Four Thoughts on Sleep at the Warfield, June 7, 2018 / by Beth Winegarner

Sleep in Detroit, March, 2018. Photo by Austincxiv. Creative Commons license. 

Sleep in Detroit, March, 2018. Photo by Austincxiv. Creative Commons license. 

My brother had a girlfriend a long time ago who decided one day that she wanted to make the densest, richest chocolate cake possible. I can't remember whether she worked from a recipe or if she made it up on the fly. But her cake included something like a pound of chocolate, another pound of butter, plus eggs, cream, sugar and little or no flour. It was barely sweet, and so rich we almost couldn't eat it, but it was also intensely delicious. It gave us the shivers with every bite. It was almost too good. 

When I used to study kenjutsu, my sensei made a big deal out of practicing our strikes and blocks slowly. It can be tempting to move quickly, to swing the bokken like you're in a Kurosawa movie. But that's not how you learn, how you etch the motions into your muscles and your neurons so they come instinctively when you need them. But moving slowly and precisely is hard. It requires more strength, more stability, better balance. It doesn't let you to cheat, or to take shortcuts with your movement. To do it right, you slow it down as much as possible, and then you slow it down some more.

Many popular songs do this thing where they ease the tempo toward the end, to draw out the drama and rev up everyone's anticipation of the song's climactic ending. You know it's coming, and you can't wait for it, but at the same time you're ensnared in that slow-mo moment, like running through cool, sweet water. You're eager and longing, joyous yet unsatisfied. You know the payoff is coming, because that's how songs work. Except when they don't, when the whole 10- or 15- or 63-minute song is made up of that downtempo anticipation, and the only payoff is in the vast distances between beats, slow as hot fudge that hasn't been warmed up yet. 

After Sleep released Holy Mountain--a hugely influential slab of stoner-doom metal--the band went to work on its third album. What it delivered was Dopesmoker, a single, drudging, 63-minute-long song. Sleep's label at the time, London Records, refused to release it, and the resulting tensions tore the band apart. Almost a decade later, Tee Pee Records released the album, catapulting Sleep even more firmly into the stoner-doom pantheon. 

At first, it might seem like Dopesmoker--or any of Sleep's works, really--is just a lot of boring, repetitive noise. It's slow and heavy, an elephant's marathon of a record, but it's never dull. It shifts ever so subtly as it lumbers along, morphing and twisting, glinting light and shadow off its different surfaces. It's complicated and challenging, and one of the best-loved works in heavy metal. As someone who often feels overly heavy, complicated and challenging, I draw a lot of comfort from that.