Following a 20 year hiatus, stoner metal legends Sleep dropped a new LP this past month on the very fitting 4/20. While it is still uncertain whether or not this comeback album justifies such a long career break, the surprise release has certainly stirred up the metal world.
Although Sleep has been fairly dormant over the past two decades, original members Matt Pike and Al Cisneros have remained relevant in the music world with their bands High On Fire and Om, respectively. While still catering to that sweet signature doomy sound that Sleep’s material offered in their glory days, both High On Fire and Om offer something new to the equation. The former tends to gravitate to a faster, more sludge-sounding style while the latter offers more mellow and lengthy material. Surely both newer groups successfully paved their own paths to success, but Sleep remains as the biggest and most popular entity between the two musicians.
Although this album was only announced a day before it was set to release, Sleep’s newest LP has certainly been brewing for quite some time. The group had reunited and in 2014 they released “The Clarity”, a 10 minute non-album single that was extremely well received. The group followed to play numerous show dates sporadically throughout the past couple of years. Surely it took the guys a while to get back into that signature Sleep-groove, especially since they newly-acquired drummer Jason Roeder from Neurosis back in 2009. However, I would say that the trio had no issue recreating and expanding upon their original sound with this newest release.
The track breakdown is relatively peculiar as two of the six songs on the record were originally written over 20 years ago but never got professionally recorded. Both “Sonic Titan” and “Antarcticans Thawed” have been played live occasionally throughout the band’s career and have become hidden gems among the band’s most dedicated followers but have never been on a release. Additionally, the first track of the record, “The Sciences”, is a three-minute instrumental opener. While the tune is masterfully crafted and successfully manages to generate a fitting atmosphere that helps the listener settle into the album, it doesn’t necessarily count as a song itself. That leaves only three new full songs from the band which total just over 23 minutes of music which might be disappointing for dedicated Sleep fans. With that being said, I will review the record as if every track is freshly-written as most listeners will not have heard the two aforementioned tracks that only got a professional recording on this new release. Let’s go over some of the record’s most prominent tracks.
I mentioned this track in a negative light in the previous paragraph for the sole purpose of discussing the lack of new material on the record. The opener itself is phenomenal and undoubtedly sets the tone for the rest of the record. This instrumental piece is closely related to 2014’s “The Clarity” as they both contribute to the greater idea of a space theme, hence the astronauts included within both of their covers. “The Sciences” almost borrows from “The Clarity”, as some guitar sections that seem to mimic vast repetitive sound waves expanding perpetually throughout outer space are found on both tracks. While the rest of the record doesn’t necessarily revolve around the space idea, perhaps other than “Marijuananaut’s Theme” which will be discussed below, the atmospheric opening track certainly shows off the group’s ability to deliver a specific desired vibe with their music.
I really hope this track becomes a live staple during Sleep’s future performances as it is arguably the best song on the record. It follows the suspense built by “The Sciences” and naturally unleashes a typical slow and trudgey Sleep riff, but only after an audible bong rip is taken, perhaps in homage to Black Sabbath’s famous “Sweet Leaf”.
The track serves partially as the band’s theme song, as the “Marijuananaut” is their mascot and can be seen featured on the covers of both “The Clarity” and “The Sciences”. Prior to researching the Marijuananaut’s origins, I actually had no idea he existed within the Sleep world as he isn’t flaunted all that much. He is very comparable to Iron Maiden’s famous “Eddie”, although the band has never brutally murdered the Marijuananaut live on stage like Iron Maiden did way back; maybe that wouldn’t fit so well with the doomy music.
The song is phenomenally structured and really gives off a “full” vibe, as the tune feels complete and leaves the listener feeling satisfied. The vocals are more cleanly-produced in comparison to past Sleep efforts, but that is not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. I heard some listeners complaining about the overly-audible and clean-sounding vocals spread throughout the release, but I feel like it fits well with the softer vibe on The Sciences in comparison to the rougher feel of past albums like Sleep’s Holy Mountain.
The solo section that unleashes halfway through the track is truly the bread and butter of the tune. The wavering and lifting guitar solo takes the listener off into a world full of smoke and haze, only to slowly glide them back down in a comforting manner. I can’t say anything bad about this track; it might be one of my favourite Sleep songs.
The fourth slot on the record transports the listener into a far land home to a peaceful battle fought between two of the temperature extremes. “Antarcticans Thawed” describes the Earth’s changing territorial nature, especially in regard to the negative effects of humanity’s gas consumption on the protective ozone layer. The frigid opening riffs of the song set the pace for the rest of the track. The vocals eventually come in, instantly melting the freezing buildup of music that has been expanding for the past couple of minutes. The opening lyric “Ice cap miles thaw to freedom” really hits the listener and wakes them up, especially since the opening instrumentation might have given them the opportunity to subconsciously wonder off.
I view these polarizing forces as a war that evolves throughout the song between natural ice and destructive heat. This metaphor is further expanded to reveal a peaceful yet frigid Antarctic land unrightfully disrupted by foreign heat waves emanating from the newly-visible sun. This explanation lies behind the punishing sudden nature of the opening lyric described above, as the slowly-spoken word “ice” is abruptly introduced to the listener, almost as a wake up call.
The song obviously serves as a public transmission by the band to spread awareness of the modern geographical issue of global warming which fits well within the group’s stoner vibe. An interesting idea to ponder lies behind the fact that this song was written over 20 years ago in a time where global warming had not yet reached the horrific magnitude that is has achieved in recent times. The issue that Sleep was trying to describe so long ago is still relevant today and has actually gotten worse. Maybe they should have released this song a while back!
My one gripe with the record is that it tends to drag on at some points and I find myself drifting away from the music. While one might say that the inherent atmospheric nature of the band’s music should have this effect on me, I would argue that I should be transported up with the music, not away from it. Perhaps some of the longer songs on the record could have been diversified a bit more in order to keep the listener’s attention.
I am also somewhat disappointed with the lack of new material found on the record as described above. Like I said, there are only three newly-written tracks on the album. The release’s nature therefore shifts to that of one telling fans that the group is back in business and is testing the waters. I’m guessing that the band did not want to embark on a full writing and release process for the album due to their long hiatus. The Sciences therefore serves as a clean-up album (since it features tracks that were written a while back) that safely lets fans know that the group is back together and writing again. I suspect that the sudden announcement and release of this LP was executed to not cause too much hype around the record, as the group’s past material is extremely cherished by their followers. This abrupt method allowed for the group to quietly release new material without getting people’s hopes up too much to end up ultimately disappointing their fans’ unreachable expectations.
In conclusion, the record is a credible addition to the band’s limited discography and will be enjoyed by all listeners. It successfully delivers that traditional slow and ominous Sleep sound while rehashing many ideas to give a fresh vibe to the record. However, the release does have some issues with monotony and a lack of newly-written material. All in all, an excellent record that may not top any yearly charts but is a must-have for any fans of the stoner genre.