On Saturday October 26th, I made a pilgrimage that all self-respecting doom-heads should attempt to make at least once in their lives: I saw SLEEP.
They were playing as part of ATP Release The Bats in Melbourne, a festival that had been beset by numerous problems (Jesus Lizard cancelled, a last-minute venue change from the middle of nowhere to two different venues in St Kilda, general bellyaching) but on the day, as it happened the setbacks really didn't matter. Sleep were due to headline the smaller stage, located at the Prince Bandroom on Fitzroy St, and as I perused the line-up for the day, there weren't any major clashes and the band directly before Sleep were Rhode Island noiseniks Lightning Bolt, who are a totally awesome live band.
Lightning Bolt proceeded to pack the Prince out and play a great, frenetic and crushingly LOUD set that got the kids truly riled up. The crowd dispersed somewhat before Sleep took the stage, allowing me to get a good spot at the front of the stage. The somewhat ridiculous onstage set up for Lightning Bolt was actually scaled back somewhat, the stacks of bass subs replaced by a couple of Ampegs and a Marshall, and two Marshall Stacks stage left.
The band strode on stage and waited patiently for the PA to be turned off, vocalist and bass player Al Cisneros mumbled a "we are honoured to be playing music for you" to applause and guitarist Matt Pike launched into the crushing, droning riff that opens "Sonic Titan." What followed was a pulverising and hypnotising performance, the band driving forward on lumbering riffs that would ultimately settle into glacial grooves. Drummer Jason Roeder proved the perfect foil to the slowly shifting molasses of sound, with an almost deconstructionist performance around the kit as the tempos - and time itself - slowed down.
This kind of doom isn't noted for involved dynamics. It works largely with extremely loud tones that hit perfectly with high gain and enveloping bass frequencies, low on high-end but making up the space in the top of the range with epic soaring solos courtesy of High On Fire main-man Pike. There were plenty of moments where the songs flowed into a kind of quiet, muted majesty, Roeder keeping the pulse with subtle flourishes, before the riff returned to take us on another journey. Cisneros has mellowed his vocal approach somewhat from his delivery on the old Sleep records, but they still sounded powerful on lines like "Trapped inside a world under leagues of ocean / The clergy arrives with the magic potion" from "Aquarian".
Much of the material they performed was from Holy Mountain, including the epic title track. The great "Dragonaut" and "From Beyond" also featured alongside another old track never officially released, "Antarcticans Thawed". The last part of the set was reserved for excerpts from their magnum opus, Dopesmoker. By this point, the band and the crowd were bound together as one by the almighty power of the riff and their set wound up going over their allotted time-slot - not that anyone could possibly complain about that! It was a magnificent show, and much like the ringing in my ears, one that will continue to reverberate for much time to come. All hail the mighty Sleep!