Is it a doom metal band or a stoner rock band? It probably is a bit of column A and column B. Regardless, SLEEP is revered as royalty. It's been making the rounds again on the live circuit for a decade much to the pleasure of heshers the world over. But counter to an expected red-carpet rollout in terms of a massive publicity campaign, "The Sciences", the group's first studio full-length in nearly 20 years and fourth overall, virtually came out of nowhere, and appropriately on the holy day for weed fiends: April 20. Perhaps equally surprising is the fact that it was released via garage rock star Jack White's label, Third Man Records. The most pleasant surprise of all, however, is the fact that it's anything but a house-mortgage-paying cash grab. "The Sciences" is one of SLEEP's best albums. Expectations for the group's inevitable comeback album were high, and, in short, it delivers and rightfully sits high above the competition upon its throne.
In the time that has lapsed since the devilish unit's heyday, the members have furthered their legacies with notable bands in their own right. Bassist and vocalist Al Cisneros has done so with OM, and guitarist Matt Pike with HIGH ON FIRE. Starkly contrasting Cisneros's spiritual voyage into the void with OM, "The Sciences" is a return to the wild spirit of early SLEEP and its precursor ASBESTOSDEATH. SLEEP circa 2018 is the sonic equivalent of teenagers hitting bong hits while discovering BLACK SABBATH classics for the first time. The naming of the second to last song, titled "Giza Butler", is a light-hearted reference to said founding metal band's bassist.
There's something childlike and fun-loving beneath the unkempt doom. While being true to its own roots and early days, and with the experience the members have gained over the years via their other projects, SLEEP travels the same trajectory it was on before. But it doesn't sound as though it's just more of the same. The band has simply become better at making the kind of music people want to hear from it.
Pike's riffs are as memorable as they are gargantuan, and Cisneros's vocals are reliably hypnotic. Everything lays atop the backbone rhythms and beats that are driven by NEUROSIS's drummer Jason Roeder, who joined the band in 2010, replacing original skinsman Chris Hakius, who retired from music to focus upon domestic life. The tribal crawl inherent in his playing style carries through "The Sciences", but he definitely tailors his contribution for this very different band. Roeder knows when a pummeling is more appropriate, or when more subtle jazz-like qualities are what the music calls for—not that NEUROSIS isn't known for its calm moments as well. He just expresses himself differently here. SLEEP has never sounded as confident as they do on "The Sciences", and collectively, the trio proceeds as though it has a greater sense of purpose and drive.
The unmistakable bubbling sounds of a bong start things off at the beginning of the album's first proper song, "Marijuananaut's Theme". Whether one is a weed enthusiast or not, this is everything a SLEEP fan would expect and want. The bong hit is a small but significant sign that the men, approaching their 50s, are still the maniacal heshers at heart that they were when they gave birth to the band in 1990. As burly as the band's world-class doom is, the lyrical focus upon all such things green reveals the trio's jovial and very self-aware side.
SLEEP has offered what, at this point, seems to be the likely doom metal album of the year, much better than the lackluster ELECTRIC WIZARD offering. And rather than spit out something for novelty or profitability, the band has produced an album that finds it as significant as ever. Hopefully the second stage of SLEEP's recording career will continue to be as monumental as the first. Either way, "The Sciences" is a home run.