Letter of Recommendation: Sleep, ‘Dopesmoker’

A 63-minute-long stoner-metal epic that is almost religious in its appeal.

The origin story of ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ sounds like a light-bulb joke co-written by Nancy Reagan and Sisyphus: Three California stoners decide to write a song about how much they love marijuana, but they’re so high that it takes them four years. When they finally deliver the song to their record label, the label refuses to release it. And so the band breaks up without the world hearing their wonderful heavy-metal jam about weed. Don’t do drugs. The end.

At this point, any sane adult tut-tuts the predictably lame outcome of two dumb subcultures commingling: When potheads try making heavy metal, nothing much happens — and too loudly. But great art transcends the strictures of its pedigree. Our three pothead friends, whose band is called Sleep, have since been vindicated. After years of unofficial and official releases, bootlegs and specially remastered collectors’ editions, ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ is now recognized as a masterpiece of the stoner-metal genre and one of the most formidable recordings of the past 20 years. It’s also bonkers: breathtakingly, bong-shakingly so. Everyone should listen to it all the time.

Heavy-metal songs aren’t known for being demure. Even so, ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ is glaring in its ambition. For one thing, it’s 63 minutes long, rolling across three LP sides like a landscape. Its pleasures are topographic; they demand close attention over multiple visits of extended duration. What seems disorienting and monochromatic at first grows richer and more rewarding upon repeated exposure. It’s like a Mark Rothko painting hitting you over the head with a bag of hammers.

The song’s first line is ‘‘Drop out of life with bong in hand,’’ and things only get hazier from there. ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ tells the story of a caravan of ‘‘weed-priests’’ traveling across the ‘‘sand-sea’’ in search of the ‘‘riff-filled land’’ so as to fulfill their ‘‘desert legion smoke-covenant.’’ Because I’m overeducated and insecure, I package my banal observations in semantic finery, so I feel a kinship with lines like ‘‘Earthling inserts to chalice the green cutchie/Groundation soul finds trust upon smoking hose,’’ which is a fancy way of saying ‘‘a guy smokes some weed.’’ The thesis of ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ may boil down to ‘‘smoke dope,’’ but first-time listeners should be forgiven for wondering if it’s actually an anthropological study of Qedarite tribes in the pre-Christian Sinai Peninsula.

As crazy as the lyrics are, the music itself is a model of discipline. Stoner metal is slower than other metal subgenres, and the steady, bludgeoning cadence of ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ really does sound like pilgrims trudging through an unforgiving landscape. (It took me about 20 listens before I appreciated how seamlessly the time signature shifts between 4/4, 6/8 and 3/4, a neat aural analogue to the complications of walking on loose sand.) Playing slow music at a deafening volume while keeping accurate time is mentally and physically draining. Sleep managed to keep it up for more than an hour. They basically recorded the song live, incorporating musical breaks every 16 minutes or so to accommodate the time limits of analog tapes. The physical constraints of the recording medium are probably the only thing that kept the arms of the drummer, Chris Hakius, from falling off.

‘Dopesmoker’’ is also really, really heavy: There’s a chord struck about 20 minutes in, after the song’s first guitar solo, that sounds like an avalanche having an orgasm. The guitarist Matt Pike tuned his instrument down two whole steps, to C, and the weight and sustain of that low C is mesmerizing; Pike returns to it again and again over the course of the song, a total of 1,818 times by my count. According to Billy Anderson, the recording engineer, the guitar tracks were recorded three separate times to thicken the sound, using custom-built amps so powerful that it wasn’t possible to stand in the same room with them. Each amp was recorded with seven or eight microphones, which gives you a sense of the dedication required to create something so loud.

The record’s sonic and spiritual heft is supplied in large part by the bassist and singer, Al Cisneros, who delivers the lyrics in a sort of roaring plainsong. The vast stretches of homorhythm — in which the guitar, bass and drums match individual syllables of the droning lyrics — create the sort of ominous ascetic feeling that I associate with chanting the Great Litany from my childhood in the Episcopal Church. Maybe this is where I should mention that the song’s original title was ‘‘Jerusalem’’ and that an early member of Sleep became a monk after quitting the band. If I’m really being honest, I should also admit that I experience the final few measures of ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ with the same exhausted, guilty relief I remember from the closing moments of a church service.

Was this music designed to be sacred someday? The essence of heavy metal is discipline in service of the preposterous. At its best, the genre solemnizes the impulses of adolescence. Couple this with the stoner’s habit of uncovering deep truths in whatever’s at hand and you might understand why Sleep’s magnum dopus can actually feel profound. For an atheist who misses the liturgical solemnity and theological strangeness of High Church, ‘‘Dopesmoker’’ delivers the next best thing. It reminds me of the heaviness of purpose required to chase the feather-light glee of the sacred.

Or, as Pike once said: ‘‘We were just a bunch of massive stoners trying to do something that no one else had done.’’ Religions have been founded on less.

All info taken from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-sleep-dopesmoker.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0

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