An old boss of mine once told me they hired me because “the laziest people often find the easiest ways to do things”, and though I never picked him up on the irony of trying to pass a common adage off as his own wisdom whilst slyly hinting that I was liable to cut corners, I nevertheless took it as a compliment. A touch of laziness can be a virtue. It can help you prioritise, it can keep you from being stressed and it can occasionally help in creative endeavours. After all, there’s no one lazier than a stoner (that is, if we’re to assume all stoners are exactly as depicted in films) and yet stoner metal is one of the most long-lasting and reliable genres going. On paper the genre thrives off the hallmarks of being lazy. Riffs are repeated, the tempos are sluggish. Where punk told the world that anyone could be a musician, just play fast and with aggression to cover the mistakes, stoner rock and doom told us that anyone could be a musician, just tune low and play slow to let the spaces breath. No one takes this mantra quite as seriously as bona fide legends of the genre, Sleep.
On the band’s infamous third record Dopesmoker, the band took the genre’s tropes to their most logical and illogical extremes, somehow reinventing the genre by doubling down on its most overworn clichés. If 1992’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain had been their statement of intent, sitting alongside the works of Kyuss and Monster Magnet in kickstarting a generation of stoner rock and metal acts, then Dopesmoker was their unrestrained dive into uncharted waters that many would try in vain to emulate. Indeed, nowadays lengthy songs that take the idea of expansive concepts and extravagant recordings to the extreme are common amongst the section of metal that favours slower paces.
Though it seems batshit to us now, you can almost understand London Records’ horror when the band delivered them a single 63-minute track, with a vague sci-fi concept about “Weedians” making a pilgrimage to Nazareth with – going by Arik Roper’s cover artwork – endless bongs strapped, like hydration packs, to their backs. Appalled by the release, the label refused to release it, branding it unmarketable even after a leaner 52-minute edit split it into six tracks and renamed it Jerusalem. It would take a self-released bootleg of Jerusalem, followed by official releases from The Music Cartel and Rise Above Records before a one-track, 63-minute version named Dopesmoker would finally emerge under Tee Pee Records in 2003. Nowadays, the release is legendary. Perhaps you couldn’t blame London Records for not seeing the potential in such a release, but over time it would become one of the stoner metal scene’s most famous records. Not only did its various versions receive positive reviews, but many consider the longer versions, particularly Southern Lord Records’ 2012 version, as the superior renditions.
Dopesmoker’s mastery is unmatched. The band remain one of very few to truly excel at creating lengthy songs, joined by the likes of Corrupted and Bong in an exclusive club, with the record building brilliantly and goading interest throughout its prolonged runtime. Part of its genius is the intro, which goes on for seemingly ages, all the time revolving around the same riff and yet never stagnating. Dopesmoker appears to kick into gear multiple times, always lurching forward with momentum despite the genre’s reputation for monotony. In fact, by all accounts it is an explorative release, lumbering onwards but always with a sense of adventure.
Each member is seemingly exploring their strengths, with Dopesmoker entailing both the adrenaline of Matt Pike’s later work with High On Fire and the meditative repetition of Chris Hakius and Al Cisneros’ future project Om. Pike’s solos are glorious. Never overindulgent, they seem to thrive off the outré tone of the song, surging forward in a textural flurry of psychedelic notes. Behind his riffs, Cisneros’ bass is weighted to perfection, proving thick and weighty like trudging through scorching sand, whilst Hakius’ percussion is the pulse, staggering forwards even when Pike and Cisneros take a step back, and thus constantly dragging the stoner caravan onwards through the desert. The sticksman has been critical of his work on Dopesmoker in the past, but it is crucial, and is exactly what was needed for this track to work as it does.
It is perhaps this sense of momentum, this need to explore, that the band’s many emulators fail to pay heed to. This record is rightfully remembered for all its contributions to the genre, and whilst its lackadaisical rhythms and otherworldly allure are perhaps the most praised aspects, the music is never limp or apathetic. Filling an album with one song based around a repeated riff and the sort of eccentric narrative that could only come from the mind of three marijuanauts is certainly not the lazy option. It took two month-long recording sessions, various bootlegs as well as several official releases and, undoubtedly, a lot of refining to get it right. And my god did they get it right.
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Words: George Parr