In 1994, doom metal band Sleep told their label, Earache, they were ready to record their second album. Their first, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, had been well received, and they had an idea for a second album, about getting stoned. After several years of writing and recording, the album was finished. It had only one song. That song was 63 1/2 minutes long. The label refused to release it, and the band broke up.
But then something surprising happened. That hour-long song, “Dopesmoker,” was recognized as a work of genius. The three stoners behind the band, singer/bassist Al Cisneros, guitarist Matt Pike, and drummer Chris Hakius, has painstakingly constructed an heavy, hard-hitting song that was also deliberate and slow. A tough balance for any band to pull off for three or four minutes, let alone sixty-three. “Dopesmoker” grew into a legend. It surfaced in bootlegs, and conflicting versions released by different labels. In 1999, the album was released as Jerusalem, with the epic song broken into six segments, all with the same title; in 2003 it was released as Dopesmoker with a second, 9 1/2-minute song added; in 2012, it was reissued by a different label, with a different second track.
Over the years, and with each unofficial release, “Dopesmoker”’s legend grew. By the time the band reunited in 2009 (with Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder replacing Hakius), they found they had a sizeable following. Their reputation continued to improve when the 2012 reissue was given near-universal acclaim (Pitchfork gave it an 8.5, it scores 94 percent on Metacritic, and A.V. Club contributor John Semley gave it an A.)
But last week, Sleep reached a new pinnacle of fame, getting rapturous praise from that unlikeliest of metalheads, the Gray Lady. Yes, The New York Times has weighed in on “Dopesmoker,” and David Rees, writing for the paper’s magazine section, writes a review that is itself a masterpiece of praise. Rees digs deep for metaphors to describe an album he calls “one of the most formidable recordings of the past 20 years.” The song is, “like a Mark Rothko painting hitting you over the head with a bag of hammers.” One particular chord, 20 minutes into the song, “sounds like an avalanche having an orgasm.” Of the listening experience, he says, “I should also admit that I experience the final few measures of ‘Dopesmoker’ with the same exhausted, guilty relief I remember from the closing moments of a church service.”
Rees also describes the band’s process, in which they recorded the marathon song in 16-minute stretches, to accommodate the length of analog tape (remember, it was recorded in the ’90s). He talks about the song’s shift in time signatures, and how the guitarist tuned his low string two full steps down, “and the weight and sustain of that low C is mesmerizing.” And he addresses the difficulty of sustaining a song that slow, and that loud, for that long. To get the “really, really heavy” sound they were looking for, Sleep recorded every guitar track three times over, “using custom-built amps so powerful that it wasn’t possible to stand in the same room with them.”
Rees’ glowing praise is worth reading in full, and “Dopesmoker” is an essential listen, assuming you’ve got an hour or so to spare.