Show Review: Sleep At The Phoenix Concert Theatre

By Adam Piotrowicz

Sleep is three guys, a lot of amps, and a lot of weed, brought together by a shared love of copious grass-smoking and dirrrrty riffs played at high volumes. Beginning with their 1991 debut LP Volume One and the ending with the group’s breakup in late ‘90s, the trio of guitarist Matt Pike, bassist/vocalist Al Cisernos and drummer Chris Haikus quite literally blazed their way out of the SoCal hardcore scene that bred them (formed initially as sludge metal outfit Asbestosdeath). They are worshipped by an entire generation of devoted fans and have provided influence to countless artists in their wake (the list includes Japanese experimental trio Boris and Georgia’s Mastodon, to name a few).

Along with Californian group Kyuss, Sleep are often billed as pioneers of the ‘stoner metal’ or ‘stoner-doom’ genres, having perfected their unique brand of slow-tempo, heavier-than-life, Sabbath-tinged fuzz rock during the 1990s and cemented their reputation as morbidly-stoned riff overlords with their final release Dopesmoker. That release – originally conceived of as a single hour long song and released in a variety of guises post break-up, including an edited version known as Jerusalem – is a legendary riff-laden meditation about a toked-up space caravan traveling to the Holy Land. One New York Times critic described it as “…a Mark Rothko painting hitting you over the head with a bag of hammers.” The recording has since been reissued again, in 2012 by Southern Lord, with this latest version applauded as the truest rendition of the monolithic track. Indeed, the song is heavy, slow, and absolutely elemental in its repetitiveness, with each guitar-chug and snare-hit resonating with mythical force. In short: Sleep is a really, really awesome band and you should probably go listen to them right now, if you have not already.

Since 2009, Sleep have in effect reunited and have been sporadically playing shows. Reunion tours are usually a mixed bag from my experience, but when I heard the group was going to be stopping in Toronto I almost immediately decided to buy tickets. Missing opening act Big Brave, I arrived just in time for Sleep’s soundcheck, with the stage techies noodling around with the mammoth wall of amps, speaker cabinets and other stage equipment, followed by a long sample of the Apollo 11 landing. The tension was absolutely through the roof. Then, when Sleep finally entered the stage and struck their first note, I was suddenly and completely pulverized by the wall of sound.

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Photos by Kat McGouran

As they began to play the opening chords of “Dopesmoker”, the entire audience lost it, myself included (“Dopesmoker” is usually omitted from Sleep’s live sets, so this was a big deal – to make it fit, they segued in and out of portions of the gargantuan track every couple of songs). Haikus’ kick drum and Cisernos’ bass locked in to create a monstrous thud that provided the structural support for Matt Pike’s infernal axe-shredding. Combined, it created what can only be described an an overwhelming atmosphere: much of my memory of the show was lost to the visceral sensory experience I am describing, of feeling the entire band in my chest as they performed. Having recently attended shows by Melvins and Boris, two other 1990s heavyweights known for their deafening, relentless dirges, it is safe to say that Sleep was one of the loudest and crustiest concerts I have ever had the pleasure of attending. Their performance revived the meaning of the ‘power trio’, in every, honest sense of the term: every single note felt like a titan’s stride, and an equally fierce stage presence kept the crowd locked in and focused.

Despite the intensity and the slow tempos, Sleep did not show even a hint of losing that all important momentum, pummeling the audience for almost two hours straight without stopping (it can be very easy, with slower, repetitive genres like ‘stoner metal’, to get very boring very quickly if you lose focus). As a whole, the show felt honest; you knew they gave a shit about every single note they struck, and this was something that could be felt consistently throughout the performance. For beneath the face-melting guitar solos, ‘sweat hesher’ jackets, and clouds of grass smoke were three guys doing the one thing they were always good at, and believe me, it felt like they were pouring every ounce of their soul into it. 

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