The California stoner metal band Sleep has returned from a decades-long absence to release a surprise new album, The Sciences, on the unsuspecting masses, courtesy of Jack White’s Third Man label.
The album was announced yesterday and released today, with the only warning of its arrival coming in November 2017, when the band posted a message to fans in Morse code on its website to the effect that it was coming. So if you didn’t serve in the Navy in 1917, the album’s release may well be news to you.
The release date is April 20, which is significant not just for being the birthday of failed artist Adolf Hitler, but also because it signifies the unofficial pot smoker’s holiday of “420.” This is cheesy and stupid beyond the average music critic’s ability to articulate, but the release date aside, there’s nothing contrived about this band or this album.
Sleep specializes in raw, slow, chromatically descending sludge riffs, and they aren’t above committing to tape the sound of a single woofer-shredding power chord, repeated over and over again for a very long time. They’re about the overall mood and cumulative effect that they can create with their music, and the overriding feeling is that if you’re not up for a full, seven-course meal of downtuned muck and mire, you’d best get out of the way.
The album runs 53 minutes long and consists of six songs, although calling the throwaway self-titled track that opens the album a “song” is pushing it, since it consists of basically three minutes of feedback. Once that’s out of the way, the group commences to pummeling in the manner to which their longtime fans are accustomed.
Musically speaking, little has changed since the band last signed off years ago. The vocals are clearer, and new drummer Jason Roeder is technically more adept than his predecessor Chris Hakius. But otherwise, if you were worried that the group might abandon its monotone vocals and rhythmic plod, rest easy.
The meat of the album centers around the songs “Sonic Titan,” “Antarcticans Thawed” and “Giza Butler,” all extended pieces that exceed ten minutes in length. Those selections are bookended two shorter pieces, one of which, “The Botanist,” closes out the album.
A word about “The Botanist” – it’s a six-minute instrumental that’s more melancholy and melodic than anything else on the album, or anything in the band’s previous catalog. It suggests that this group is capable of going into more delicate and subtle places when they want to, and if they ever decided to make a whole album of music along those lines, it would be very interesting to hear.
It also serves as a showcase for the guitar talents of Matt Pike, who’s simply one of the best metal musicians out there today. Its lighter touch also allows the listener to hear bassist Al Cisneros clearly, and his sustained whole notes punctuated by runs of low-frequency gurgling demonstrate how he’s always kept this band’s music grounded and afloat at the same time.
The Sciences isn’t really a collection of well-defined tunes that contrast with one another. It’s meant to be listened to while you lie on the floor in a drug-induced stupor, letting the waves of power chord lava bury your body. So, if you don’t worship at the altar of the first couple of Black Sabbath albums, then you should probably stay away from this. It will not be your bag, baby. If you do, then you should feel no hesitation about diving right in — it doesn’t disappoint.