Three stoned kids walk into an expensive studio with the idea of recording one song that lasts for an hour and opens with the line, "Drop out of life with bong in hand." During the course of the tune, which changes every time they play it, they equate weed with most every sacred religious symbol, take solos that stretch for minutes, and sing in some malevolent half-chant incantation. They won't allow it to be edited for radio play, and they don't want to break it into tracks. And, by the way, the label footing the bill is the same 50-year-old institution that released music by the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles and, the Moody Blues: With every year that passes, both the tale and the tape of Dopesmoker seem a little more ridiculous.
The third album by a trio of 20-something San Jose, Calif., burnouts called Sleep, Dopesmoker resulted from a major-label skirmish over a band that had made two very good but not altogether great LPs of distorted, bluesy, and bleary-eyed rock. But those records-- 1991's Volume One and 1993's Holy Mountain-- sported would-be singles, editable jams like "Holy Mountain", "Snowblind", and "The Wall of Yawn" that might have found a home on the radio dial in the filthy backwash of grunge. In the battle between Elektra and London Records, however, Sleep didn't seem so interested in who might pay the most to get their stoner rock on the air; as guitarist Matt Pike, bassist Al Cisneros, and drummer Chris Hakius have said since, they wanted to go with the label that would pay for the album and mostly leave the music alone. London ostensibly signed off on such creative control. So after more than a year of legal wrangling to slip out of an old label contract, Sleep finally went with London and, in 1996, entered Record Two, the aforementioned well-equipped Northern California studio, with producer Billy Anderson and, as the fable goes, a lot of weed.
Their plan was to record the one-song album they'd been writing and testing live for at least four years. As Cisneros told Decibel writer J. Bennett a decade later, London had approved the idea, but the deep pockets began to get concerned as soon as they started to hear the music. Despite London's anxiety, technical troubles, and interpersonal tensions, Sleep finally finished the track in two month-long sessions. The label would never release it: After a series of contentious remixes and edits by a number of different hands hired by London, the imprint eked out a few cheap promos before deciding to can Sleep. The band broke up (in retrospect, they've said, they were headed this way with or without London), and during the next decade, three labels issued unofficial bootlegs or unagreeable edits of Dopesmoker, or as the band later called it, Jerusalem.
Now, 16 years after it was recorded, Sleep's storied third and easily best album is finally available through a remastered, re-illustrated reissue. Loud and more lucid, Southern Lord's greenest version of Dopesmoker pushes the record's highs to higher places and gives the whole hour just a bit more power. The trio has long complained that the previous versions didn't understand their intended aesthetic-- the art, the mixing, any of it. But a brilliant new cover by artist Arik Roper, who also designed the previously popular Tee-Pee version of the disc, pictures the "Weedians" of which Cisernos sings, making their pilgrimage to Nazareth, endless bongs strapped to their backs, an extra-terrestrial landscape in the distance. As Pike exclaimed to The Quietus earlier this year, "This one is going to look so fucking cool, it's so rad." That statement should rightly apply not only to the cover but also to this entire reissue, which at long lasts fulfills the red-eyed vision of the people who made Dopesmoker while confirming the record's legacy both as a stoner-metal and psychedelic-rock masterpiece. This is one of the great major-label casualties, finally available in proper form.
When Sleep broke up after the failure of Dopesmoker, the trio split into two unequal halves: Almost immediately, Matt Pike started High on Fire, who have continued adding different kinds of fuel to the same generalized burn. Years later, Hakius and Cisneros would return as Om to explore the same iterative modalities that made listening to Dopesmoker feel like an instant inhalation. Dopesmoker is the perfect culmination before the collapse; Pike's bombast meet Om's repetition, a friction that rendered ideal sparks. Though the lengths of his solos are anything but modest, his playing itself is largely textural; when he steps into the spotlight, Pike lets repeated notes follow each other into a kaleidoscopic flurry. The persona of the shirtless, shouting dude at the helm of High on Fire remained in check, so as not to distract from the music's naturally meditative state.
To that end, Hakius and Cisneros weren't quite locked into Om's repetition addiction yet, either. Instead, they pushed against each other, Cisneros countering Pike's lumbering riffs with ample burl and perfectly sculpted tone. Historically, Hakius has criticized his own playing during the Dopesmoker sessions. But Dopesmoker is an infinitely explorable listen, the kind of record that will goad your attention through miniscule rabbit holes whether or not you're as stoned as the people who made it. Hakius' pulse is the constant carrot, then, filling the spaces when the band aggresses, forcing them forward when they pull back. He is a reminder to continue toward Nazareth.
And that's perhaps what remains most impressive about Dopesmoker, especially hearing it again for the first time through yet another reissue: It's an hour of adventure and momentum, where the lumber and the repetition somehow always push ahead. At a moment when black metal reinventers and D-beat revivers seem to dominate large sections of the heavy music world, maybe the thought of a resin-voiced singer intoning for an hour over riffs that wrap into themselves and drums that aim ever for infinity seems boring. But no matter how many times they had to record or rehearse "Dopesmoker" to master it, or no matter how much pressure London placed on them to make something more commercial than personal, Sleep sound as if their very existence depends upon the successful exercise of this weed ritual. In a sense, it's safe to say it did. This record's influence on substance, style, and simple ambition within heavy metal has long outlived the band that made it.
Southern Lord's reissue comes with no elaborate set of liner notes or verbose essay concerning the serpentine origin of the release itself. Rather, the tracklist is simply offered on the back cover, as well as the written-and-performed-by bona fides and the production credits. The insert consists entirely of a triptych of Pike, Hakius, and Cisneros performing and a photo of a massive piece of cardboard itemizing the contents of the titanic tune: "Hot Lava Man 4x All Slow (Vocals)", it reads in one spot. The only bonus is a fidelity-compromised live take of "Holy Mountain". It might be tempting to attribute this lack of archival scholarship to stoner lassitude, or to wish for the official story to serve as a sort of reverse score for the long-evasive music. But the story of Dopesmoker and the dissolution of Sleep have been passed around enough-- written about in books, discussed in interviews, warped and exaggerated by years of bong-ripping bros sharing the record with a friend for the first time. This reissue of Dopesmoker doesn't waste time with an introduction that this record no longer requires.
-- Grayson Currin (Pitchfork)