By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Arguably the most influential metal band to emerge from the Bay Area since Metallica, monolithic stoner-doom power trio Sleep will ring in the new year at the Great American Music Hall with a run of three shows closing out 2018.
Evolving from the blackened doom metal outfit Asbestosdeath in the early 1990s after a change in band members (departing guitarist Tom Choi would later found the sludge/crust group Noothgush and the more straight stoner rock crew Operator Generator), Sleep got its start as a quartet featuring the rhythm section of bassist/singer Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius with guitarist Matt Pike and Choi’s replacement, guitarist Justin Marler.
The band began to explore a slower, lumbering sound inspired by Black Sabbath and pioneering sludge-rock band Melvins under the new moniker, eventually releasing its debut album Volume One in 1991 that featured Cisneros’ howling vocals, a more raw edge and far shorter song structures than the group would later become known for. After the release of the album, Marler left the band to become an Orthodox monk with Sleep continuing on as a threesome.
Slowly building a cult audience around the Bay Area for their anachronistic sound and look (the group often dressed in ragged bellbottoms that made them look the part of a gritty ’70s power trio), Sleep tracked it’s next batch of songs with noted producer/engineer Billy Anderson and sent a demo tape out in search of a new label. Independent British grindcore/extreme metal imprint Earache not only signed the band, but issued the demo as the band’s seminal second album, Sleep’s Holy Mountain.
Delving into extended song structures, slower tempos and introducing a lyrical obsession with weed, the recording established Sleep — along with downtuned “desert rock” contemporaries Kyuss and already established East Coast heavyweights Monster Magnet — at leaders of what would later be tagged the stoner rock movement. The band’s profile continued to rise following tours with like-minded Sabbath worshippers Cathedral and pioneering space-rock crew Hawkwind, and the buzz surrounding Sleep’s Holy Mountain led to interest from major labels Elektra and London.
The trio signed to London Records and entered a protracted legal battle with Earache after being promised full artistic control, eventually setting about writing the band’s most ambitious effort yet. A mammoth hour-long track the group had already been refining, the initially christened track “Dopesmoker” went through further development and multiple attempts at recording before Sleep added elements of Middle Eastern mysticism and turned in a final copy of the renamed track “Jerusalem” in 1996.
Label executives were completely bewildered by Pike’s buzzing, hypnotic riffs and Cisneros intoning chants about “weed-priests” and dropping “out of life with bong in hand.” After the band refused to edit the track, London made a couple attempts to remix the recording before finally shelving it. The extended struggle led the frustrated band to disintegrate. Pike would found an equally important power trio in High on Fire, while Hakius and Cisneros both left music for a number of years before reuniting in the spiritually minded minimalist heavy duo Om.
The lost Sleep album would eventually see release in several forms, both unauthorized and legitimate, finding an audience of critics and fans who hailed the recording as a landmark stoner-doom epic as the band’s legacy and influence spread. Clamoring fans and offers from festivals eventually led to Sleep reuniting in 2009 to play two concerts in London for All Tomorrow’s Parties to wide acclaim.
Though Hakius would retire from music after those initial concerts, Sleep has continued to be a popular festival and touring attraction after recruiting Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder. While the band released it’s first new song in many years in 2014 with the free download “The Clarity” as part of Adult Swim’s promotional single series, questions of when Sleep might finally release studio recordings of some of the material being previewed during live performances.
After a number of cryptic announcements that the trio’s album was nearing completion over the past year, Sleep finally unleashed the new effort entitled The Sciences on Jack White’s Third Man Records appropriately enough on 4/20 earlier this year. Delivering hefty studio takes of songs dating back to the band’s first era (a live version of “Sonic Titan” recorded in 1994 was included as a bonus track on one edition of Dopesmoker) along with newer material, the beautifully packaged collection packs a mighty wallop that lives up to Sleep’s well-deserved legend.
For this run of San Francisco shows at the Great American Music Hall starting Saturday, Sleep will be joined by three different like-minded heavyweight bands each night. On Saturday, long-dormant, cello-driven post-metal group Grayceon plays songs from IV, its first new album in five years. On Sunday, Neurosis leader Scott Kelly performs with Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, his doomy industrial side project with producer/synth player Sanford Parker (Corrections House, Wreckmeister Harmonies) on Sunday while celebrated heavy duo Big Business joins the party on New Year’s Eve.
Saturday-Monday, Dex.29-31, 8 p.m. $50-$80
Great American Music Hall