Sleep & High On Fire

(Copyright © 1999-2019 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Volume One , 6/10
Sleep's Holy Mountain , 6.5/10
Jerusalem/ Dopesmoker (1998) , 7.5/10
High On Fire: Art Of Self Defense , 6.5/10
High On Fire: Surrounded By Thieves (2002), 5/10
High On Fire: Blessed Black Wings (2005), 6.5/10
High On Fire: Death Is This Communion (2007), 6/10
High On Fire: Snakes for the Divine (2010), 6/10
Om: Variations on a Theme (2005), 5/10
Om: Conference Of The Birds (2006), 6.5/10 (mini)
Om: Pilgrimage (2007), 5/10
Om: God Is Good (2009), 5/10
Om: Advaitic Songs (2012), 5/10
High On Fire: De Vermis Mysteriis (2011), 5.5/10
High on Fire: Luminiferous (2015), 5/10
High on Fire: Electric Messiah (2018), 7/10
Sleep: The Sciences (2018), 4.5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Sleep (originally Asbestos Death) were formed in San Jose (California) by singer/bassist Al Cisneros, guitarist Matt Pike, drummer Chris Haklus and a second guitarist. Volume One (Very Small, 1992), a collection of slow, dark, booming dirges, bridged doom-metal and stoner-rock. The music's gothic overtones wed hallucinated states of mind and the two become one deep coma. Every song is a gesture of mental apocalypse. Cisneros mumbles a witch's prayer over the heavy Black Sabbath riff of Stillborn. Guitar and bass deliver an epic and tragic melody towards the end of Suffering. Nebuchadnezzar's Dream erupts black lava.
Melody and harmony are mere accidents of playing instrumentation. In their hands, the slow-burning blues of Numb becomes a vision of unredeemed horror. A vaguely middle-eastern motive climbs out of Catatonic's trance.
Cisneros' mind is permanently blinded by a dense fog of drugs. The drums are as lively as zombie steps. The bass carries the melody to make it sound menacing and otherwordly. Guitar riffs pierce anything that moves in the viscid slurry.

The band was reduced to a trio for the EP Volume 2 (Off The Disk, 1991). The subsequent album Sleep's Holy Mountain (Earache, 1993) showed a more assured combo. Even if pomp still reigns unbridled (The Druid), tracks like the nine-minute Holy Mountain and Evil Gypsy contain lengthy free-form jamming. The ten-minute Led Zeppelin-ian psychedelic blues From Beyond even constructs a complex dialectic of silence, shouting and transcendent guitar solos. Dragonaut (Cream-like melody and panzer pace), Inside The Sun (with sideral guitars and MC5-like emphasis), and Aquarian (another straightforward melody) are no less entertaining (the way Dracula was entertaining to rats). While not very original, the album's sound is the quintessence of "stoner"-rock (Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer).

After a long hiatus, Sleep returned with the most ambitious work of their career: Jerusalem (Dopesmoker, 1998) contains one huge 52-minute (mostly instrumental) six-movement suite that represents one of the most extreme attempts at scoring the deepest torments of the human psyche. The first movement opens with brooding intermittent riffs. For seven minutes these riffs mutter a fragmented melody. Then the vocals pick it up, but one hardly feels that the human voice is more "human" than the monster rumble that preceded it. In the second movement the guitar engages in a series of deranged Hendrix-ian solos that conceal an agonizing blues number, despite the loud drumming and monster bass riffs. The voice comes out of its lethargy on the third movement, but, again, Cisneros is hardly a "singer": his style is more similar to a howling wolf. The fourth movement is another convoluted guitar monologue, this time with Indian and Japanese overtones (occasionally reminiscent of the Mahavishnu Orchestra). The guitar returns to the "agonizing-blues" style in the fifth movement before the voice leads the suite to a massive close in the heaviest and most Black Sabbath-ian of the six movements.

Dopesmoker (Tee Pee, 2003) is the original 63-minute version of Jerusalem, as recorded in 1995.

Two members of Sleep ( Chris Hakius and Justin Marler) formed the Sabians to play more conventional rock'n'roll Beauty For Ashes (The Music Cartel, 2002) Shiver (The Music Cartel, 2003)

Former Sleep's guitarist Matt Pike built a career out of stretching out Black Sabbath's riffs in hyper-lysergic trances. Enrolling George Rice on bass and (especially) virtuoso Des Kensel on drums, Pike formed High On Fire and released Art Of Self Defense (Man's Ruin, 2000 - Tee Pee, 2002), an album of emphatic hard-rock. The trio roars out Baghdad and then stretches out in the slower, more solemn, eight-minute 10,000 Years, as well as in the cosmic-tribal Last One and the eight-minute Fireface, that opens like a Led Zeppelin blues. The trio pens songs such as Blood From Zion that are both elegant and claustrophobic. At the opposite end of the spectrum they craft the agonizing ten-minute Master Of Fists, one ugly beast that ends with a demonic coda. Art Of Self Defense was followed by the inferior Surrounded By Thieves (Relapse, 2002), that was heaviness for the sake of claiming the title of heaviest band in the world. Blessed Black Wings (Relapse, 2005), instead, reestablished High On Fire's reputation via an impeccable parade of earth-shaking riffs (thanks also to Steve Albini's production). At last, a song like Devilution displayed signs of life, charging at the speed of death-metal. Cometh Down Hessian is pummeling hardcore punk-rock with anthemic metal overtones. Brother In The Wind is not only lively but even melodic. At the other extreme, To Cross The Bridge is sheer chaos and noise. The seven-minute instrumental Sons Of Thunder is possibly the artistic peak of the album and a show of instrumental dexterity, notably for Des Kensel's tribal drumming and the post-Hendrixian guitar work. The old principle of heaviness for the sake of heaviness dominates the eight-minute Blessed Black Wings and little else. Death Is This Communion (Relapse, 2007), more prosaically produced by Jack Endino, juxtaposed the crushing stoner-rock of Rumors of War, Fury Whip and Turk and the gloomy instrumental DII with the more sophisticated eight-minute Death Is This Communion as well as with the seven-minute Ethereal, an unlikely balance of gentle (melodic) vocals and heavy sound. The glossy Snakes for the Divine (E1, 2010), fine-tuned by mainstream producer Greg Fidelman, presented a radio-friendly version of High On Fire's stoner-rock. The track sequencing should be arranged more logically: from the peaks of Ghost Neck and Fire Flood and Plague, the album quickly descends towards the safer middle ground of Frost Hammer and Bastard Samurai, lands onto the eight-minute metal complacency of Snakes for the Divine and finally plunges into the lengthy power-ballad How Dark We Pray. Frost Hammer and Snakes for the Divine would remain two of their most famous songs.

Sleep's bassist and vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Haklus formed the guitar-less Om and recorded the three lengthy doom-laden tracks of Variations on a Theme (Holy Mountain, 2005). The 21-minute On The Mountain At Dawn is too derivative of Black Sabbath (and repetitive) to stand on its own. The 12-minute Kapila's Theme is a heavy and slow rumble, while the third track (also 12-minute long), Annapurna, starts at a fast pace only to collapse later on in a similarly catatonic rhythm. Nonetheless, it is the third track that gives hope of hearing a more original variant on the much abused Black Sabbath stereotype. By the time they released the mini-album Conference Of The Birds (Holy Mountain, 2006), the duo had mastered the technique of playing without a guitar. The 16-minute At Giza is a protracted Eastern-tinged hippie chant that proceeds in a rather orderly manner until the distortion kicks in a few minutes from the end. The 17-minute Flight of the Eagle is fueled by a much heavier bass groove and the vocalist's litany sounds "darker". While not as captivating as the other one, this one is more in line with the dogma of doom-metal. Unfortunately, Pilgrimage (2007) did not introduce any meaningful element and it was even more understated.

After replacing Chris Hakius with new drummer Emil Amos, Om's God Is Good (Drag City, 2009) included the 19-minute stoner raga Thebes but there was little to surprise or entertain other than a different, more open, drumming style (instead of the monolithic emphasis on groove and chanting) and the use of cello, flute and tambura.

Shrinebuilder (Neurot, 2009) was a supergroup consisting of Scott Kelly (Neurosis), Al Cisneros (Om, Sleep), Dale Crover (the Melvins), and Wino (Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, Saint Vitus) playing very old-fashioned doom-metal a` la Black Sabbath.

High On Fire changed producer again (Kurt Ballou of Converge) for the (obscurely religious) concept De Vermis Mysteriis (Entertainment One, 2011), returning them to an appropriate rawer sound. Crowned again by the visceral, thundering Serums of Liao and Spiritual Rights, they can indulge in progressive parts for Madness of an Architect and King of Days. Alas the shorter songs (with the exception of Fertile Green), as well as the instrumental Samsara, feel like mere filler, the kind of things a shop displays in the window but doesn't really sell. More than anything else, High On Fire had a fundamental meta-problem: they had become a band that changes sound with each producer, just like those silly dance-pop stars; a fact definitely not fitting a truculent metal act.

Om completed their transition to a new, lighter and more sophisticated sound on Advaitic Songs (Drag City, 2012) thanks to the contributions of cellist Jackie Perez Gratz, flutist Lorraine Rath and Robert Lowe of the 90 Day Men and the Lichens, plus tamboura drones, field recordings and female vocals. This diverse collection of songs begins with the devotional hymn Addis, continues with the bleak rumbling exoteric State of Non-Return, halfway between early medieval-tinged King Crimson and emphatic stoner-rock, and the whispered eleven-minute Middle Eastern shuffle Haqq al-Yaqin. Lacking moments of passion, and deprived of the old fire, the album often sounds like a tedious and amateurish excursion in world-music by a group of Western teenagers who have never heard the originals.

Al Cisneros finally debuted under his own name with singles of dub music, Dismas/ Version (Sinai, 2012) and Teresa Of Avila/ Levitation Dub (Sinai, 2013).

Produced again by Kurt Ballou, High on Fire's Luminiferous (eOne, 2015) is a close relative of their most user-friendly album, Snakes for the Divine, via the melodic midtempo power-ballad The Falconist and the low-energy poppy The Cave. They make amend with a bit of hardcore (Slave The Hive) and a bit of speed-metal (Luminiferous), but neither sounds sincere. On the other hand, this album boasts some of their most rampaging moments, such as The Black Plot and especially The Sunless Years, fueled by Matt Pike's ferocious roaring and drummer Des Kensel's seismic charge. There is, however, quite a bit of filler: the machine-gun guitar attack of Carcosa cannot sustain the repetitive midtempo even minutes that follow (including a rather uninspired guitar solo), the lengthy closer The Lethal Chamber feels more clownish than scary, and The Dark Side of the Compass is simply redundant.

High on Fire's Electric Messiah (SPV, 2018) is a tribute to Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, the band that inspired them. The album totally restores their credibility as heirs to Motorhead. It contains two of their most effervescent rave-ups, Spewn from the Earth (with a blistering guitar solo) and especially the epileptic thrash-metal of Electric Messiah. No less impressive is the entropy of God of the Godless, a relentless demented merry-go-round. No less devastating are the supersonic "thrash" eruptions of Freebooter (with another fiery guitar solo). supersonic speed). These shorter songs compete with longer demonstrations of insanity. The nine-minute suite Steps of the Ziggurat/ House of Enlil (beginning with panzer riffs but shifting gear after not even three minutes to become a lightning-speed locomotive, tamed by an atmospheric midtempo guitar solo, and springing back into a demonic gallop) is surpassed by the ten-minute stoner epic Sanctioned Annihilation, a monolith of virtuoso drumming and relentless tension. The tempo shifts are an attraction in itself, capable of sculpting superhuman dimensions inside an already bombastic architecture of guitar and bass. For a mildly confused The Witch and the Christ there is an infernal ballad Drowning Dog that shows how one can still experiment in the genre of stoner-rock. Des Kensel is particularly terrifying. classics: Blessed Black Wings

Pike and Cisneros reformed Sleep after 20 years with drummer Jason Roeder of Neurosis for the album The Sciences (Third Man, 2018), although the best piece, the 12-minute Sonic Titan dates from the 1990s, as a live version already appeared as a bonus track on Dopesmoker (Tee Pee, 2003): titanic riff of bulldozer blues, feverish guitar solo, and a dynamic evolution that thankfully compensates for Cisneros' monotonous singing. The ten-minute Giza Butler (with its lame melodic overture) is not stoned at all, actually very lucid, and the 14-minute Antarcticans Thawed sounds like rather annoying prog-metal, perhaps a leftover from the golden days. The guitar solos are generally intense, but can't lift the songs from there plateau of mediocrity.

What is unique about this music database