brand of heavy music Black Sabbath unleashed upon the world forty years ago. To others, Dopesmoker might be one of the genre’s most colossal failures. For me, the truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s a monumental achievement by a group that was clearly aiming for space, but it certainly isn’t the final word on stoner metal as some claim it to be. For having some of the greatest stoner metal riffs ever laid to tape alone Dopesmoker has merit. Few other individual songs take the listener on an aural adventure like this one does, and for that alone, Dopesmoker is a composition that deserves a high place in heavy metal history.
[Click here to order the album via Amazon]
Record Label: Southern Lord
Release Date: May 8th 2012
2. Holy Mountain [Live]