Oh come on. This review really is redundant before it’s even begun isn’t it? I mean, where does one begin when reviewing an album that is the very epitome of a genre of music that the band who created it helped define, an album so soaked in history, mythology and THC that it’s damn-near an institution to stoners everywhere. Chances are you’ve heard Dopesmoker, you more than likely own the record in one of its many incarnations so there’s not much point in championing its merits. It’s a fully-fledged musical masterpiece, an epic symphony of distortion, crashing rhythm and flat-out Sabbath worship, an hour-long slab of the mightiest, most recognisable riffs in the history of stoner metal. And the most amazing thing about it is that it exists at all.
I’ll spare you the in-depth history lesson – let’s just say that three young Weedians somehow managed to get a stuffy old rock n’ roll major label to finance their hour-long soundtrack to an imagined, weed-fueled pilgrimage to the holy land. But then said label decided somewhere along the way that a sixty-minute jam praising weed-use wasn’t likely to get much commercial radio-play and dropped the record like a loose cherry. In the age of podcasts and the diversification of digital and online radio that all seems a bit quaint, but that is what prevented Sleep’s swansong and magnum opus from reaching their audience in any sort of satisfactory form until Tee-Pee Records gave it the official bootleg treatment in 2003, some seven years after it was originally recorded. Now the veritable taste-makers and heavy-metal preservationists at Southern Lord have done the honourable thing by giving the album a complete overhaul – new artwork by long-term Sleep collaborator Arik Roper, new mastering by Brad Boatright and they’ve even thrown in a live version of another epic Sleep cut, “Holy Mountain”, recorded in 1994 at what may well have been the height of the band’s slowly-unfurling power.
Producer Billy Anderson has stated that there was no expense spared in making Dopesmoker the heaviest thing ever put on record – sonically, this remastered reissue is the truest realisation of that goal. If you’ve heard Dopesmoker before you’ll know what to expect, but you’ve really never heard it sound this good. That oft-spoken-of, legendary heaviness is finally here in all of it’s hazy grace and glory. The sound is so crisp and clear that you could be forgiven for thinking that the album had been re-recorded yesterday – it stands up to, and in most cases obliterates, every other metal record I’ve heard this year in terms of volume, tone and crushing intensity. Bearing in mind that Dopesmoker was recorded sixteen years ago, that’s quite an achievement (or perhaps a testament to their continued “influence” on the thousands of stoner bands that have come after them).
Here Sleep sound triumphant, and rightly-so; this was their victory lap and final bow before being torn asunder into two disparate camps – Matt Pike’s High on Fire and Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius’ Om. In retrospect the mighty song, which came together over the course of about four years, feels like the perfect melting point of Pike’s raw power and Cisneros and Hakius’ penchant for meditative repetition. They got right here what so many bands get wrong – they perfected the ebb and flow of a riff that had the potential to go on forever. They bring it down, Pike lets rip with a mighty solo, they change it up and they bring it back, never allowing the song to go stale or lose it’s lurching forward propulsion towards the “smoke-filled land.”
Commentators have speculated that the song was intended to induce the listener into the trance-like state that the band would get into on-stage. It’s still a phenomenal record and it has genuinely never sounded so fucking heavy and epic as it does now. Hats off to Brad Boatright for making this record spring back into life and to Southern Lord for treating this relic with the respect it deserves. As I write this thousands of copies of Dopesmoker are making their way across the world to fans who’ve been waiting for the definitive version of this stone-cold classic to materialise. Needless to say, the wait is finally over. If we are to assume that the “weed priests” that Al Cisneros is singing of are Sleep’s alter-egos, then it’s fair to say that with Dopesmoker they found their way to the holy land.
Scribed by: Tom McKibbin