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CD Review: SLEEP Dopesmoker

Posted by on May 14, 2012 at 11:51 am

Dopesmoker was never gonna fly; not as an album title, not on a major label.

It was actually the least of the band's worries. Al Cisneros, Matt Pike, Chris Hakius – Sleep – were about to be tucked in for good, in classic Dead Kennedys Frankenchrist fashion. There wouldn't be a lawsuit, primarily because the trio had already spent their advance paying off debt and just stocking the cupboard toward an indeterminate future, but the battle over the release of this single song, 63-minute monster would end the group just as effectively as any drawn out court battle.

London Records seemed like an odd home for a left field band like Sleep, but it was precisely the lack of any metal representation at all at the label that led the trio to believe they would be given the big fish, small pond treatment. And that seemed to be the intent all along, but London were expecting something they could service to radio and Headbanger's Ball, something like the previous album's "Dragonaut", a 5-minute, 43-second dose of concise stoner doom that seemed to appear on every metal compilation in 1993 (though that could have been because they were on Earache at the time, and Earache in the 90's were seemingly putting out as many "samplers" as all other metal labels combined).

Securing their release from Earache took a little finessing, and as such the recordings for what would come to be called Dopesmoker weren't initiated until 1996, over three years after the release of Sleep's Holy Mountain. Billy Anderson (Neurosis, Melvins) recorded and engineered the tracks, which had to be laid to tape in multiple takes as a single reel-to-reel spool only holds 22 minutes. The trio recorded for a full month straight before returning home to rehearse for a bit, after which they returned to the studio and spent another full month finishing things up. By the time they finished Pike later estimated they had a full 2-3 different edits of the song.

London Records were not happy. As with many record labels, upon sensing that they've just sunk more money into an album than they could ever hope to recoup, the label's A&R began icing the band out (it didn't help that the guy who signed Sleep to London in the first place was let go prior to the band ever getting into the studio). The label paid for a top-to-bottom remix of the album which the band did not approve of, and in the end all that came out of it was a promotional CD that was serviced to the media before the album was eventually shelved altogether.

No satisfactory explanation has ever been given as to how the title Jerusalem was arrived at, but the band themselves apparently had no say in the matter. An official release under this title – by Rise Above – wouldn't be forthcoming until 1999, long after the band had folded. This would be the same 52-minute edit from London's rare promo CD (also called Jerusalem), arbitrarily sliced up into six separate tracks for indexing purposes… the song runs unbroken otherwise.

Southern Lord's current deluxe reissue is not the first time the uncut, 63-minute track has been released under the Dopesmoker handle, however; Tee Pee Records released a long out-of-print copy in 2003, along with a live version of an unreleased song called "Sonic Titan". The SL edition does feature a stellar remastering job by From Ashes Rise guitarist Brad Boatright as well as a previously unreleased, live rundown of the Sleep classic "Holy Mountain". I don't have a copy of the Tee Pee release, so I can't really comment on the sonic differences between the two 63-minute masters, but truthfully the only thing wrong with Rise Above's Jerusalem edition is the 11-minute butchering… it otherwise sounds just fine, perhaps a bit more compressed than Southern Lord's mix, but otherwise perfectly respectable on the bottom end.

And so the Southern Lord release is obviously the go to purchase here in 2012, although you lose the otherwise unavailable "Sonic Titan" from the Tee Pee release, which is kind of a shame as that song now disappears into the nebulous limbo of file sharing networks. It would have been nice if there had been enough material here for a 2CD version, perhaps the second disc comprising one of the alternate takes Pike has hinted at the existence of, with the live cut of "Sonic Titans" appended as a bonus track on disc two.

What's actually here is difficult to quibble over (though frankly the live version of "Holy Mountain" sounds pretty horrible, a C- bootleg rating at best). The unexpurgated Dopesmoker may be the definitive stoner album; it's certainly one of the finest doom albums ever. In a lot of ways Sleep here reconciled the more esoteric, long form jams pioneered by Dylan Carlson's Earth into a more accessible template, one that nearly every doom and sludge band since have utilized to some extent. From the tandem bass/guitar doubling to Al Cisnero's infrequent, interjection-like vocals and the loud, freestyle drumming of Chris Haikus, this is the stoner rock an entire generation has grown up on, atavistic and true to its name… and not even remotely topped since.

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