In this installment of Bloc Metal, we take a look at Sleep’s long awaited comeback and Wreckmeister Harmonies’ latest full-length.
On The Sciences, Sleep are Still Smoking
Stoner metal is pretty easy to pin down. The basic premise is: what if Black Sabbath only ever wrote “Sweet Leaf”? Sabbath’s classic love song dedicated to weed has proven to be a far deeper well of inspiration than anyone could’ve reasonably anticipated. The world of stoner metal is one that manages to appeal to the classic metal fan stereotype and the dread-headed festival kid alike. I like to think it’s because this is music that transcends boundaries and reach even the furthest fans, but really it’s because of weed. With any genre, no matter how limited it may feel, there’s always one artist that defines it and stands a few heads above the rest. Rock and roll had The Beatles. R&B had Prince. Stoner metal has Sleep. When the long-heralded Oakland legends announced that their reunion album and first in fifteen years was dropping on 4/20, it felt endearingly on-brand. Of course, there was a constant barrage of “4/20 miracle” jokes and suddenly everyone whether they’ve spent a significant amount of time with Sleep or not had some bit of smart-ass commentary ready. But what most don’t know is: Sleep’s in on the joke.
Look, you don’t include weed paraphernalia on every single piece of merch without a sense of humor. You certainly don’t write an hour long song about a country made out of a marijuana and expect to be taken too seriously. The mammoth composition that went on to be known as Dopesmoker established Sleep as stoner metal’s godhead, but not before ending the band. Dopesmoker’s story begins with a fresh contract from London Records and the promise of “full creative control”. Kids, when a record company offers you something as enticing as “full creative control”, assume they’re full of shit and get the hell out of that office. London made the very reasonable, but ultimately misguided decision to split the album up into six tracks all with the same title and called the record Jerusalem. To be fair, it’s hard to blame London in this situation. Again, it’s an hour long song about a country made of weed. How do you market a young band hollering and droning on and on and on about “weed priests”? Jerusalem garnered it’s fair share of rave reviews – which, on paper, shouldn’t have happened – but the understandably frustrated Sleep broke up anyway.
Al Cisneros and Chris Haikus went on to form the drone band Om while guitarist Matt Pike concocted High On Fire, lost all of his t-shirts, and became the most metal person alive. Jerusalem was eventually re-issued in 2003 by Southern Lord in the intended one track format and under the title Dopesmoker – which is widely considered to be the definitive version. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just forget about Jerusalem and call Dopesmoker the third Sleep album. Cool? I thought so. Anyway, Sleep reformed in 2009 to play festivals, a handful of tours, and release the one-off single “The Clarity” in 2014. Chris Haikus later retired from music to devote more time to his family and was replaced by none other than Neurosis’ Jason Roeder. Jump to 2018 and not only are those young, baked Oaklandites the apex of stoner metal, but they’re also coming back as a super group.
Now that Sleep’s complicated history is out of the way and I’m done smacking my head against the keyboard, let’s get to The Sciences. Fifteen years is a long time and Sleep have no qualms against making us wait just a little longer. Album opener “The Sciences” is nothing more than three minutes of random amp noises and guitar revs. It’s a move that would be unnecessary and slightly annoying under any other circumstances, but Sleep know exactly what they’re doing. With each pause and each false start, anticipation builds. Anticipation builds until your mind runs the full gamut between hopeful curiosity and nervous second-guessing. Fifteen years is a long time. What could possibly have taken them this long? Whatever it is, it’s too late to turn back now. As if to let us know that nothing has changed, “Marijaunat’s Theme” opens with what has to be the most triumphant bong rip ever committed to record. From there, city leveling, monster brawl riffs mixed with elastic rhythms create the exact nexus between Up In Smoke and Conan: The Barbarian.
On “Sonic Titan” Cisneros lays down the nastiest bass riff of his career and Pike responds with the kind of fiery solo we’ve come to expect from him with a heavy dose of lightheadedness. Under Sleep, the boys are able to pursue ideas that their other projects just don’t allow for. This kind of slacker exploration wouldn’t work in Om’s meditative post metal or High On Fire’s road warrior thrash-doom. Even the typically fine tuned machine that is Jason Roeder gets with the program and loosens the hell up. There’s no room for the forearm cramp inducing steadiness of “Under the Surface” around here. The rediscovered sloppiness that characterizes The Sciences translates to what feels like time suspending, late-night jam sessions. These tracks are not the kinds of compositions you enter into with any kind of plan. The vamping, hypnotic passages that make up the bulk of the album are the result of plugging in, zoning out, and seeing where the forces – both musical and chemical – take you. And on The Sciences, they take Sleep to some of the most far out places of each member’s respective careers.
The swaying, fourteen and a half minute centerpiece, “Antarcticans Thawed” takes on global warming from a… uh… unique angle. With the help of militaristic drumming and hazy riffs, Sleep imagine a long frozen super race freed from melting ice caps and bent on world domination. Lyrically, Sleep are still very much Sleep and may have even double downed on the space cadet ramblings mistaken for profundity. Album highlight “Giza Butler” offers up some of the most quotable Sleep-isms to date like “The rifftree is risen/ the bong is to live in” or “The pterodactyl flies again/ over emerald fields”. But the band reaches their absolute truth with “Marijuana is his light and his salvation” uttered with clarity and importance. Thick, groove oriented slabs of bass sputter around Pike’s muffled, squealing lines and Sleep’s Sabbath worship comes to full fruition. High On Fire fits squarely into “fun metal”, but here he sounds absolutely giddy layering and intertwining each note Iommi-style. The track highlights Sleep’s ability to take recognizable elements from their main source of inspiration while still only sounding like themselves – something that’s lost on the vast majority of stoner metal.
Despite the time apart, the main component remains to be the inherent chemistry between Cisneros and Pike. The album’s spark comes from riffs and lines that wander all over the fret board but never stray too far about. The instrumental closer “The Botanist” slithers and contorts into a cat’s cradle of bass and guitar noodling before dropping the hammer into oscillating riffs that start at the head and work their way through the whole body. The amount of musical growth since Dopesmoker shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still striking to hear these strides in service of Sleep. The Headhunters style bass rhythm that closes out the record would never have been pulled off with as much ease and style on Holy Mountain and the closing stretch of “Sonic Titan” wouldn’t have meshed into its wall of sound.
These songs add up to something that sits alongside comeback efforts like Gorguts’ Colored Sands or Celtic Frost’s Monotheist. It’s the rare kind of return that does the legacy justice while furthering the story. I don’t necessarily think The Sciences will completely overshadow Sleep’s past work because how is anything going to show-up Dopesmoker? But that doesn’t mean I’m not convinced that The Sciences is Sleep’s finest effort to date. Why shouldn’t it be? The production is massive, every minute is earned, and everything hits harder than before. Even the hooks are stickier. But really, the album’s magic lays in how true to Sleep it is. The vision of those teens that worshipped Sabbath, wrote about conspiracy theories, and smoke more weed than they probably should have is treated with respect and even admiration. Which is far more than most of us can say about whatever memories from our own youths are best left undisclosed. Sleep realizes that it’s these formative escapades that got us where we are. And for that, they deserve to be celebrated.
Wreckmeister Harmonies Dial It Back and Lose More than Scale
I took a long time with this piece, probably too long, but I just couldn’t let it go. I kept coming back to what I’d written. I frequently changed lines, sometimes whole paragraphs, only to return once again to my initial words. Revising and re-revising had inadvertently become some sort of absurd meta-textual reference on the very act of reviewing. And despite how it may have seemed to my long suffering fellow Bloc Metal writers, my delay wasn’t a calculated exercise in stirring their chagrin. Honestly! Instead I was faced with the first instance in years where an album has caused me to question my own judgement extensively.
The Wrekmeister Harmonies are an act much beloved by this writer, so to say I was excited about the release of new album The Alone Rush is, for some who know me, to traffic in the bleedin’ obvious. Yet, when I finally got to listen to the music all that pointed excitement gave way to vague disappointment. Even after repeated spins the record still stubbornly refused to connect with me. Was my reaction tainted because I wasn’t allowing myself to meet the record on its own terms, hobbled by my prejudice against some of the new creative choices made, opinion coloured by notions of what I wanted to hear; a sort of vicarious wish fulfilment? So I listened again…and again…and again.
For those unfamiliar with the Wrekmeister Harmonies a little background context is required. They’re a somewhat nebulous collective of musicians all under the stewardship of primary composer, arranger and de facto leader JR Robinson. Over the course of several albums, Robinson plumbed ancient historic cases emblematic of human shittiness, such as murderous composers and paedophilic priests. This became the impetus for a musical examination of how the evil and the divine co-existed and the attendant moral event horizon for redemption. The form of this musical response was chamber rock hewed from granite hard shards of choral, drone, metal, minimalism, serialism and electronic music. On each successive album the collective grew, (some members leaving, more joining) as did the sometimes furious yet nuanced cacophony they created.
This approach reached an apotheosis on 2015’s Night of Your Ascension, a record that’s creation, according to Robinson, nearly drove him mad when attempting to marshal its many different elements. The band had at this point swollen to 30 members, counting amongst it’s ranks metal polymath Sanford Parker, Alexander Hacke of German industrial luminaries Einsturzende Neubauten and folk chanteuse Marissa Nadler. Dylan O’Toole of sludge legends Indian also showed up to scream heroically at the climax of the title track. The result of all this is absolutely stunning! If you’re unfamiliar with either the album or Robinson’s work I seriously recommend you set aside half an hour and wrap your ears around the title track.
Now I can’t blame Robinson for subsequently deviating from this approach. From a practical point of view how do you tour this? Also the whole experience of making Night of Your Ascension seems to have been emotionally and creatively draining for him too. The following record, 2016’s Light Falls saw the collective paired back to a lean five members. Gone were the annihilating 30 minute suites and in their place were a more limber set of seven tracks. Robinson still looked to the darker corners of human experience for his themes, but this album was more concerned with slow, inexorable change rather than devastating violence. What is astonishing is that despite the restricted sonic palette, Robinson managed to conjure the same senses of awe, beauty, desperation and abject abasement that coursed through his chamber pieces. It also marked the first prominent use of Robinson’s voice, although the sound of Wrekmeister Harmonies was still largely instrumental at this point with vocals accentuating rather than driving songs.
And so on to ‘The Alone Rush’, and the source of my consternation. This latest incarnation of the Wrekmeister Harmonies is the most sparse yet, comprising of only three members. Joining Robinson is multi-instrumentalist Esther Shaw, a continued band member since 2015, whilst percussion duties are handled by Thor Harris, on the run from Swans. Unlike previous albums, this ones central theme hits much closer to home, born as it was on the back of the twin personal tragedies of a loved ones death and caring for a sick relative. The emotional fallout from both these experiences can be devastating. As many have done before and many will do so in future, the Wrekmeister Harmonies try to reconcile these feelings of grief through their art. Now I’m sure this was a necessary and cathartic experience for the participants, unfortunately it doesn’t always construe as such for the listener, hobbled as it is by one major factor. Vocals. The Alone Rush is the first album where vocals have taken centre stage, often usurping the music as the main mode of emotional expression.
Robinson is an exceptional arranger and composer, displaying great power and nuance, yet this doesn’t often translate to his ability as a vocalist. He has a baritone that is pleasing in and of itself when used sparingly, but ultimately isn’t expressive enough to undertake the kind of heavy lifting frequently demanded of it here. It almost feels like he’s deliberately playing against his strengths. In fact by cutting back so drastically on the chamber-esque fire power, his voice is sometimes left cruelly exposed. On the song “Behold! the Final Scream” the effect of this is to render it with an overbearing sense of heavy handedness. It’s so signposted that the song is going to feature a literal scream that I found myself sitting there waiting for it to happen. When it does arrive it’s rather under whelming, a strange affectation that doesn’t rupture ears and shred throats in the way it should.
This spare approach also has the effect of exposing the oblique lyrics which, with their catalogue of undefined horrors, don’t invite understanding so much as incredulity. In a few instances they’re so over wrought that they teeter on the edge of absurdity and yes, opening track “A 300 Year Old Slit Throat” is as dry as it’s title. Shaw’s beautiful violin is rendered subservient to the portentous lyrics; at one point Shaw’s lilting vocals ripple under Robinson’s yet they never really coalesce, leaving a feeling of disconnection. Sliding along at stately pace the song never truly ignites.
Dark themes were always the engine of Robinson’s music however crucially it was the instrumentation that provided grace and sophistication as well as violence. That allowed the listener greater latitude in bending the sounds to fit their own personal narrative. So, much like on Earth’s last album ‘Primitive and Deadly’ for the most part the vocals are, at best, distracting. At worst they tether the songs, preventing them from taking flight in a fashion the instrumentation is desperately urging them to. Fortunately studded throughout the album there are some notable exceptions to this.
“Forgive Yourself and Let Go” invites you to do just that with it’s rolling filmic climax that seems so much greater than the sum of its scant instrumentation. Droning woodwind instruments give way to what sounds like an organ riff, percussively played guitar and a clicky noise reminiscent of a film projector. This later portion of the song drives forward on an increasingly forceful wave of sound, allowing the listener to aim and soar towards their own destination or oblivion.
Although a comparatively brief four and a half minutes long, “Descent into Blindness” is possibly the most aggressive song on here. It has an almost absurd lyric that sees Robinson repeatedly pleading for someone to “turn on the light, I’m going blind”, yet here it feels totally appropriate. That brief refrain captures the close relationship between terror and humour in a manner that is deeply affecting. They repeat the trick of layering Robinson’s voice with Shaw’s yet unlike on the opening song, here it finds a perfect bed amidst Shaw’s plaintive wordless singing. Harris provides some great Japanese sounding percussive sounds whilst a single rigid snare keeps time. As the song progresses a guitar and violin begin to duel, the stings almost scraping across each other in an act of mutually assured destruction, whilst the drums hammer an ever more urgent tattoo. I actually want this part to go on longer.
So, my over-thought verdict? This is not a bad album, not by any stretch. In fact its sporadically brilliant, however too often this brilliance is tempered by passages where the Wrekmeister Harmonies reach exceeds their grasp. When any form of art is ruthlessly pared back, those elements that remain come under greater scrutiny. Any flaw immediately becomes amplified. Given that the band are still wrestling with the machinery of this latest incarnation, “The Alone Rush” sits firmly under that oft maligned descriptor of “transitional” album. It’s not a great starting point for those unfamiliar with the bands work and long-time fans may be put off by the unsteady vocal centric approach. There are though just enough shining moments to counter my reservations and ensure I won’t be signing off from this album just yet.
– Black Antlers
Rebel Wizard Great Addictions to Blindingly Dark, Worldly Life
If Rebel Wizard had been around during Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center crusades, heavy metal would’ve been ended. On paper, Rebel Wizard would’ve fit in with the era, but all the bands that caught Gore’s eye sound quant compared to the absurd amount of evil dripping from the project’s latest offering, Great Addictions to Blindingly Dark, Worldly Life. Jagged guitars cut straight through abdomens and NKSV’s vocals have moved beyond screaming and into a gnarly, high-pitched croak. The whole thing could be described as gratuitous if there wasn’t such a strong sense of song craft at work. Track’s move in immediately recognizable ways and vocal melodies force screeched sing-a-longs.
Great Addictions comes pretty close to covering everything I want out of a metal album and it’s only a four track EP. “There Is a Game of Madness, And It Was Decided That You Must Keep On Playing” is grindcore screeching off the rails into the Judas Priest-at- a-graveyard dirge of “Real Happiness in Killing Enjoyment”. But, Rebel Wizard’s defining moment thus far comes halfway through the EP’s title track. NWOBHM played in a far northern Arctic cabin drives deep into poisonous ambience. The sickly atmosphere floats around until it’s cut out with N gleefully screaming “Let’s fucking die!”. Hellish trad chaos ensues and Rebel Wizard cements itself as one of the most imaginative projects of 2018.