Black Sabbath are gone. Saint Vitus has split from Scott "Wino" Weinrich. Trouble are fractured into two bands. Bobby Liebling cannot stay clean long enough to push Pentagram to where it should be. In the stoner realms, Cathedral and Kyuss are long gone, and Goatsnake and Candlemass come and go. Virtually every classic doom-metal act has fractured, disintegrated or is only remotely near its former glory.
Thank god for Sleep — the pinnacle of modern doom.
Since forming in 1990, they've taken the Iommic teachings of the Birmingham elders and reapplied them in a fresh way for a new generation — oh, and along the way they just happened to issue the greatest stoner anthem of all time, the epic hour-long 1998 wonder Dopesmoker (in alternate versions, Jerusalem).
The trio — Matt Pike, Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius — lasted eight years in their original incarnation, splitting in the wake of the stalemate between band and label regarding the release of Jerusalem. Al and Chris formed the transcendental-leaning band Om and Matt Pike followed the riffs toward Lemmy country with his Celtic Frost/Motörhead hybrid High on Fire. Both flourished in their respective scenes.
Then all of a sudden, the band returned in 2009, performing as part of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the U.K. and with a new track in tow, "Antarcticans Thawed." A series of touring victory laps with new drummer Jason Roeder (Neurosis) ensued, including dates across the globe, and revisionist (and maybe in this case correcting) history deemed the Bay Area band as the most important in stoner-rock act in history. Crowds followed, and suddenly Sleep went from underground metal favorite and "the band from the Gummo soundtrack" to crossover metal legends. The title was deserving.
In 2014, the band released "The Clarity," a track that felt more at home in structure and approach on Om's Pilgrimage than a continuation of the Sleep legacy, emphasizing repetition and drone across its close to 10-minute run time. While Om and Sleep will always have a certain amount of interchangeability due to the songwriters involved, it felt like one was creeping into the other. Clearly, Dopesmoker was an exercise in repetition and drone, so would the new Sleep be one of contemplation, meditation and philosophy? Or that of the good ol' cranked riffs of 1992's Holy Mountain?
Four years later, we finally have your answer: Both. Released today (4/20, insert knowing pun here), Sleep's The Sciences nods at Dopesmoker while following a semi-religious trail toward transcendentalism. It's a hypnotic and progressive record, and quite possibly the best comeback effort this side of Carcass's Surgical Steel.
The LP clocks in at 53 minutes long, 26 minutes of which ("Sonic Titan" and "Antarcticans Thawed") have existed in different forms over the years, though this is their first recorded studio incarnations. Originally appearing as the second track on the Tee Pee Dopesmoker release, "Sonic Titan"'s previous form was as a bouncier exercise — less bluesy and recorded in a live session — more fitting for the faster grooves of Holy Mountain. "Antarcticans Thawed" is an unreleased composition that Sleep fans have heard in set lists since the band has reformed. Of course, in the close to decade since the group came back into the public eye, the version has shifted considerably: sitting further back in the pocket and emphasizing the groove more than ever.
"The Sciences" opens the record — a short ambient gateway which leads to a bubbling bong and the first real track, "Marijuanaut's Theme" (a nod to the band's mascot, a 420-friendly astronaut). Cisneros' monotone vocal sets the mood, creating a meditative exercise meant for kicking back and lighting up. The classic Sleep riffs have returned, but the overall approach is inward and contemplative, not outwardly raging.
The record's true highlight is "Giza Butler," which is the culmination of two of Cisneros' key influences: Egyptian mythology (which he also reveres on Om's "At Giza," from Conference of the Birds) and his love for possibly the greatest bass player in rock, Geezer Butler. The opening is darkly psychedelic, reminiscent of some evil, psychedelic Grateful Dead deep cut, until the guitars drop like hammers into the strongest riff on the album. This is the Sleep thunder that has been missed all of the years.
The LP closer is "The Botanist," a darkly beautiful blues-tinged track that shows off Pike's guitar versatility, as he unleashes Sabbathian riffs, introspective picked lines and haunting emotional solos ... and repeats them again and again. As the solos piled upon solos fade away, they make way for an open ambiance and eventual fade-out. This is a wholly new side of Sleep that we have never heard before and one that cements Pike as a modern guitar god.
Considering the formidable legacy of Sleep and its members' individual outputs, The Sciences is a remarkable achievement, nodding to the band of past while moving into the version that exists today. Sleep are not snickering Beavis and Butthead-esque "let's get baked and watch TV" potheads: The musicians are now grown men attempting to achieve a new state of consciousness through the five-fingered leaf, and delivering the best stoner-doom record we've heard in a long time.