It’s tempting to think of a surprise album reveal as something of a sneaky tactic – a way of deflecting attention away from the quality of the album itself whilst listeners become swept up in a whirlwind of hyperbole. While a few albums released in such a manner have certainly managed to wrangle more than their fair share of praise and excitement through such means, ‘The Sciences’ is resolutely not one of them. For years Sleep have stood as a genuinely unique act in the annals of metal – they’re cult legends revered by many and yet the entirety of their reputation rests on a discography of three albums. Sleep’s prior output is one both succinct and utterly brilliant, so it’s no wonder that the group have established themselves as a genre-defining act despite the brevity of their work. ‘The Sciences’, then, is an album that has the rare and perhaps unfortunate burden of having two decades of expectation on its shoulders. To release such an album in what is ultimately still a relatively unconventional manner could, depending on the cynicism of the observer, be construed either as a brash vote of confidence in the quality of the album or a sly way of shifting attention away from a lack of quality whilst shifting extra units from listeners who panic-buy in alarm at the long awaited news.
Fortunately, ‘The Sciences’ and its surprise 4/20 release are none of these things. The album is, in the purest and most straightforward sense, a logical and hugely satisfying progression for Sleep and a very worthy follow-up to their previous work. To fully appreciate the sheer style with which the album’s various threads have been woven together, it’s essential to first look at what the band’s core of Al Cisneros and Matt Pike have been doing over the last twenty years. The record which initially split up the band (and, ultimately, the one that’s brought them the most fans) is their 1 hour drone-doom epic ‘Jerusalem’ / ‘Dopesmoker’. While the name and contents vary depending on which version you hear (the album’s strained history has seen it released by numerous labels, most recently Southern Lord in 2012), its intensely thick walls of fuzz remain the same across the board. The mood of the record absolutely set the tone for both Cisneros and Pike’s respective works going forward. The album’s indomitable heaviness informed both the brutal low-end rumble of Cisneros and original drummer Chris Hakius’ next project – Om – and the barbarically savage death-growl of Pike’s High On Fire. In turn, the work and style of both bands have had a significant impact on the tone of ‘The Sciences’.
The austere incantations of the distinctive vocal delivery Cisneros developed during his time in Om are here in full-force on ‘The Sciences’, giving the record a character quite unlike any of the band’s previous albums. There’s more than a touch of influence from High On Fire, as well. Pike’s guitar solos – of which there are plenty – are, frankly, better than anything on any of the band’s previous albums, which is certainly saying something given the sheer vitality of his playing on a song such as 1992’s ‘Dragonaut’. His solos throughout ‘The Sciences’ are completely incendiary and the maniacal hybrid of Doom Metal and Thrash which High On Fire have been finessing for the last twenty years has translated fantastically well into the slower, more groove-oriented Stoner Rock of Sleep.
Musicianship throughout the album is excellent; Cisneros and drummer Jason Roeder together form one of the most propulsive rhythm sections in heavy rock today – the blistering, tripletised rhythm of ‘Marijuanaut’s Theme’ being a prime example of that musical synergy. Listening to the ‘The Sciences’, it’s hard to not suspect that the band never missed an opportunity to rehearse together in the time between reforming in 2009 and the release of this record almost a decade later. If that is the case then evidently nor did they hurry the writing process because the songs that make up ‘The Sciences’ constitute, at their best, some of the very finest compositions the band have ever produced. They’re not all new, as although it never appeared on album until now (in studio form, at least), the 12 minute+ ‘Sonic Titan’ is over 25 years old and the even lengthier ‘Antarcticans Thawed’ has been a staple of their live set since reforming. Despite the fact that the album’s various songs have been written over a period of decades, ‘The Sciences’ retains a keen sense of cohesion and completeness as a whole. Newer compositions slot in right alongside the older ones with such coherence that anyone listening to the album without prior knowledge could easily be forgiven for not clocking the sheer number of years that passed between some of these songs being penned. It must be said that from a purely lyrical perspective, ‘The Sciences’ is perhaps not exactly genius; Sleep clearly have no qualms about fitting right into the Stoner Rock stereotypes which they helped created some 20+ years ago. With song titles including ‘The Botanist’ and ‘Marijuanaut’s Theme’, few are likely to be left in doubt as to the band’s primary interests. In fairness, though, the themes of Lovecraftian dark fantasy and heady imbuement have always been at the core of the band and these themes are as well expressed here as they’ve ever been – ‘Giza Butler’ even betrays a knowing, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour about the whole thing.
‘The Sciences’, then, is in many ways exactly the kind of record you’d want from Sleep in 2018. It looks back – both to the group’s own previous work and to its musical children Om and High On Fire – but it also looks forward. There’re plenty of new ideas on the record and the band sound fresh and engaged throughout. This is not the sound of a long running band churning out yet another record without true inspiration but, rather, the sound of a band that have returned, at last, triumphant. They have a clutch of new songs and a few new stories to tell but they are, ultimately, still the same band that came to define their style so many years ago. ‘The Sciences’ is a highly accomplished return for Sleep and it’s great to have them back.
The track listing for ‘The Sciences’ is as follows…
01. The Sciences
02. Marijuanaut’s Theme
03. Sonic Titan
04. Antarcticans Thawed
05. Giza Butler
06. The Botanist
You can see Sleep on the following tour Dates…
05/15 – Paris, FR @ Le Trabendo (Parc de la Villette)
05/16 – Bonn Düdingen, CH @ Café Bad
05/18 – Munchen, DE @ Technikum (im Werksviertel Mitte)
05/19 – Hamburg, DE @ Markthalle
05/21 – Stockholm, SE @ Debaser Strand
05/22 – Oslo, NO @ Rockefeller
05/23 – Copenhagen, DK @ Pumpehuset – Stor sal
05/25 – Berlin, DE @ SO 36
05/26 – Utrecht, NL @ TivoliVredenburg
05/27 – Brussels, BE @ Ballroom
05/28 – London, UK @ O2 Empire Shepherds Bush
06/05 – Seattle, WA @ Showbox SoDo
06/06 – Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater
06/07 – San Francisco, CA @ The Warfield
06/08 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Wiltern
06/09 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Van Buren
06/10 – Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater
06/11 – Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
07/22 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
07/25 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
07/26 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
07/27 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
07/28 – Boston, MA @ Royale
07/30 – Toronto, Canada @ The Danforth Music Hall
08/01 – Chicago, IL @ Riviera Theatre
08/30-09/02 – Cookeville, TN @ Muddy Roots Festival