The Heaviest Albums I’ve Heard

Hardcore punk rock was challenging itself to find heavier paths when Sleep’s Volume One was released in 1991. The lightly distorted guitars and heavily didactic vocals, were making way for more poetic, feelings-driven messaging. There was a stress hangover from the heady, violence-fueled days of the early punk era, and the music reflects that claustrophobic pessimism. Where punk and metal blend, and as nü metal began its inevitable ascension, crust retrieved credibility; as a genre, it found it’s niche in the margins. It lied hidden away in the underground, a place that was becoming increasingly hard to find with the major label buy out of punk bands that was even making even a band like Butthole Surfers famous. As punk bands began signing major label deals, hardcore crust punk became more abrasive, and more abrasive. It would be difficult to imagine a band like Sleep on a major label in the early nineties, something that might seem odd with the surge in popularity the cult album Dopesmoker has harnessed. For a while, it seemed like Sleep were doomed to only a sliver of success in the underground.

Before they became known for their truckloads of riffs, amplifier worship, and copious weed consumption, Sleep were a humble, yet vicious, Northern Californian, sludge-tinged, crust punk band. Though considered a typical metal trio today, from their inception you could trace their roots to other NoCal punk bands like Fang. They have a sinister snarl, detuned guitars, both chaotic and meandering. Similarly you could point to Flipper, the San Francisco-based punk pioneers, famous for near-suicidal, Dionysian excess: a band whose cynical take on music was a massive influence on the band so often falsely accredited with birthing sludge rock, Seattle’s Melvins, This isn’t to say that Sleep were ever a sludge band really, or punk rock for that matter. As crossover moved past simple thrash guitar work, speed metal drums, and short, tortured blast beats, the intersection of punk and metal found a more introspective tone. As crossover matured, the emphasis was less focused on bands like Slayer, replaced by the doom heavy, manic depressive thrash of bands like SF metal legends Metallica. Something about San Fransisco, the cloudy days in a large city fostered very depressing music, on Volume One, Sleep dials it all the way in.

“Stillborn” by Sleep (1991) Tupelo Recording Company

“Stillborn” starts off with chanting by the Gyuto monks of Tibet. The drums are syrup slow, everything drawn out. It drags on you at first until you get used to the idea that this is where the beat will linger. Sludge permeates the speakers, aside from tastefully played guitar solos, most of the track is hammering thrum, a wall of sound. Finally by songs last few refrains, the pace picks up dramatically. In a faster tempo the sound reminds me of bands signed to the Minneapolis-based crust label, Profane Existence. Which isn’t exactly a coincidence, before Sleep became the poster band for marijuana, they were poised to be another great addition to crust punk: a subgenre of hardcore punk rock, agitprop aesthetic, and massively overdriven guitars.

From “Stillborn” to “The Suffering,” Al Cisneros’ mellow bass riffs lead the march. One of the few things that changes, and will remain the trademark of the band’s sound, very clearly pronounced on their fourth LP “The Sciences,” released after an extended hiatus. Cisneros always captained the boat it seems. A sturdy framework that is both simple, yet demanding bass lines lay out a backdrop for Matt Pike’s intricate finger work. As the song builds, slowly picking up in tempo, Pike’s come into display, even employing some pinch harmonics; and while pitch harmonics aren’t a terrible thing, they sound dated to the nineties. Some bands use them quite sparingly, on Stillborn and Volume One as a whole, they give it a nostalgic feel, yet prepare us for the very Sabbath-inspired tones of the third track.

“Anguish” by Sleep (1991) Tupelo Recording Company

On “Numb,” Sleep throws us into the world Greg Ginn nurtured, and most often fleeced, on his label SST. The discordant sound of Rollins era Black Flag set next to emerging sludge side projects like Würm and Gone, with less jazz, and more doom influence. Bands like The Obsessed who informed so many hardcore bands at the time, and of course St. Vitus, all certainly contribute to the palate that sits below the vicious, and distorted pain exuded in the words and vocals of Al Cisneros. His persona as the immovable force of Sleep is somewhat betrayed on Volume One after the song drifts quietly into the fourth track, “Anguish.” With the song’s hoarse, barking, very modern hardcore vocals; the guitars nearly lock into a groove, but while nü metal was laying outside the bubble Sleep found themselves in, it’s quite clear they were doing their own thing. Volume One is certainly more metallic, but the band Cisneros, Hakius, and Pike shared prior to Sleep would much more likely be called hardcore than a heavy metal band.

Asbestosdeath put out four tracks in 1990. They have been compiled and released as one album by Southern Lord Records in 2007 (SUNN76). Three of the four tracks appear on Volume One, “Scourge,” “Anguish,” and “The Suffering.” It is almost a symbolic act since the new recordings sound nearly identical. Though Marler, who joined Sleep for Volume One, might have been better at bringing a more classically metal sound to the band, the loss of Tom Choi ultimately didn’t change much. There was never really doubt that Asbestosdeath were a crust punk band, but they definitely toed the line, like so many hardcore bands did in the nineties, and would have been considered thrash, albeit a thrash band that could be consider a contemporary of the other San Francisco crossover band Neurosis.

Dejection EP (1990) Profane Existence, Unclean EP (1990) Asbestos Records

Sleep weren’t always accepted, but they have finally been fully embraced by the metal scene, which is fitting, as Sleep in many ways propelled the popularity of the doom scene. Of course this could the last statement could be argued by many other working bands; bands like Trouble and every Wino project, guys who had been road-dogging it for many, many years. Still, I’m thankful that a band that had already hung up their hat after a career of never gaining traction was finally embraced by the larger music world. As a music lover, I am glad to feel vindicated in my preference to the Sabbath-influenced bands that were often called dumb by the hoards of fans who preferred death metal’s technical proficiency and cock-rock shock value. After Sleep broke up, I was sure we would have to live with Matt Pike’s posthumous project, High on Fire. If HoF was a return to hardcore roots as Matt Pike has noted, then Cisneros and Chris Hakius’ project, Om, was just more of Sleep’s music.The hardcore side of Sleep is certainly all but gone now, and that’s fine really. It was a long and bumpy road for these counterculture stalwarts, but they amazingly came out on top. The two bands melded cleanly back into one band in 2018 for their return EP, “Sonic Titan” the lead of two tracks harkening back to that HC spirit, but all the wiser for their separate paths.

I think enough has been written about Dopesmoker, the one hour, three minute track that, outside of its novelty deserves the attention and reissues that it received. Outside of the label intervention though, I just want to say that the pared-down version of Jerusalem is not a waste of time, and is still just as worthy of your attention. I still find myself listening to it a lot. Yet, this review is about the venomous, darkly-lit Volume one, and that takes us to track seven, Catatonic.

“Catatonic” is the first really tranced-out song from Sleep. It is pure sludge and stoner metal, a burnt coal, charred version of the self. The song has the classic sludge quality of too much, too often, a drug addled, egoless lump that sadly pines for solace, but there is no safe place to return, Volume One hasn’t found Sleep in any kind of blissed out state, it reflects the pollution and poverty of the world. The album points out the blindness to any kind of enlightenment that always fails to achieve much but reflect the true nature of our depravity back at us. When worn to a nub, you find the rest where you can get it, knowing that it might be the only thing to carry you to the end. “Catatonic” is a moment of respite, on a very heavy journey.

“The Wall of Yawn” by Sleep (Live at Berkeley 02/21/92)

The sixth track, “Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream” starts to hint toward the band we know today, and could with better production would fit well on Holy Mountain, their sophomore (and maybe best) album following Volume One. The admixture of religious and ancient imagery and neurotic, impulsive catharsis isn’t new to rock music, but Sleep takes it to soaring plateaus. On Sleep’s debut album, the tone is much darker, starting with the uncomfortable and disarming cover. It features a painting by surrealist artist, Salvador Dali titled, “Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon.” It is a self-portrait, with a rubber-like face, eyes propped open, the whole head needing to be lifted as if to say this is the only way I can participate in the world. It reflects the inner turmoil and ennui of the singer; the music highlights the malaise almost relentlessly. It hints to a metaphorical undertow that we only now know we will succumb to, too late realizing escape is an absurd impossibility. With Volume One, Sleep made something unbelievably heavy, if not somewhat inaccessible to your average metal fan. Which leads us into the track “The Wall of Yawn.”

While Sleep became less political, and gelled into a stoner metal band after Volume One, I don’t think it’s necessarily because guitarist Justin Marler quit the band in the fall of 1991 to join a monastery, and pen the apocalyptic cult zine, “Death to the World.” He might have brought his influence into the later albums, though with the religious imagery that didn’t really exist before Volume One, it certainly infuses everything afterwards. It does seem like he made an impression. How one would quantify it, I don’t know. He would only play on this one album. I wouldn’t peg him as a Syd Barrett type. He seems to be doing well, playing indie rock the last place I could track him down anyway. His band The Sabians with Hakius, and Rachael Fisher, Chris Hakius’s wife was quite good, if incredibly straight forward. No frills there, just doom rock the way it used to be made. I think that the myth of Marler retreating to the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery might have added to the legend of Sleep, I prefer to think of it as the place that took in punk rock kids, and often warped their minds to a strict form of evangelicalism that I don’t think is healthy, and seems rather predatory, to me at least. Regardless, Volume One is best known for Marler’s participation, but it’s still a whole cohesive band, and their heaviest album to this date.

The wall gets torn down on the seventh track of the album. Urgent drumming on a fast-paced rhythm move the song barreling down the track. It sounds huge and intimidating, like maybe we’ve misjudged this beast all along. This is the hardcore sound that Pike alluded to when describing HoF. It rocks with big breakdowns, the classic sound we love from Holy Mountain is just a tad bit heavier, and I think for this reason it’s criminally overlooked. While a song like “Prey,” the penultimate track of the album is not necessarily here to bum you out, it’s not meant to be pretty. This is music meant to wake you up. Although Sleep often hint and having this kind of energy, Volume One pummels you with it, and at only nine songs that clock in at 45 minutes, it’s not a skimpy album for the genre. When the closer, “Scourge,” our last nod to the work Asbestosdeath gave us finishes everything out, you feel perfectly satisfied, not a wasted moment, and it’s done before it wears out its welcome. When the EP, Vol 2 is released in 1992, cover of Black Sabbath’s “Lord of this World” graces the A side, with two tracks that would appear on Holy Mountain, Sleep’s fate as the newest godfathers of stoner metal sealed.

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