Review: Sleep – Kentish Town Forum, London 6.6.16

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DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM. Slabs of sludgy, rolling, tumbling, grumbling, thrumbling, thrudding, grudding quasi-Satanic dooooooooooooooooooom.

That is a more than fair description of Sleep- the band who probably also defined the term “stoner rock” more than any other post-1990, and whom over 1,700 rock fans have rammed the Forum tonight to see. And when I say rammed, I mean rammed. Not that the show’s sold out- but there are definitely far more attendees here than I’ve felt crush against my nads in a long time (even the Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk shows didn’t attract quite so many) and being the type of gig that it is, it’s not the type of thing people generally elect to watch sitting down either. In fact, I’d wager that what few spare tickets there are left are in all probability located primarily upstairs: having said that, I seem to remember my own first encounter with their now-legendary Sleep’s Holy Mountain album as being a very sitty-downy-affair. Cross-legged in a circle, that is, shortly before falling down: for the life of me, I can’t possibly think why…

Much debate has raged over the years on the subject of the Perfect Riff, but as the lights fade and Al Cisneros picks out the plonking, descending, buzz-rumphing intro to Dragonaut, the thought does cross my mind that we might just be listening to it. Except that ‘it’ isn’t entirely accurate, as, almost as if in order to remind us that this is possibly the definitive stoner doom band we’re listening to here, the tune actually features no less than three riffs in one. First there’s that intro, then there’s the doubly-heavy ‘jn-jjn-jjn-jjrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn’ that precedes the verse, and finally, there’s the shuddering, juddering, staggering monolith that follows it: yet pick any one at random and you still have something almost capable of trampling all competition underfoot.

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Almost, that is, but not quite: churlish though it sound, the impression left by the true progenitors of Thee Metal Riff, Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath (together with the likes of the MC5, Stooges, BOC, Hawkwind and Edgar Broughton Band, whose combined drugs of choice helped drag the hitherto mid-paced sound of ‘eavy rock screeching down speedier, spacier, sleazier streets of sonic seditionism) is, even in 2016, still too strong to shake off entirely. And I suppose in many respects, it always will be. Yet of all the bands who spent the early 90s re-carving and re-defining the genre, Sleep are about as close to that archetype as it gets, and this has always been their trump card: Kyuss may have had the desert winds, Mudhoney the bigmuff, Soundgarden the squall and screech, Candlemass the flickering evil and Trouble the sheer booming-bottom end, but in terms of overall concept, the San Jose trio had simply everything, right down to the lyrics and the artwork. And tonight, they still do.

The swollen, throbbing fatness of the chords: the dense, swirling FX that curls round the listener’s ears like the imaginary leg-fog seen after far too many doobies: the shimmering, echo-laden, double-tracked bibbling-in-tongues lead vox: the ‘lead bass’ (pronounced either way, it still applies) that threatens to flatten everything in its path: the dragging, not-quite-in-time-yet-obviously-doing-it-on-purpose rhythms that make new drummer Jason Roeder (ex-Neurosis) sound like he’s playing inside a tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Sure, doubts have inevitably been raised, since the departure of original drummer Chris Hakius, as to whether the ‘new boy’ will fit- but from where I was standing (when I finally got back to my usual place, that is, after foolishly accepting a text invitation from ‘Plus One’ to join her on the opposite side of the hall and subsequently get moshed on, headbanged into and lagered all over for the duration of the first three tunes- I won’t be doing that again) it was almost as if nothing had changed. Doom, you see, is a state of mind- and Roeder is obviously every bit as attuned to it as his predecessor was.

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Nine songs in two hours? You betcha- although you wouldn’t necessarily notice, as, by the time Holy Mountain and Dopesmoker have rolled (and I do mean rolled) out of the inevitable stacks of Orange and Green trademark amps that adorn the stage like mountain steps, the titanic trio- completed as ever by the bare-chested, tattooed Metal mountain that is Matt Pike- have ensnared us in an ouroboros rollercoaster with no discernible beginning or end. An ever-sprawling, oozing, virulent mass of psychotropic Metallurgy, creeping like The Blob, the manually-operated carpet of The Creeping Terror, or the Goodies’ ‘Kitten Kong’ in extreme slow motion: not so much the sound of a rock’n’roll band as a primal dirge, an alien landscape where riff, vocal, beat, bassline and topline move as one gestalt, gross entity. Yet at the same time, a thing of great melodic beauty, one that soothes just as much as it crushes. They’re not called Sleep for nothing: sure, they remain one of the heaviest (in the true sense of the term, not to be confused with the shouty faux-aggression of much nu-ass metaaaaaal posturing) bands in existence, but it’s a weight you wouldn’t mind being buried under as you descended into slumber, the musical equivalent of being battered by a giant housebrick wrapped in fluffy pillowcasing.

I could go into detail about the differing elements that render Aquarian, Sonic Titan and Improved Morris both sonically and visually fascinating, but there’d be little point: all you need to know is, guitar (yes, just one) thruds, bass fuzzes, drums batter, vocals intone portents of sensimillian apocalypse. Then suddenly, at 11 pm, the snake removes its tail from its mouth, the light returns to the mole people’s eyes, and it’s all over. Later, at possibly the briefest and most under-attended aftershow I’ve ever been to (literally, just me, Tufnell Park Dome proprietor James Gall, Rise Above Records supremo Lee Dorrian and two of his mates) I’m actually informed, irony of ironies, that all three members (four including the outgoing Hakius) actually quit any usage of the sacred weed, or for that matter any other hallucinogens, about seven years ago: though my former employer Rich Allen (Delerium Records/Freak Emporium) and I still regularly ponder the subject to this day, maybe true psychedelic music can be made without outside stimuli after all. That said, it’s not like they’re all going to suddenly forget everything that went before…even if back in the days when they still partook, they’d probably have experienced a certain level of difficulty remembering what had transpired an hour earlier.

Where was I? Er….um….er…..oh yes, dooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom. Do excuse me, I think I’m experiencing some strange form of musical déjà vu, probably as a side effect of extreme acid bludgeon poisoning. But, even in spite of a slightly-more-disrespectful-than-usual crowd and a distinct lack of etiquette from one (nameless) person in particular, was it worth the 23-year wait? Undoubtedly so. Now, where was I? Er…um…er…oh yes, doooooooooo……

DARIUS DREWE

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