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The story behind Dopesmoker, the final LP in the life of pioneering stoner sludge trio Sleep, is one of perseverance not usually associated with such dedicated grass aficionados. Intended to be the Cali band’s third record and first for major label London, the album took shape as a single 63-minute track entitled “Dopesmoker,” an ode to the joys of getting baked. After nearly two months of work, the band (guitarist Matt Pike, bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius) pronounced the opus complete and turned it in to London, who promptly rejected it. After a 52-minute edit retitled Jerusalem was also refused service, Sleep was dropped from the label and packed it in. Jerusalem eventually came out on (now defunct) The Music Cartel; Pike formed acclaimed metal powerhouse High On Fire and Cisneros and Hakius resurfaced in the experimental duo Om.
But the tale endeth not there. Underground heavy rock label Tee Pee issued Dopesmoker in its intended form in 2003, to many huzzahs in the metal community. The band itself reunited in 2009 for some festival dates, and has continued in part-time form since. The rights to the record reverted back to the band, which then turned it over to metal specialist label Southern Lord, whose roster is filled out by plenty of Sleep-influenced acts. Now Dopesmoker rises once again, in superbly remastered form, to stomp across the landscape in a cloud of funny-smelling haze.
With all that history behind it, does the music itself hold up? That probably depends on your proclivity toward stoner metal in the first place. “Dopesmoker” is literally over an hour’s worth of variations on a single riff – there are some vocals, occasional guitar solos, a brief passage where the pedals switch from distortion to phasing and some chord walk-ups to keep things moving, but it all comes down to the One Riff to Rule Them All. There’s definitely a meditative quality to this experience – while it stops short of being the kind of aural wallpaper of, say, new age music, the band likely wouldn’t argue that the intention is to zone the heck out and let the heaviness envelope you like the proverbial dope cloud. Students of Pike’s guitar stylings may find it appealing as well – the roots of his HoF riffmongering certainly arise in this 60+ minute groove.
This new edition includes a live take on Sleep’s early anthem “Holy Mountain,” which has more dynamic variety but still serves as a prelude for what was to come.