Published Jan 23, 2016The journey leading to the stage at the Phoenix Concert Theatre has not been a quick, easy or straightforward one for doom metal legends Sleep. But as they proved on a chilly January night in Toronto, it was a performance well worth waiting for.
The band and their most famous (or infamous) album, 1998's Dopesmoker, are often uttered in tandem. The story starts with four guys from San Jose, who, based on the strength of the very good, if a bit overly Sabbath-y Volume One, signed to a Earache Records and made a masterfully heavy record with Holy Mountain (inspired by the Alejandro Jodorowsky film of the same name). After getting a hefty advance from London Records, Sleep were left to run roughshod in the studio, and did what perhaps any talented THC-addled pals might do: they created a 63-minute shambling opus about a race of stoner druids known as the Weedians, puffing their way to a mystical riff-filled land. Horrified, the label shelved the album. When the band's label pushes to release an edited version of Dopesmoker titled Jerusalem, which also got shelved. Out of frustration, Sleep disbanded. The members branched off, forming bands representative of different aspects of the Sleep sound: bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius created the psych rock band Om, while guitarist Matt Pike moved to the dark side, forming the ceaselessly aggressive High on Fire.
Sleep's influence has only grown since their demise, though. Whether you're an avowed metalhead or just a fan of music, period, it's hard not to cower before the prophetic grooves of the Holy Mountain or Dopesmoker's endlessly sludged-out audacity. The latter's re-release (most recently in 2012) has now been accompanied by a tentative string of reunion shows, featuring Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder in Hakius' place. After their long and winding, weed-fuelled journey as a band, the new lineup made their Toronto debut last night.
The trio shuffled onstage before a sold-out crowd without any pomp or circumstance, just the buzz of feedback. The drums and bass locked in for "The Clarity," and then came the roar — high in the ears, louder than blood. As the band's juddering, plodding riffs reached their zenith, the audience helplessly raised their hands. The guitars dropped into the depths of bongwater, followed by a pregnant pause, and then a monotone Cisneros boomed: "Proceeds the Weediannnnnnnn — Nazareth!" The crowd collectively released and exhaled.
Sleep's tectonic riffs circled and repeated throughout the set, though they paused to breathe and play more groove-focused tracks from Holy Mountain for respite. Still, it was really the truncated rendition of Dopesmoker that stole the show; the truly rare experience everyone had paid for.
How is it possible for a song — or a band, for that matter — to be so absolutely ridiculous, yet utterly sublime? Their music obliterates anxiety, fear, and doubt in the face of relentless force, utilizing sonic pulsations that feel almost ancient, ultimately tearing down barriers. And that's the thrilling magic of Sleep, and the secret to their longevity: straddling worlds of silliness and depth, all the while creating a listening experience that is unexpectedly spiritual and totally absorbing.
[Editor's note: This review has been edited from its original published form.]