Wednesday, 25 April 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Sleep, "The Sciences"

By: Mark Ambrose

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: April 20, 2018
Label: Third Man Records

“The Sciences” CD//DD//LP track listing

1. The Sciences
2. Marijuanaut’s Theme
3. Sonic Titan
4. Antarcticans Thawed
5. Giza Butler
6. The Botanist

The Review:        

How the hell do you approach a release like this?  Any Sleep fan had been hoping, expecting, waiting for a full-length to follow up the band-disintegrating opus “Dopesmoker”.  Even after original drummer Chris Hakius departed amicably after a series of reunion dates in 2009, there was hope of things to come.  The immediate live participation of Neurosis stalwart Jason Roeder, the sporadic trickle of new output like “The Clarity” single in 2014, and the ascension to “elder statesmen of metal” status of Matt Pike and Al Cisneros made some monumental future output all but certain.  And in a particularly keen bit of stoner humor, the trio dropped “The Sciences” on, of course, 4/20.  I actually feel pretty bad for anyone else dropping their own passion projects on a date that Sleep practically owns.  And beyond the particular bit of gimmicky scheduling, “The Sciences” is as appropriate a paean to smoke altered consciousness as stoner metal worshipers could have hoped for.
The introductory title jam is a wall of savage, droning fuzz.  It’s chaotic, gut churning, and LOUD even through a pair of earbuds.  Like a bongrip as rocket launch, the brief number propels into “Marijuanaut’s Theme”.  Cisneros’ bass tone and subtle variations is a welcome counter to Matt Pike’s signature MONSTER playing, and his brief solo breaks are invigorating.  Each speaker is palpable in Pike’s riffing, but he’s distinctly not hijacking as a repository for High on Fire castoffs, or vice versa.  His style with Sleep is looser and dirtier, less Fast Eddie Clarke and more Tony Iommi.  His ability to simultaneously melt faces in two distinct outfits should never be discounted, but here, with less autonomy, his soloing shows a joyfulness that you don’t often get in the gritty, paranoid shredding of the most recent High on Fire albums.  And, from a production standpoint, this is completely beholden to power trio methods – when Matt shreds, there may be multitracked lead freakouts, but there are no rhythm guitar overdubs.  The whole thing could be pulled off live and sound just as full as the record.

“Sonic Titan” is one of those long fermenting cuts that first saw life decades ago, appearing as a rough cut on the Tee Pee issue of the (still incomplete) “Dopesmoker” in 2003.  Anyone professing that the “original” is better, is likely trying way too hard.  This is a honed, heavy, beefed up track.  Plus, Sleep is all about that positively pornographic tone, and while the “Dopesmoker” outtake has a raw appeal, the warmth and fuzz crackling across my speakers is perfect.  Plus, this may be my favorite use of bass wah post-Sabbath.  In my brief scrolls through social media, Al Cisneros’ peculiar vocal delivery seems to be a divisive issue: for those who followed Om, Al’s style is not surprising, perhaps a trademark, and even beloved.  For others, the flat affect is confounding.  I’m of two minds here – sometimes it sounds like the vocals are just a little too high in the mix, but I also really love distinctive vocal cadences.  To hear Cisneros fronting Sleep is a joy – and the register of his chants on “Sonic Titan” is a welcome departure from the strained yelp of the earlier, live cut of the long gestating song.

“Antarcticans Thawed”, a Lovecraftian epic with shades of spaghetti western in the opening, is the best track, and features Al’s best, most intense vocal performance on the record.  In comparison, “Giza Butler” is a bit too restrained.  It sneers but never snarls, though the riffs and mystical cannabinoid is a damned bit of fun that should be adapted into its own issue of Heavy Metal (the fantasy mag, not the genre).  And if “Giza…” transports us to outer rim planets of continental nugs, the sweet, acoustic denouement of “The Botanist” is an instrumental sendoff that brings the most bleary eyed listener back to equilibrium.

So can it possibly live up to the hype?  Honestly, what could?  This is not “Dopesmoker” part 2, or even a follow-up to “Holy Mountain”.  But even though this is heralded as a comeback record, it’s really a new permutation of the gestating giant. From the first crashes and fills, Jason Roeder establishes his own identity as a new element of Sleep.  Whether here or with Neurosis, he’s a titan of the kit.  He, thankfully, doesn’t ape Hakius’ beloved style – peppered with idiosyncratic snare work and warped cymbal crashes.  In reality, anyone doing a “Hakius v. Roeder” rundown is playing a fool’s game: they stand not so much in opposition as distinctly powerful eras of Sleep – the playful, Loki style playing of Hakius and the muscular, Thor on drums mastery of Roeder. 

So it’s a bit of a cheat – Sleep but not the Sleep you expected.  But in the course of 6 prog-infused stoner metal jams, Cisneros, Pike and Roeder earn all the goodwill they garnered in the post-“Dopesmoker” wilderness.   If anything, their well honed prowess outmatches any expectations.  Wherever “The Sciences” is ranked in the Sleep discography, it stands as a testament to a band who had to wait nearly 20 years for the critical and music-buying public to catch up.  Or, more aptly to spark up, sit down, and thrust themselves into the hazy riff worship they’ve been peddling longer than nearly anyone still relevant in the metal game.

“The Sciences” is available here

Band info: facebook