2018 So Far: Getting Stoned with Sleep – “The Sciences” and Earthless – “Black Heaven”

 

About a half century ago a partnership was formed that changed the way people interacted with music forever onward. This was the moment when drugs met rock ‘n’ roll. Long haired dudes armed with electric guitars, effects pedal, and tube amplification have spent the intervening years attempting to sonically replicate the psychedelic experience. In the 21st century this bong sucking tradition continues in the two worlds of stoner metal and stoner rock. The differences between these two hallucinatory rock subgenres are subtle. In the world of stoner metal, rock ‘n’ roll begins and ends with Black Sabbath’s third album, “Master of Reality,” which features Tony Iommi literally coughing the world into existence with “Sweet Leaf” and destroying it all “Into the Void” by record’s end. Stoner metal guitars are down tuned to the point where every doom laden chord sounds as if it’s coming from the deepest depths of hell. The songs are usually long, repetitive, crushingly heavy and magma slow. Examples of  stoner metal bands include; Sleep, Fu Manchu, the Sword and Electric Wizard. Stoner rock is less Black Sabbath and more influenced by the usually live performed jams of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Stoner rock tends to be less heavy, more blues based and more uptempo then it’s metallic counterpart; but like stoner metal, the songs are long and loud. The wah pedal and whammy bar are the essential tools of the stoner rock guitarist. Modern examples of stoner rock include; Earthless, Radio Moscow, the Samsara Blues Experiment and Endless Boogie. Now that you’re sufficiently prepared (re: stoned) lets talk about two 2018 albums from the stoner nebula of the rock ‘n’ roll galaxy.

Sleep crawled onto the stoner metal scene in 1991 with their first album entitled, “Volume One.” They released their much improved second album, “Sleep’s Holy Mountain” the following year. With that record’s minor but significant success they were offered a spot on a newer and bigger record label. By most standards Sleep appeared to have promising career ahead of them. For their third album, they decided to record a single hour long track called, “Dopesmoker.” “Dopesmoker,” told the ridiculous story of “weedian priests” traveling across the desert of the “riff filled land,” to fulfill some quest or something, it doesn’t matter. The point is, Sleep’s record label refused to release their monolithic weed tome. Sleep refused to change, edit or divide up the track; which prompted their being dropping from the record label and their subsequent break up as a band. Various labels did release edited  and bootlegged versions of the album throughout the 90s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the track was legitimately released in its full hour long, long glory. Personally, I’ve never been able to sit through the entire thing. I’ve made several attempts but have never gotten past the thirty minute mark. The vocals are little more then an atonal chant. The music is plodding and monochromatic with precious few guitar solos to break up the monotony. My personal preferences aside, the album is actually considered a classic among critics and the group’s fans. The eventual release and acclaim of “Dopesmoker” led to the band’s eventual reunion in 2009 and the eventual release of their fourth album “The Sciences” on April 20 (of course) 2018 (everything these guys do is stoner slow). Although “The Sciences” has many of the same characteristics that bothered me about “Dopesmoker,” the record actually benefits from having six individual, shorter but still long tracks. By having a more conventional track list the listener is able to take shorter tokes from the Sleep bong without being overwhelmed by the smoke. The album’s title track opens the record with three minutes of guitar feedback. It isn’t really a song but it sets the stage for the album’s next track, “Marijuanaut’s Theme” which opens with the sound of a bong being hit and a quintessential Sleep guitar riff. Fan or not you have to appreciate the utter ridiculousness of Sleep’s stoner humor. The lyrics are full of excellent reefer puns and allusions to Black Sabbath. My favorite bit is about following our marijuanaut on his intergalactic journey through “hashteroid” fields to his final destination on the planet “Iommia,” named of course after Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. “Sonic Titan” is exactly what it’s title implies, full of heavy downtuned guitar riffs and a cool wah wah bass solo half way through. In “Antarcticans Thawed,” we get a song that I can only imagine is about the awakening of “the elder things” from H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” about a doomed scientific expedition to the great frozen continent. That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange eons even death may die. Praise Cthulhu. Sorry, I needed to get that out, now back to “Antarcticans Thawed.” The track pummels the listener with the force of Lovecraft’s monsters for fourteen and a half minutes. Bassist Al Cisneros gives one his most powerful vocal performances throughout “Antarticans.” “The Botanist” closes the record with another solid dose of Sleep’s low and slow formula. It contains some of Sleep’s most and best ever psychedelic moments. Matt Pike’s burning (pun intended) guitar solo leads the way to an almost funk jam with Pike’s guitar acting as a bed for the sluggish rhythmic groove of Cisneros and drummer Jason Roeder. “The Sciences” with it’s self aware silliness, B movie vibe and Lovecraft references are able to overcome my initial skepticism, coming off my attempts at trying and failing to get into “Dopesmoker.” The album meets the potential promised on “Sleep’s Holy Mountain” twenty six years ago. As a result I give Sleep “The Sciences” a rating of 4/5 brimstones. Essential tracks: “Marijuanaut’s Theme,” “Antarcticans Thawed,” “The Botanist”

Guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, bassist Mike Eginton, and drummer Mario Rubalcaba spend the majority of their time moonlighting in various other groups and side projects, assembling as the stoner rock monster that is Earthless every five years or so. Up until now Earthless’s songs, for lack of a better word, were entirely instrumental heavy psych jams that rode Mitchell’s wah pedal into the mulitverse. The only exception to their instrumental only policy was their cover of the obscure Groundhogs classic “Cherry Red,” from 2007’s album “Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky.” “Black Heaven,” the group’s latest record changes Earthless’s approach in two major ways. First off, four of the six tracks feature vocals. Secondly the songs are shorter. On previous albums Earthless took their jams to well over the ten minute mark. I’m sure these moves will reek of sellout to some Earthless fans, but considering this is a band who never has and likely never will break into the mainstream, accusations of sellout don’t really make sense. Earthless is playing what they want, which at this point in their history is a collection of concise heavy psych rock songs. (I use the term “concise” loosely as five of the six songs exceed the five minute mark). “Gifted by the Wind” opens with cymbals and a Hendrix inspired wah wah riff, that carries the song through it’s vocal parts to the back to back wall tearing guitar solos and back again. The song also closes with another excellent face melter from Mitchell.  “Electric Flame,” begins with a catchy and surprisingly laid back riff before taking a superb left turn into a more driving but equally catchy riff. Mitchell’s vocals again lead us to some more fret board mastery over the constant groove of Eginton and Rubalcaba. So far the more conventional approach to songwriting works reasonably well, although the lyrics don’t yet feel as if they are needed. That is not to imply that the words are bad in anyway, they just don’t have enough presence or melody to enhance the music… yet. The next two tracks, the crazed boogie of “Volt Rush,” and the Zeppelin indebted riffery of the title track are back to more traditional Earthless territory, each being a high energy instrumental. “Sudden End” is the moment where it all comes together, both lyrically and musically. “Sudden End” closes the record with what sounds like a lost classic of two a.m. 1970s rock radio. The Skynyrdesque guitar intro is at once mournful and triumphant becoming the album’s most melodic moment. Lyrically the song is heavy; addressing the tragedy of suicide. Musically it sounds like the soundtrack to a film about an anonymous motorcycle rider rambling through abandoned cities hunting cannibalistic mutants in the aftermath of global nuclear holocaust. “Sudden End” is the most classic rock sounding song Earthless has ever recorded. It’s also the best song they’ve ever done. The record as a whole falls short of classic but still warrants a solid rating of 4/5 brimstones. Essential Tracks: “Gifted by the Wind,” “Electric Flame,” “Black Heaven,” “Sudden End”

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