Friday, April 20th was shaping up to be an unexciting day for the metal community. It wasn’t that metalheads wouldn’t be getting high—metal is a genre born of and fed by weed smoke; the first metal band, Black Sabbath, played riffs that sounded like molten resin—but that getting high didn’t seem to matter.
Weed has lost its outlaw edge. People who get super excited about weed are usually exhausting newbies, mainstream music fest attendees, or your brother in law. All the big A-list metal acts that everyone associates with pot—Sabbath, Pantera, Mastodon—are a little overplayed and hokey. The only album coming out on 4/20 that could be called seasonally appropriate was the new A Perfect Circle, and the stoner mystique surrounding Maynard is often too evocative of the incense rack at Spencer’s Gifts.
For a hot second, it felt like 2018 might be the year that metal grew up, started saving its money, and resigned itself to telling stories about the bongs it made in college. That’s when California stoner metal gods Sleep returned and taught us the true meaning of 4/20.
Fifteen years after the release of their last album, the band surprise-dropped a new full-length LP, The Sciences. Usually, the devil-may-care attitude behind surprise albums feels like a sad attempt to avoid promoting a record you’re not proud of. But The Sciences defies that notion by dragging the listener head-first into the cosmic bong and leaving them with their third eye half-open and bloodshot.
Sleep have long been the high priests of heavy metal’s weed church. Sure, Black Sabbath paved the way, and the guys in Sleep make some pretty stony music in their other bands (Al Cisneros, bass and vocals, fronts spiritual doom metallers Om; Matt Pike, lead guitar, has stoner thrash band High On Fire; and current drummer Jason Roeder also drums in experimental act Neurosis).
But Sleep’s unrepentant love of all things dank put Sabbath’s clever winks on “Sweet Leaf” to shame. Their records are grinding, bubbling pieces of low-fi rock and roll with all the spiritual gravity of the Catholic mass; their live shows are out-of-body experiences where gently-swaying heshers and crusties bathe in riffs they can feel in their molars.
Just how faded were Sleep? After releasing two critically-acclaimed albums in the early 90s—the strange and steely-riffed Volume 1 and the monstrously catchy Sleep’s Holy Mountain—the band signed with London Records, a British imprint of the Universal Music Group. The label told Sleep they had total artistic freedom, not realizing who they were talking to. In response, the dudes in Sleep made Dopesmoker, a single hour-long song that opens by instructing the listener to “drop out of life with bong in hand.”
London demanded the band change the format of the album, to give it a more traditional structure. So Sleep broke up. Yeah, when their record label told them their vast stoner epic wouldn’t work and asked them to compromise their vision, they got bummed out, and they fucking bailed.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end for Sleep. Dopesmoker was eventually released by Southern Lord in 2003 and considered an instant classic. The band started touring again in 2009. And last week, on 4/20, they dropped their first new album in over a decade using no promotion other than the baked, “WOAH!” every metalhead uttered upon hearing about it. The first anyone knew of The Sciences was when it was released on iTunes in Australia (because it was already 4/20 there, a concept pleasingly huge to the stoned mind).
Of course, if The Sciences had been a piece of shit, it would’ve ruined everything. And hey, the album does open with a calculated blast of noise followed by a bong rip, which normally would make you think of a dad who swears he can still hang digging up his old Sublime shirt.
Thankfully, The Sciences lives up to its release strategy, providing all the massive scope and thrumming guitars that Sleep are famous for. “Marijuanaut’s Theme” is a bombastic ride on a killer riff, while “Sonic Titan” sounds like the footsteps of some hempen kaijiu. “Antarctacans Thawed” is a fourteen-minute atmospheric doom hymn, and “Giza Butler” (a play on Giza, where the pyramids are, and Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler) is the mid-paced soundtrack to an esoteric ceremony (and has a lyric about a pterodactyl). The album closes with the eerie, arcane “The Botanist”, leaving the listener feeling as though they’ve had the inside of their head squeegee-ed.
The Sciences seemed to strip the metal community of its frustrated disregard for weed culture. Social media lit up. Everyone wanted to know if you’d found a way to hear the album yet. Everyone wanted to know if you were high. Everyone wanted to spend Friday in a cloud of smoke, blasting the new Sleep and eating Cheetos on the astral plane. Your cynical post-metal friends were on Twitter announcing they’d just eaten an edible.
The problem with much of weed-friendly metal culture is that it’s either old-fashioned and corny or nihilistic and goofy. On the one side are bands trying to feed heads and promote peace, and on the other are death metal dudes who just see weed as another way to get fucked up. The former is born from the stoner’s desire to be taken seriously, while the latter is fed by pop culture, specifically hip hop, which often portrays weed as just one of many drugs on the coffee table.
But Sleep hits that sweet spot in the middle that remembers the imagination of dirtbags. Sleep’s music is as much about mystic weed culture as it is about the misfit kids who lived for mystic weed culture, who sat in the back of class doodling bong monsters eating the teachers or hash miners on ostrich-back. Even the slightest bit of irony makes it easy to blow that shit off, but when taken with complete earnestness, it’s pure. There’s not a lot of pure metal these days, but Sleep are flawless in what they do.
So never forget, metalheads, while you watch other bands use questionable publicity and rotating frontmen to show everyone how rad they are, that in 2018 Sleep did it effortlessly by remembering exactly what they’re about. Their weed puns are more honest than all your favorite lyrics about Satan and society. It’s a 4/20 miracle.
Christopher Krovatin is rippin' bongs. Follow him on Twitter.