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The Sciences Dan Franklin , April 20th, 2018 12:36

Stoner titans Sleep 'do a Beyoncé' and surprise release a new album. Dan Franklin packs the chalice & gets down

When Sleep reformed in 2009 at ATP’s second Fans Strike Back event in Minehead, Somerset, they ended both of their headline sets with what bassist and vocalist Al Cisneros introduced as “a new song from a long time ago” called 'Antarcticans Thawed’. Almost ten years later, here it is, the 15-minute centrepiece of this new album released by surprise today.

Who would have thought Sleep, of all heavy bands, would 'do a Beyoncé’ and drop this on us unannounced? But 4/20 is a sacred day for the Weedian and Sleep are their heaviest Gods. I stopped smoking marijuana thirteen years ago. I don't need to anymore: I listen to Sleep.

That Saturday and Sunday evening in May 2009, as the hour neared 3am, 'Antarcticans Thawed’ echoed out in a sparse and glacial sense of unfamiliarity – its riffs exerting the monstrous, deadly slow pressure of pack ice locking the audience in its grasp. On The Sciences, it is captured in a rich, re-hashed soundscape, the band sounding phenomenal. Because Sleep’s Holy Mountain was essentially a demo and Dopesmoker was not released in its full-bodied form until 2012, you can now revel in a band that has taken its sweet, hazy time getting its songs recorded the way they want them to sound.

Sleep have existed for the last ten years predominantly as a live entity – one that has become only more assured and more powerful, and central to stoner-doom mythology. The album begins with a glitchy, feedback-laced titular intro piece that recalls 'FX’ from Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 and the way guitarist Matt Pike opens up a lot of Sleep gigs: manipulating his guitar’s toggle switch as the rumble of the rhythm section begins to crescendo. With this sonic messing-about Sleep are telling us they have been experimenting in the laboratory-studio on their rare strain of heavy music, turning the art of thundering stoner rock into a science. And with that fusion of the two cultures, this album delivers the monument to their craft they have long promised.

'Sonic Titan’ is another new song from a long time ago – a scratchy bootleg-quality live version was available as a bonus track on the 2003 Tee Pee Records release of Dopesmoker – but here it has acquired all of the sheer heaviness Sleep have mustered playing live in a steady cadence of gigs since 2009. Their concerts see the backline stacked with Ampeg and Orange amplifiers. Last time I saw the band I counted six valve amplifiers each for bass and guitar, and was mesmerized watching their stagehand switch in new amps as others faded, the bulbs pulsing in the gloom. 'Sonic Titan’ lumbers, halts, alters direction and surges forward again before Cisneros hits a lively, pumping bass riff. His performance throughout the album sees him cut through the sonic morass in his typically dexterous, trancelike state. As Pike leans back into his trademark engine-revving riffs, Cisneros bucks and weaves around the shards of guitar lines. Cisneros’ vocals are close in the mix, with meditative intonation and lightly synthesized in a manner familiar from his work in Om.

By contrast, on 'Antarcticans Thawed’ he roars out in a broken-up incantation much like the way he sings on Dopesmoker. “Mountain’s highest point recedes” he spits: Sleep have always been about the arduousness of the journey, not so much slouching towards Bethlehem as powering towards Jerusalem. Each riff is dragged from oblivion, the horizon melting into the snow with the incandescent promise of madness. Original drummer Chris Hakius left the band again after that two-night ATP reunion, but Jason Roeder from Neurosis has occupied the position since: Sleep’s John Bonham to Hakius’ Bill Ward. His power and touch, sense of placement and rhythmic rough 'n’ tumble keep the geological plates spinning ever-so-slowly. But actually he’s more than that, laying down a line of ride-orientated cymbal work on 'Marijuanaut’s Theme’ you might expect from a jazz-fusion player. So he’s at least partly Sleep’s Billy Cobham.

Pike’s solo at the ten-minute mark of 'Antarcticans Thawed’ might be the best he has ever recorded. Greater even than his solo on 2014’s one-off single 'The Clarity’ or the titanic solos that periodically arrive as landmarks during Dopesmoker. After the retirement of Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi, the servant has truly become the master. In this solo, Pike draws heaviness from the melting permafrost, encased for millennia and surfaced in a tumult that delineates the Antarctic landscape: his guitar lines form seracs, drifts, pressure ridges and glittering ice pinnacles. 'Iommic Life complete’ indeed.

You might hear mentions of 'Zion’ and other quasi-religious allusions but really all the lyrics are about getting high and smoking marijuana, and that's fine. Although after calling the opening song 'Dragonaut’ on Holy Mountain, 'Marijuanaut’s Theme’ is really pushing it. 'Giza Butler’, a homophonic tribute to Black Sabbath’s bassist, invokes the ancient edifices of the pyramids – themselves a symbol for the power trio, the triangle of electricity – and the importance of the inner-high: 'Harvest sustains the altitude within’. Here the band gets as close as it does to bouncing, like a pack animal laden down with the good stuff. If I have a criticism of the song it's that the band sit back into a rather indistinct riffless churn without much melodic shape.

That changes with closer 'The Botanist’. Pike layers sharp, atomic blues over an acoustic backdrop which speaks to some of the more expansive pieces he has produced with his other band, High On Fire. The electric triangle then rotates on its axis as Roeder and Cisneros jam the song out to a reverberating conclusion.

With The Sciences, Sleep present an alternative pathway for the hyper-technological age. Elon Musk’s battery-powered ascent to the stars and colonisation of Mars be damned, perhaps we just want to get high and drift on a spacewalk. Sleep have finally delivered the soundtrack.