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Sleep plays stoner metal for an angsty generation 

Wednesday, Sep 8 2010
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Within the sweaty milieu of depravity that is Harmony Korine's Gummo, a film loosely based on the cat-hunting teens and other backwoods delinquents of Xenia, Ohio, one scene epitomizes the essence of misunderstood youth at the end of the '90s. Two boys, each full of contempt for anything but their favorite bands and drugs of choice, fly downhill through an injured suburbia on BMX bicycles. Their faces are stoic, their journey is without purpose, and Sleep's chugging anthem, "Dragonaut," blares as they ride.

That song's guttural guitars, baritone yawps, and sluggish groove gave the meandering of the film's mischievous main characters meaning. Sleep's brutal psychedelia spoke to aimless teenagers lacking heroes they could relate to, even years after its albums were written and recorded in the early '90s. Alongside the leafy drug with which the Bay Area band is so often associated, Sleep's music provided a gateway into the world of heavy sounds loudly played in hazy rooms — the fantastic realm of stoner metal.

Essentially, Sleep has two important albums that helped pioneer the weed-lovin' subgenre. Listening to both the masterpiece from which "Dragonaut" came, Sleep's Holy Mountain, and the band's posthumous opus, Dopesmoker, is like losing yourself in a cavern excavated by the godfathers of sludgy dirges, using reimagined Black Sabbath riffs, droning bass tones, and dark tales of fantasy and hallucination. Those stoner-metal epics offered a new musical haven to kids obsessed with science fiction, comics, and Magic: The Gathering, who eagerly drove record needles into their parents' collections of classic heavy rock. Under the influence of Sleep's discography, the same teens went on to form some of metal's notable contemporaries: the Sword, Baroness, Witchcraft, and the like.

Sleep's own story is full of the same mystery that bolsters the chemistry of its sound. Though the three-piece isn't notoriously elusive, in-depth interviews have been rare, and the particulars of its career trajectory read like rock 'n' roll myths. Holy Mountain was recorded as a demo before Earache labelheads heard it, immediately signed the band, and released it. The money London Records gave the band to record its third full-length was instead spent on fancy guitar amps and copious amounts of marijuana. And after the hour-long, one-song Dopesmoker LP was turned down by London for being "unmarketable," the remaining members of Sleep splintered off to form bands of nearly equal influence, such as Om and High on Fire.

Now, 20 years after Matt Pike and Al Cisneros came together with founding members Chris Hakius and Justin Marler in San Jose, the band is about to return home. Sleep reunited last year for a performance at All Tomorrow's Parties in England, claiming it would be a one-off. But recently the band has played a handful of dates across the U.S., and performs for a San Francisco audience this week for the first time in more than a decade. It won't be in original form: Guitarist Pike and bassist and singer Cisneros will be joined onstage by Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder for two shows at the Regency Ballroom. Likely amid plumes of weed smoke, the trio will perform the seminal Holy Mountain in its entirety, along with segments from the monumental Dopesmoker. So, veterans of suburban wastelands: Sleep is back, and ready to reawaken your angsty inner youth.

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Patric Fallon

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