Forget the introductory throat-clearing: Sleep’s second album, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, is the undisputed pinnacle of a genre two decades old and counting.* It’s a concise, digestible, addictive, stoned masterpiece of head-nodding riffage, mind-melting solos, and incantatory mysticism, all enveloped in gloriously pungent analog haze. It follows the slow-is-heavy formula of ancestors Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus but adds a heavy element of droning glory.
Sleep’s Holy Mountain begins with “Dragonaut,” an immediate highlight, easily one of the greatest
metal songs ever recorded, and undoubtedly one of my 10 favorite songs of all time. I know I exhale hyperbole here on Play One Note, but I’m being totally fucking serious. It’s druggy, heavy, nimble, aggressive, mellow, diffused and deceptively suite-like. It’s iconic. Check the absolutely awesome, gloriously lo-fi music video:
Matt Pike losing his goddamn mind, Chris Haikus looking exactly like Curly, Al Cisneros making being a stoner somehow look totally cool:** Yes, this video kicks.
“Dragonaut” might be the best thing on Sleep’s Holy Mountain, but it’s by no means the only highlight. To list them all would be to essentially present you with an annotated track list. Here are a few moments, then: the unhinged, fast-forward solo two-thirds of the way through “The Druid,” the deliberate, one-note menace of the first 17 seconds of “Holy Mountain,” the creeping bluesiness of the expertly managed crescendo halfway into that same song, the fist-pumping optimism of the chorus on the anthemic “Aquarian,” the way “Inside the Sun” devolves from a stoned, bizarro version of punky thrash into a Leviathan monstrosity of brutal sludge, Haikus’s crashing, metronomic, and tinny cymbals throughout, Cisneros’s disembodied chanting, the seamless meshing of Pike’s high-wire shredding and Cisneros’s melodic bass playing on every second of every song, and the way the album sounds like it was recorded on a reel-to-reel that was then buried in moss and mud for a millenium.
After Sleep, Pike and Cisneros (with Haikus) went on to form High on Fire and Om, respectively. Both bands are critically acclaimed, and Om nearly achieves the same greatness as Sleep. But neither Cisneros nor Pike has since reached the bar first set by Sleep’s Holy Mountain 19 years ago. That’s hardly a knock. Indeed, with Sleep’s Holy Mountain, Sleep has constructed that exceedingly rare document, an album that manages to be representative and flawless all at once. And perfection never strikes twice.
*Well, not undisputed, if we decide to include Sleep’s legendarily lost third album, Dopesmoker, a sort of stoner metal analog to Brian Wilson’s Smile. Sleep coaxed the album out of the Weedian ether over a painstaking four-year period. Record label red tape lead to multiple versions of varying officialdom which exist under different names (including 1999’s Jerusalem). In its most Sleep-authorized, officially released version, it’s a 63-minute long seamless epic about…uh…well, weed. Topic material aside, and flying in the face of stoner stereotypes, Dopesmoker is straight-up ambitious. But at the end of the day, if I had to pick one to call the definitive document of the genre, it’s no contest. Dopesmoker may be the apotheosis of stoner metal, but Sleep’s Holy Mountain is its essence.
**This is an incredible and underrated feat. Watch this video and then try to tell me Al Cisneros is not a fucking awesome-looking dude. You will fail.