As I write this, it’s 4/20. Guaranteed, right now there is someone somewhere in a smoke-filled, dimly lit basement listening to Sleep. And why not? I’m told they are among the top bands to enjoy a little mind-altering substance of choice to and it’s easy to see why. Within their patchy, decades-long career, they have crafted lurching, stoner-friendly doom metal that has set something of a bar for the genre. If the songs were any fuzzier, they’d be a Muppet. Any more grind to them, and the albums would come with a kief catcher. So when Sleep decided to surprise release a new album comprised almost entirely of new material, everyone – even sober-ass me – rejoiced.
I’m sure ‘laid-back’ isn’t too wild of a descriptor for Sleep‘s overall mood, but with The Sciences we see them at an all-time high when it comes to reclination. The music is just as doomed and stoned as ever, but small changes like a shift to an even more deliberately tongue-in-cheek theme, and the use of slightly softer and more fluid tones ensure this music will do anything but kill your buzz.
Al Cisneros’ strongly enunciated vocals that border on spoken word have him sounding better than ever. His harsher, deep bellows might be missed by many, but I really appreciate his cleaner technique here. It allows the lyrics to be more clearly heard through the smoke and fuzz of the guitar and bass amps. I mean, who would want to miss out on lyrical gems like ‘rifftual commences ’round the tree stump altar/Bong water of life anoints the Muad’Doob messiah‘?
Which leads into my next point: because of Sleep‘s decision to take the slow rides even easier, The Sciences is their cheekiest album yet. Doom metal doesn’t exactly lend itself to humor as a genre, but I think guitarist Matt Pike and friends are too busy making ridiculous weed puns and imagery with their lyrics to really care. The whole of “Marijuanaut’s Theme” eschews the literary complexity of the likes of Twain or Vonnegut and embraces a higher education absurdity. The sound of bubbling bong water leads the song off before launching skyward into a tale of spaced-out exploration by the titular character: ‘Sojourns the lone stoned soul/Marijuanaut loads a new bowl/Behold as he enters the clearing/Planet Iommia nearing‘. And that isn’t the only thinly-veiled reference to Black Sabbath; I couldn’t help but giggle at “Giza Butler”, a reference to legendary bassist Geezer Butler.
Aside from being a masterclass pun, “Giza Butler” is also a fine descriptor for the band’s grimy desert sound which is, inevitably, informed by the protometal juggernauts referenced within. A thick bass lead starts the song off and permeates throughout the whole track like a particularly pungent strain. Guitars weave up and down in the intro, providing a subtly psychedelic touch that’s immensely enjoyable. There’s some similar 60s-era influence in the riffing of “Sonic Titan”, a song that has previously only existed in a live recording form. Here, it is re-recorded, extended, and polished, complete with a new set of lyrics.
For being slow music where even mid-tempo pacing seems fast, the songs certainly don’t meander into boring territory. The glacial pace of “Antarcticans Thawed” is fitting given its title, but the progression of the track makes it so you don’t lose yourself in the haze. Strong bits of instrumental flair, provided chiefly by drummer Jason Roeder’s (Neurosis) masterful fills and larger-than-life crashes, fill the lungs of this song. Here, we also see a more animated vocal performance from Cisneros. If you loved his brutish candor on “Dopesmoker”, you’ll feel right at home here.
Where Sleep have previously coated their sound in a darker resin, this album overall has a lighter tone that doesn’t sacrifice the heaviness of the instrumentation expected from them. I struggle to think of anything profoundly problematic with this album. The 53-minute runtime is well spent, the vibe is chill, and the music is lovingly crafted by three dudes who know well what their fans want. Even when a track is basically recycled, it’s done in a manner that isn’t cheap and almost feels like a delightful easter egg for fans of their work.
The album is momentous, far beyond the surface level wink-and-nudge of ‘haha, the weed band released a new album on 4/20‘. This is the return of one of the best in the doom metal game, and in unexpected top form. There’s enough weed references (reeferences?) here to make Tommy Chong giggle, and the raw riffing should impress even the most experienced axe aficionados. As it stands, The Sciences is now my favorite Sleep album and my favorite release in the genre this year. Put this in your pipe and smoke it.
Notable Tracks: “Marijuanaut’s Theme”; “Sonic Titan”; “Giza Butler”
FFO: Weedeater, Kyuss, Fu Manchu