Consider the bong rip. Easily the most ubiquitous sound in weed culture, this raspy sonic hallmark of water-pipe smoking is universally recognized as the stoner’s warhorn, a bold declaration of dank intent. Though countless dopesmoking bands, from Black Sabbath to Sublime, have incorporated the mighty rip into their music over the years, few have captured its primordial, ritualistic essence quite like the iconic stoner metal band Sleep do on The Sciences, their first album in two decades. Yes, the ominous burbling in the opening seconds of the record’s first major set piece, “Marijuananaut’s Theme” is technically the sound of someone taking a big, fat hit; but under the trio’s crushing, psych-doom gravity, it may as well be a dragon’s sigh. Such is Sleep’s power: they cater to the psychonaut in everyone, regardless of the listener’s personal relationship with the good stuff.
As expected for a Sleep album (a Sleep album released on 4/20, natch) The Sciences finds the band trafficking in high fantasy: musically punishing but lyrically playful. Singer/bassist Al Cisneros goes all-in where the band’s associated weed worship is concerned, bleating tales of marijuanauts rowing “hash oil rigs” to the shoreline, “doob messiahs” anointed with “the bong water of life,” and pterodactyls gliding over “emerald fields.” Roll your eyes at the exaggerated imagery if you must: by taking the silly aspects of stoner-dom with the spiritual and the sinister and propping them up against ferocious musical backdrops, Sleep acknowledge, and therefore transcend, their music’s innate novelty, just as they did with 1998’s legendary Dopesmoker.
That Sleep have kept their satire well-intact on The Sciences is a major plus, but let’s not kid ourselves: the trio’s legendary status (and by extension, the success of this LP) stems from the stellar track record of its cast — Cisneros, guitarist Matt Pike, and drummer Jason Roeder, who joined during the long stretch between Dopesmoker and the new album — as both individual performers (as showcased in massively successful projects like Cisneros’ Om, Pike’s High on Fire, and Roeder’s Neurosis) and a singular killing machine. For the most part, they don’t disappoint. The record’s bookending instrumentals, “The Sciences” and “The Botanist,” are lavish riff addicts with some of Pike’s finest work to date, and the latter track gives Roeder some much-needed time in the spotlight, placing him higher than usual in the mix. Cisneros’ atonal vocals sound as hypnotizing as ever on “Sonic Titan” and “Antarcticans Thawed,” his syllables bobbing atop Pike’s churning chords in a slow, steady cadence. The shaky, nasal vocal delivery on these tracks is the only noticeable sign of weakness, rendering otherwise-robust melodies anemic on occasion. (To be fair, the man is 44.)
Sleep might be stoned out of their minds half of the time, but they’ve never forgotten their history. Deep into The Sciences, on the aptly titled “Giza Butler,” the trio construct a grimy, fabulist monument to Black Sabbath—the original heavy-metal weedians—crafted in their bluesy likeness. “The rifftree is risen, the bong is to live in,” Cisneros proclaims over his bandmates’ din, a red-eyed pastor preaching in between joint puffs, “An ounce a day lightens the way/Salutations to the cultivators.” Salutations, indeed: with The Sciences, Sleep have given stoner-metal acolytes a bonafide miracle.