Is Sleep’s 'Dopesmoker' the Heaviest Album Ever Recorded?
The heaviest album of all time, you ask? This distinction belongs not to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality or Slayer’s Reign in Blood.
No, the heaviest, sludgiest, most wicked album ever recorded is none other than Sleep’s doom metal masterpiece, Dopesmoker. A juggernaut of a concept album, Dopesmoker chronicles the epic pilgrimage of the Weedian race, an ancient people commanded by their high weed priests to “Drop out of life with bong in hand / Follow the smoke to the riff filled land." (Beat that, Tommy.)
Laugh if you will, but this sludge metal overture features the most torrid de-tuned guitar madness ever put to record.
Over the course of 63 uninterrupted minutes, Dopesmoker’s leviathan modal riffs reverberate into the abyss, becoming hypnotic satanic ragas that could make Cthulhu blush. And on top of that, it has one of the best prog-rock album covers of all time. Though perhaps less popular than groups like Kyuss and Neurosis, Sleep are the quintessential “stoner metal” band—shunning complexity and song structure in favor of trudging Black Sabbath-on-Valium riffs, creating desolate sonic landscapes.
The Bay Area-based group released its first album in 1991 and quickly became a stalwart of the San Francisco metal scene. After the success of their release Sleep’s Holy Mountain, the band signed a major label deal with London Records. They then proceeded to blow $75,000 of their record advance on guitars, custom amps and presumably cannabis, while recording their hour-long stoner rock magnum opus. Needless to say, the record company was less than enthused and initially refused to release the album.
Two years after Sleep disbanded in 1996, however, London released a neutered, chopped-up version of the record titled Jerusalem, before the properly mastered Dopesmoker finally saw the light of day in 2003 (later remastered again in 2012). The latter release was immediately received as the definitive version and became a cult favorite amongst psych-rock fans and metal heads alike. Listening to Dopesmoker is an unparalleled experience.
The record opens with a cosmic slab of heavily layered guitar drone that sets the scene for this weird sci-fi fantasy. As the song progresses, its repeated skull-searing riff and demented tribal drumming become bizarrely mesmerizing. Vocals kick in at the eight-minute mark, a demonic incantation that beckons you onward to Zion. Minutes pass into the ether as the song-cycle propels forward, burying itself into your reptilian inner psyche; the dissolution of time seems inevitable.
Guitar solos abound, weed creedsman chant, and from Mankind a new stoner breed is born. Even if herbsmen caravans and Marijuanauts are not your thing, the insane guitar tone alone makes the album well worth the listen. And you will definitely not find anything heavier. So do yourself a favor and grab a good pair of headphones, crank the volume and experience Dopesmoker. Sleep reunited in 2009 and play live dates internationally. Check out their website right here.
Ethan Varian is a freelance writer and guitarist based in San Francisco. He has performed with a number of rock, blues, jazz and bluegrass groups in the Bay Area and in Colorado. Follow him on Twitter.