In the smoke-filled longhouses of metal, no song is as shrouded in legend or reeks as much of burning ambition than Sleep’s “Dopesmoker”. The 63-minute, weed-fuelled odyssey was to have comprised the entirety of Sleep’s first album in a new deal with London Records in 1996. However, when the label’s executives baulked at releasing such a grandiose, multifaceted epic, Sleep disbanded in a haze of regret and oft-whispered tales. Although “Dopesmoker” has since been released in truncated, bastardized and bootlegged form, until now the only version gaining the nod from the band came from label Tee Pee, in 2003. However, in 2012, the latest and remastered version of the track – released by label Southern Lord – holds the distinction of being considered by Sleep to be the definitive reissue. For fans it means infinitely more – long have we waited for the most sonically complete telling of the “Dopesmoker” tale. The album’s release is well overdue.
Born from the ashes of respected sludge/doom outfit Asbestosdeath, Sleep formed in San Jose, California in 1990. The band’s history and legacy is ingrained in the folklore of metal – its influence and pungent fumes had a profound impact on the then-burgeoning stoner/doom metal scene. The band’s first album, ’91’s Volume One, was a fairly orthodox, if promising, slab of doom. Slimmed down to a trio following the exit of guitarist Justin Marler, Sleep then set to minutely scrutinizing doom’s template – as one does when baked to the hilt. The band released its second album, ’92’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain, on famed label Earache.
Sleep’s Holy Mountain was infinitely more quasi-mystical and groove-laden and seeped in trippy ruminations, and it brought the band a new level of recognition and acclaim. (The album is routinely cited as a key inspiration for many doom, stoner and sludge metal bands.) Guitarist Matt Pike, bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius had hit upon a spliff-heavy, hermetically themed formula that they would take into the studio for their next endeavor. After wrangling with labels, the band eventually signed with London Records for its follow-up – the promise of creative freedom being a major draw card. The myths surrounding the recording of “Dopesmoker” are endless – that the band spent the entire record label advance on amps and hash is the most prevalent, and certainly the most apt. Sleep had been working on “Dopesmoker” for a long time, constantly reworking the tune in practice rooms, during sound checks and in motel rooms.
A labyrinthine hymn to the glories of weed, the song chronicles the pilgrimage of “Weedian” kinsfolk to the land of the almighty riff. It takes eight and a half minutes for the first vocals to arrive, and when they do they reveal the entire temperament of the song in eight short words – “Drop out of life with bong in hand.” Intercut with plenty of pious symbolism, the song’s chanted lyrics, elongated soloing, and mammoth, repetitive riffing was definitely not what label London had in mind as the follow up to Sleep’s Holy Mountain, although it had initially approved of such venturesome pursuits.
Sleep recorded “Dopesmoker” during two month-long, vapor-laden sessions with producer Billy Anderson. It was an arduous process. Having to splice recorded sections together was difficult enough, but coupled with the mercurial nature of the song itself (it changed every time the band played it), Sleep ended up with differing versions to choose from. When the final choice was made, and the band delivered the song to London, the label’s ideas about what to do with the final result were confused to say the least. It’s somewhat understandable that “Dopesmoker” left London feeling uneasy. The A&R person who was working with the band was replaced within weeks of the band’s signing, and the label had never released anything remotely akin to the track before. London set to remedying what it saw as an unmarketable album, utterly failing to appreciate what it had on hand.
Remixes, rerecording and potential edits followed. However, with Sleep finally refusing to amend the song’s structure any further, and the label refusing to release the track in its current form, the resulting impasse led to Sleep’s demise. Pike would, of course, go on to form the equally influential and much-admired stoner and sludge metal outfit High on Fire. Hakius and Cisneros continued on the transformative path with the mantra-filled works of Om.
For the past 16 years the back-story to “Dopesmoker” has added as much to the song’s reputation as the song itself has. The artistic commitment Sleep showed by mining every atom of cosmic and cannabinoid potential from its endless jams helped to set the song firmly within the pantheon of seminal metal classics. The fact that, until now, nobody had truly heard the song as the band fully intended makes its status even more extraordinary.
“Dopesmoker” clearly shows where Pike, Hakius and Cisneros’ post-Sleep careers would lead them. The unmistakable pulse of Om is here, and High on Fire’s churn is readily apparent. Though the song signals the death of a recording band (Sleep has since re-formed to perform sporadic shows, with new drummer Jason Roeder taking over from Hakius in 2009), much of its allure comes from its life-affirming, exhilarating depths. The fractious studio tensions certainly play their part in the track’s knotty oscillations, but at its core the song is not comprised of grief-stricken sighs, but positive explorations.
Matt Pike was already a master craftsman of the hulking riff by the time “Dopesmoker” appeared on the skyline, but his work on the track is expansive, expressive and idiosyncratic. The song’s cyclical riffing and recurring intonations invoke the divine search for transcendent horizons. When Pike’s solos arrive, they add the polychromatic visualizations (the exhale and the head-spin). Pike’s gesticulations are of a man loaded on six-stringed/amp-buzzing highs.
For 63 minutes, “Dopesmoker” explores vast, mesmeric landscapes. As with any monumental trek, the experience of that expedition is entirely different for every single participant. (That listeners offer conflicting accounts of the route they take during the track is one of its finest attributes.) The song’s uniquely personal adventure would be best appreciated gathered in a scuffed leather journal, read out loud around the dying embers of a campfire. In lieu of that:
19 minutes: Hakius stokes the smoldering feedback, throwing booming percussive sustenance on the pyre. Pike, following on with the colossal distorted riff, sets the bonfire aflame.
28 minutes: Cisneros weaves Sol-ravaged utterances around gargantuan, sun-parched riffs. Ragged and raw, urging voyagers forward.
40 minutes: Galaxies appear. Meteors streak the sky while Pike’s probing solo explores the blazing heavens. Cisneros’ voluminous bass thump gives way to the celestial gaze. Zion beckons.
49 minutes: Pike again, his isolated guitar speckled with cinders, plows the meditative fissures. He pushes on relentlessly, through channels of gouged earth and stifling heat.
57 minutes: Cisneros, sandblasted, intones the resolution, “Follow the smoke, Jerusalem.” Journey’s end in sight. The waves of Pike’s riffs, tumbling, surging, staggering; Hakius, counting the meter, one foot forward, one foot forward … and through the gates.
Ultimately, time dissolves when you soak in the atmosphere of “Dopesmoker” or stare at its mirage-like apparitions. There are sights and sounds to be found nowhere else in metal. The enigmatically spiritual meets the corporeal thrum of titanic riffs and bass, along with that breathtaking wallop of percussion. The song offers a reverential bow to the incomparable power of the riff, and raises a baung to the potential metamorphosis offered by obtaining an enormous stash.
In 2011, when the rights to the song reverted to the band, Cisneros reached out to Southern Lord to discuss reissuing “Dopesmoker” in its most sonically complete form. Producer Brad Boatright was given access to the master tapes and handed the remastering reins (his brief being to enhance the sound, not alter the song’s body). Boatright’s work brings substantial weight and clarity to the album – although, just to be clear, this is still a wantonly hazy affair.
Unhindered by haphazard cuts, or a muddied second-rate mix, “Dopesmoker” sounds as astronomically heavy as Sleep first intended. The band is reportedly (and fittingly) over the moon with the results. The new artwork from Arik Roper, depicting the pilgrimage of robed figures over a suitably alien landscape, seals the album’s well-deserved reputation as a classic psychedelic metal release. Tagged on to the end of the album is the bonus track “Holy Mountain”, which was recorded live in 1994 and is a grand 11-minute ragged romp. Although “Dopesmoker” was clearly crafted as a sinsemilla-friendly epic, it is by no means mandatory for you to be red-eyed and bleary to admire its hypnotic magnetism. The song is, after all, about a voyage, and the tantalizing promise that lurks at its end. “Dopesmoker” may stretch that theme out to extraordinarily protracted lengths, but we all can relate to that, roach huffing or not.
You could argue that dissecting the song does it no favors at all – it must be felt, intimately and palpably. Certainly, “Dopesmoker” is not for those wanting a quick and easy fix. Its languid, lurching tempo, along with Cisneros’ mantric incantations, may challenge the patience of many listeners. Yet, for all the song’s complexity, Sleep ensures it never becomes impossible to navigate – illuminating the trail with hallucinogenic sights, which, once glimpsed, compel you to continue. Cryptic and daunting, “Dopesmoker” is the quintessential stoner metal track. Sixteen years since its birth, it remains unsurpassed. Once appreciated in its fullest measure, it’s more than apparent why “Dopesmoker” sits at the zenith of intoxicating metal. It’s as crucial to the metal canon as track one off Black Sabbath’s debut.