Californian stoner metal titans return through Jack White’s Third Man record label and bring doom by the barrel
Although Sleep are one of doom metal’s most widely influential bands, The Sciences is just their fourth album in nearly 30 years. Granted, there was a decade-long hiatus in the middle, but considering that the outfit are often cited as doom metal pioneers, Sleep in fact have precious little music released under their storied moniker.
Original members Matt Pike – latterly guitarist of the faster-paced High On Fire – and bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros reunited for two All Tomorrow’s Parties reunion sets in 2009. After this, they were joined in 2010 by one-time Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder, and Sleep have happily retained this lineup for The Sciences.
The album has been called a ‘comeback’ and received a surprise release on 20 April. Yes, the band who legendarily spent most of their record label advance on cannabis released their latest album on 4/20. How could they resist?
Well how indeed, with track titles like Marijuanaut’s Theme. It rumbles with a Sabbath-esque bassline and thickly billowing guitars which Jason Roeder’s drum track lurks underneath like a swamp ‘gator. Following scene-setting opener The Sciences, the whole of Marijuanaut’s Theme is thick enough to bite down upon as it lumbers inexorably towards Pike’s guitar solo.
Tracks Sonic Titan and Antarcticans Thawed (which traces its lineage back to 1999’s Dopesmoker sessions) form the core of the album. Sonic Titan hits particularly hard, a gut punch of a guitar riff with Cisneros’ bass snaking around it for the first half. The midpoint arrives and the track coughs into half time, brutally chugging through a palm muted guitar riff while the drums wildly thrash like a skyscraper collapsing all around.
Sonic Titan just keeps on trudging like a giant statue come to life through its 12-plus minute cycle, constantly evolving whilst also staying resolutely the same.
Antarcticans Thawed, meanwhile, is bloodyminded in its slow, creeping approach. Each crushing chord is elongated painstakingly as a military drum pattern keeps the band from freezing in place. As if building momentum throughout, the track picks up the pace from a glacial start to a menacing thrash through Roeder’s drums, dragging Pike and Cisneros along with him.
The Sciences really is hypnotic, in the most literal sense, thanks to its heavily repetitious riffs and sparse lyrical approach. The listener will often find themselves having stared into space for several minutes of running time, with no memory of the intervening time in snapping out of their reverie.
This is not to say that the album doesn’t hold your attention – in fact, even the lengthier tracks never seem to run out of ideas. When the band want to bring an aspect into sharp focus, as on the satisfying resolves to Giza Butler’s riff backing Cisneros’ chanted vocal, they do so with laser precision.
On the negative side, the album’s opening track of ear-splitting feedback and revving guitar effects isn’t a great indication of what follows. It feels awkward and has a sense that its intention and execution never quite mesh, which can’t really be shaken. Closing track The Botanist also wanders slightly from the single-minded groove of the rest of the album, but that’s a minor criticism.
Although The Sciences would probably stand as a challenge to the casual listener, those who like their metal uncompromisingly heavy, and often sickeningly slow, will find everything to love and little to dislike about Sleep’s latest offering.
For fans of: Black Sabbath, Kyuss, Mastodon
Standout tracks: Sonic Titan, Antarcticans Thawed, Giza Butler
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