Few songs are as shrouded in haze and enigma as Sleep’s epic “Dopesmoker.” Like the planet Jupiter, it’s a massive, dense, swirling giant, with a storm raging at its center. Sixty-three fucking minutes without a key change, most of it chugging along on low guitar and bass strings tuned down to C. It’s a definitive. . . no. . . it’s THE definitive Stoner Doom album. . . but also very much in the world of Drone, Trance, and Ambient (just without the Techno). A caravan of sludgy, Sabbathy riffs trudge across the desert, with occasional interludes from Matt Pike’s guitar, delivering some of the choicest, juiciest, Bluesiest solos this side of Jerusalem. (After Sleep’s breakup, Pike would go on to front the band, High On Fire.)
Drummer Chris Hakius keeps the wheels of the carts rolling across the sand. The raw vocals drop in and out from time to time across the epic “Dopesmoker” journey, sung by bassist Al Cisneros as another droning element, maintaining the same note and pitch for every single syllable he utters – – the only exception occurs in the word “Believer.”
The monotony is the point. The hypnotic mesmerism is part of the song’s mind-altering effect.
Famously shelved by the unhappy and confused record company, various versions and bootlegs and mixes of the song exist. At first it was called “Jerusalem,” but ultimately released in 2003 as its near-final evolution as “Dopesmoker.” The most approved version seems to be the 2012 Southern Lord Records reissue.
Although the song had been around for almost twenty years in various forms, it has to be noted that the latter half of the 2010s decade enjoyed a powerful Stoner Doom renaissance, with bands like The Necromancers, With the Dead, Conan, and a slew of others catching some stardom. I’m gonna credit much of this rise to the wide release of “Dopesmoker.”
The experience of the song is larger-than-life. Its enormity is too great for your earbuds. It begs to be played in movie theaters, with audiences able to sit captive, focused, entranced with the sounds, with only the brilliant, otherworldly album art from Arik Roper on the big screen, which would be barely visible through the haze of smoke. (One of the all-time greatest album covers, by the way.) No, fuck that, it needs a bigger screen than any theater can provide; it needs to be projected from horizon to horizon across the desert sky.
Haters will say that it’s just 3 potheads getting carried away, that the song is too long, tedious, overindulgent, and silly in its self-seriousness. They may not be wrong, but to me, Sleep achieve a profound level of mystique, mysticism, depth, and grandeur. This is primal, primordial, raw, and powerful, like a slow-moving river of lava For the band and the questing protagonists of “Dopesmoker,” the weed experience is spiritual, religious, deeply meaningful on an existential level. I could follow in their footsteps with an hour-long ditty about thin-crust pizza.
For whatever it’s worth: I have only ever experienced this monolithic tune in a straight frame of mind, and so my only accompanying altered state came from the music itself. Sleep are certainly not the only or the first band to go epic on an extended jam, but this – – more than the Grateful Dead, Phish, Spock’s Beard, etc. – – makes the listener feel more than any other like they’re a part of the jam. I can feel myself exploring the terrain of the dunes, like I’m part of the caravan, as Pike, Cisneros, and Hakius lead us across them, with that tubey fuzz distortion echoing all around us. It was surely physically and emotionally exhausting for the three guys in the band, but the listener who makes it to the end also feels drained and haggard as well.
The song is important, daunting, and if you dive fully into it – – whether you’re a weed priest or just an engaged listener – – “Dopesmoker” will change your life.
Can we refer to Sleep as a “one-hit wonder?” Because that would be hilarious.
Journalist David Rees penned, “Letter of Recommendation: Sleep, ‘Dopesmoker’” in 2016 for the New York Times (- – The New York Times!! – -) which plumbs the depths of the song’s meaning and structure with eloquence and detail. Highly recommended for further reading.
Jack Mangan is best known in the Metal world as the co-host of the popular Metal Hall of Fame and MetalAsylum.net livestreams with Rich Catino, but in this space, he’s also the lead author/project runner for the “Am I Evil?” graphic novel and a journalist with MetalAsylum.net and the official Metal Hall of Fame. In an adjacent life, he was a podcast pioneer, with numerous appearances on Dragon Page, Escape Pod/Pseudopod, Technorama, and many others, including his own productions: Jack Mangan’s Deadpan, and the Podcast novel, “Spherical Tomi.” Friend him on Facebook if you can find him, but be warned: he’s not great about checking Facebook Messenger.