In an interview last year for Noisey, Sleep guitarist Matt Pike said:
I don’t know if you’ve ever smoked out of a coconut chalice with a hose, but dude, it’s the highest you can possibly get. You forget your name, your address, you talk to the dog and the dog talks back. It gets fucking weird.
So, in honor of a new Sleep album, I will now do exactly that. In place of a coconut, I will sub in this serviceable apple that I have filled with perfectly legal tobacco and not disgusting, criminal YOLO drugs. Yes, future employers using Palantir: tobacco. I will then take one hit for each track on The Sciences and write this intro straight through…for…science…s. All right, let’s go.
Wow. Okay. Been a bit.
The Sciences, Sleep’s first album in a long time, starts with three minutes of feedback, a throat-clearing transcribed for stacks of amps. Before you can almost smell the dust being blown out the tubes, bassist Al Cisneros — as he is credited in the liner notes — hits a “water pipe,” the opening downstroke of “Marijuanaut’s Theme” is strummed, and the next 50 minutes is like this highly influential, mythical, much-beloved band never broke up.
While the album’s April 20 (heh) release date was a surprise, the internet acclimated quickly. Reviews were up in mere hours. The respective Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Metallum pages have been thoroughly updated. If you wanted to chant along, Genius had most of the lyrics. I was seeing memes by Saturday. By the time you read this, The Sciences will be 10 days old and it will feel old as shit because everything knowable will be known. And yet, to me, nothing had more resonance than the opening line of this Sludgelord write-up: “How the hell do you approach a release like this?”
You ever wonder if you, like, missed the wrong day of school and now you don’t know something that everyone knows? And they’re just too polite to tell you? I mean, what if I’m, like, supposed do a somersault after yawning because that’s the socially acceptable thing. But I don’t and now everyone is like, Oh my god, what a rude ingra — ahem. Sorry. Right.
It’s early, but these six songs are kind of remarkable, easily juking by the cynicism-fed narrative of lazy comeback cash-ins. It feels like a lot of best-case elements came together to create a best-case album: older material (“Sonic Titan,” “Antarcticans Thawed”) that still sounds fresh, a nearly decade-long chemistry developed on the stage with “new” drummer Jason Roeder (Neurosis), and a batch of contemporary compositions that somehow encapsulate Sleep’s entire history while also acknowledging the existence of the members’ other pursuits. At once, it’s exactly the album that should’ve followed Jerusalem/Dopesmoker in the ’90s and the work of an older, experienced band that could have only been made now.
Cool shit abounds: On the whole, it’s wonderfully unpretentious and funny without being silly. At a more micro level, Pike delivers some of his best solos. This gentleman is going to be 46 and his playing is still exuberant and barely contained, adding just that extra little oompf of sound to every strum. Like how an impressionist painter can wave her wrist and make a forest, Pike’s chords just have so much effortless muchness. Cisneros’ interlude on “Sonic Titan” is his application to the bass hall of fame. It’s a Bootsy Collins-esque instruction manual detailing why Sleep is successful: hitting the one without fail and then doing things differently in between. Roeder has acclimated himself perfectly without losing an ounce of his originality, matching O.G. drummer Chris Hakius’ ability to accent everything while maintaining a sturdy and steady pacing. Plus, “Giza Butler” has one of my favorite moments in music this year, when Cisneros, with total nonchalance, speak-sings in mystical Comic Book Guy voice “the pterodactyl flies again.” All of it feels like the magical realism that’s restored by smoking weed; the waves of a body high, the hilarity of incongruity, all of it. It’s Sleep. It just is.
In “Dry, The Beloved Country,” Eve Fairbanks tosses out this observation to explain our sometimes narrow expectations: “We can only really imagine what we have already experienced. That’s why the aliens in science-fiction movies look like human beings.”
It’s undeniable that The Sciences sounds like Sleep to me and that’s kind of why I like it. It fulfills what I think a Sleep album should be, which is a thought process that adheres to a sadly binary way of experiencing music (is or isn’t) that is further hemmed in by the idea that a comeback album can only be measured by what came before it. Like, my knee-jerk, first-take reaction to a comeback album allows for only two narratives:
1. The successful return-to-form
2. The terrible cash grab
One reaffirms faith, allowing me to still wear a band shirt out in public without being like, “Well actually, I stopped listening after [some safe choice that is still one removed from the safest choice for maximum hot-take-ability],” whenever strangers accidentally make eye contact with me on the bus. The other is the refugee camp for the aggrieved, those who can’t fathom why the band just didn’t contact them to clear pending riffment. Neither narrative acknowledges that each and every comeback album is unique, born of different circumstances, nor do they account for how much life has been lived in the intervening years by both band and fan.
Let’s consider what Sleep has gone through to get here. In my estimation, they have eaten a ton of shit. The backstory is littered with back-breaking moments. Holy Mountain, Sleep’s seminal sophomore banger that continues to exert its influence over the more Sabbathian-indebted sect of stoner metal, appears to be wholly owned by Earache and it alone eats up the proceeds. Though now heralded as a masterpiece, Dopesmoker was once lost, shelved by a confused and antagonistic London Records that had no clue what to do with a 60-minute epic concept album about weed. The strife caused Sleep to splinter, ultimately pushing Pike to High On Fire and Cisneros and Hakius to Om. Both of those entities cut classics of their own, the rare instance of ex-member outfits actually panning out. It also meant Sleep’s core would rarely rub shoulders, set on divergent paths paved by touring and rehearsals and the ups and downs of life. When Sleep reformed to play shows in 2009, it was a something like a miracle. However, for Hakius, such an underrated performer and key component of why Sleep’s hypnotic, loping rhythms were so satisfying, it was also fitting time to bow out.
Instead of collapsing, Sleep continued on, bringing in Roeder and steadily playing a handful of high-profile shows each year that served to increase the act’s stature. Rumors of a return to the studio were hinted at and then confirmed in interviews. The Adult Swim Singles Series entry “The Clarity” came out in 2014, proving that studio Sleep was indeed a thing. (Great barbed quote by Roeder in this TheMusic.com.au interview: “They offered us some recording money and a simple idea: we put out a free song for you and you make it whatever you want it to be. If only record labels operated the same way years ago.”) Morse code transmissions on the Sleep website hinted that new stuff was near. And then, out of the green, there was The Sciences on streaming sites and the analog-friendly Third Man had physical copies for sale. This might be the first time an album was released the way Sleep wanted it since, like, 1991’s Volume One.
All of that is accurate, more or less, sourced from interviews and bios. But…does it really mean anything? I’m the one who constructed it. I chose those specific points to highlight and ignored others, building a through-line to make it seem like The Sciences is the payoff to a classic redemption arc. The narrative is mine alone, saying more about me than it does the band. My shadow, my meaning, is cast over it. Because, really, who knows if any of that stuff even played into the bands’ creative decisions. More than likely, those creative decisions and what motivated the band were equally formed by day-to-day stuff that none of us can see.
Oh. Hey. What was I doing. Right. Right.
I have a 20-year high school reunion (guh) looming in the not-so-distant future. I found out the other day that some guy I used to see around campus is now…a swordsmith. He makes swords. Swords! How the heck did he go from the person I knew to making swords? If that guy shows up to said reunion, what do we even talk about now? Hey, remember that time a bug flew into Professor S’s iced tea an — “I’m sorry, Ian. You are an idiot. I have to go live my truth and make medieval steel.” His journey seems inscrutable to me because I didn’t live every step of the way with him. I just saw the ends and couldn’t square that with what I previous knew. From the other side, when you’re living it, it’s even hard to account for these changes yourself because it’s so incremental. It’s like when you look at an older picture of yourself next to a newer one and you’re like, “Great, I am the fattest. Thanks for the warning, stomach.”
While The Sciences sounds very Sleep to me, it’s clear that it doesn’t for others who are disappointed. For them, this isn’t the same Sleep. But those people also aren’t the same “them” from 20 years ago, either. Maybe they’ve grown tired of the stoner doom scene that makes more boring riffs per capita than any other metal genre. Maybe their priorities have changed: longterm partner, kids, career, etc. Maybe life is now just an exercise in mundanity and extreme predictability and they mint fewer lasting memories than they did when they were young. Maybe a million things. That’s why it’s insane to me that, when encountering a comeback album, I’m still like, “WELP, EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT BUT THIS ALBUM BETTER BE THE SAME THING OR YOU DONE MESSED THE HELL UP.”
And…what the hell do I even know about a thing after spending a handful of days with it? Granted, this gripe has been flogged to death by every hand-wringer that gets turned on by virtue signaling the apotheosis of oh-so-precious art. I even bet some cave critic stood in front of a depiction of a handprint and was like, “Yesss, I need to live with this Gesamtkunstwerk first before I can interrogate its messa–” and then they were eaten by a tiger. But…still….
Hey…you…friend. Friendly friend. We are the same height. That is neat. Let’s talk about Carcass’ Surgical Steel. In 2013, I loved that album for much the same reasons I love The Sciences. Nearly five years on, I can’t say that I’m as equally enamored with it. It’s fine. But it’s not the Carcass I freaked out about when I was younger.
Now, here’s the thing: Does that mean that, because I was initially super enthusiastic, I was wrong about Surgical Steel? Now that the newness has rubbed off and it’s just kind of a Carcass album instead of being, like, OH MY GOD, A CARCASS ALBUM, does that mean I have finally achieved the right, true (alternately: TRVE) opinion? Or, could both opinions be right? What if an album is never objectively good or bad but only has the possibility to be good or bad in the moment you encounter it? What if your opinion of an album is based on a thousand different, ever-shifting factors that momentarily lock into place? Schrödinger’s hot take, or something. Doesn’t that…and let me downshift to the world’s smallest voice…kinda invalidate everything I write about music?
Oh man. What is real? Can you ever really know? Can you? Is “Giza Butler” actually about the stark reality of what happens when you do drop out of life with bong in hand? Like, the main character is free…but he lives beneath an overpass. Oh no. I don’t know. How the heck did I end up in a Denny’s four towns over? Why do I feel like I’m going to regret all of this real soon? –Ian Chainey
10. Judicator – “Spiritual Treason”
Location: Salt Lake City, UT / Tucson, AZ
Subgenre: power metal
Aaron is mostly out of the pocket this month. In his stead, I will now fill this column with power metal. He would’ve wanted it this way.
Judicator’s last album, which made our year-end list, was the cathartic and hug-your-loved-ones sobering At The Expense Of Humanity, a progressive heartbreaker which tackled singer John Yelland’s brother and his bout with cancer. The Last Emperor, the quartet’s new one and fourth full-length overall, is another concept album, but the band steps back into the time machine for a history lesson, taking on “several events and figures from the first Crusades and the People’s crusades.” If that sounds dry, something that might be better served by a stuffy BBC narrator, did I mention that this band shreds? Hey, it shreds. Guitarists Michael Sanchez and Tony Cordisco fill these eight tracks with searing leads, solos, and six-string pyrotechnics. But Judicator is smart as hell, understanding that the material is only going to stick if listeners have something to hum along to. And for that reason, I present you with “Spiritual Treason” the hummiest of hummers mainly because it has been blessed by guest Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian, a singer who has yet to find a song he couldn’t make soar. That said, it’s been a bit since Hansi was handed a song that went this hard. Indeed, The Last Emperor burns hotter than previous albums, an electricity that keeps you on edge even during nine-minute turns. In a great interview with Last Rites, Cordisco said, “This album felt like it needed to go for the throat and be just a massive release of energy. … Especially given the personal trauma we heavily exposed on our last album, it felt very important to do this. To me, this album is exactly how you respond to personal tragedy…you punch it in the face with riffs.” Punch on. [From The Last Emperor, out now via the band.] –Ian Chainey
9. Amorphis – “Wrong Direction”
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Subgenre: melodic heavy metal
Twenty-eight years (Amorphis is almost 30!) and a few singers later, Finland’s finest are still killing it. Sure, they may spend more time in the clean vox/crisp studio world these days, but “new” frontman Tomi Joutsen (who apparently has now been with Amorphis almost 15 years — time’s inexorable march, etc.) has become a more than worthy standard bearer for the Finnish legends. He’s bridged the somewhat uneasy gap from Amorphis’ death metal origins to the Tuonela era, all the while holding a side gig as a Johnny Depp impersonator (I kid) and guitarist in Corpse Molester Cult. Yes, Amorphis has changed, but here is an evolution you can be proud of. And one thing that hasn’t changed is Esa Holopainen’s pure mastery of arpeggiated glory and timeless, soaring melody. In 2018, Amorphis 100% rules. Fun fact: according to Amorphis’ Encyclopaedia Metallum page, they were the first band ever added to the site. [From Queen Of Time, out 5/18 via Nuclear Blast.] –Wyatt Marshall
8. Aeviterne – “Spring Of Mirrors”
Location: New York City, NY
Subgenre: death metal
Aeviterne is the next step for Garett Bussanick and Eric Rizk, two former members of Flourishing, an ahead-of-its-time band that burned bright before issuing its final transmission in 2012. To an extent, Sireless, Aeviterne’s two-song how-do-you-do, continues along Flourishing’s path, integrating chunks of complex death metal, dissonant deathgrind, and intense hardcore into a seamless whole that remains incredibly listenable despite being intimidatingly detailed. That said, this feels different for a lot of reasons, not least of which being that Bussanick and Rizk possess five-plus years of added life experience to draw from. I don’t want to say Sireless is “richer,” because that writes off what Flourishing did, and those albums still hold up. But, you could say the scope here feels wider, a quality that makes Aeviterne’s two-way versatility more impressive since it’s covering a lot of ground between the diametric poles of abstract ass-kicking and easy-to-absorb songs that are satisfying. And the cool thing on this single is that the poles flip. “Spring Of Mirrors” whips, thrashes, and gnashes with eldritch discomfort. “Inborn” pushes the subtle hooky qualities of the aforementioned to the fore. Different vibes, yet both songs are undeniably cut from the same cloth. Part of the reason this works is because these dudes are just supreme technicians, but like you need me to tell you that. I mean, just check out the rest of the crew: Ian Jacyszyn (Castevet) and Sam Smith (Artificial Brain) fill out the quartet. (The drumming, in particular, is impressive without also exhibiting a “check this shit” magazine-courting bent. Creative stuff.) However, if skills were the only thing on display, Sireless would be a slog. Aeviterne just has a nose for finding catchy morsels in the darkest of terrains. In other words, “Spring Of Mirrors” is all ominous and malevolent and shit, but it’s also hooky as hell. [From Sireless, out 5/4 via P2 Records.] –Ian Chainey
7. Strunkiin – “Island In The Wilderness”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
Unabashed nature worship metal can be great, and when you frame it as a tribute to Bob Ross you’ve got my attention. From the Bandcamp bio: “This project could be considered a tribute of sorts to the legacy of Bob Ross, particularly his The Joy Of Painting TV-series.” L.P, the maitre behind the music, goes on to say that he attempted to “capture some of the atmosphere and tone of each painting and the progression of the respective episode…I was able to literally convert thoughts into sound, experiencing what Bob described as ‘the joy of painting’.” On “Northern Lights,” smeared synths provide the base layer for mountain soaring melody. If you listen closely, you can even hear some happy trees. [From The Joy Of Creation, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
6. Rocka Rollas – “From Blackened Skies”
Location: Gävle, Sweden
Subgenre: speed metal / power metal
Here lies the last album from Rocka Rollas, a band featuring the absurdly prolific Swedish metalhead Ced. Worry not fans, Ced has at least seven other active outfits in the oven, including Runelord, a “made to order” band. So, yes, the future where Aaron, Wyatt, and I pool our cash together to turn this column into a monthly three-disc opera (track one: “Ian Has A Nervous Breakdown”) is soon upon you. Anyway, those with long memories will know this is the second time Rocka Rollas has appeared in the hallowed Black Market halls. Back in 2015, I wrote “Sweden’s Rocka Rollas is a good fit for the Internet even if the band’s speed metal, along with its equally reverent related projects, is tried, true, and traditional.” That still holds in 2018, though I’d like to finally bring closure to what I meant by “good fit for the Internet.” Celtic Kings could easily wage war under the tattered Noise Records banner, but the pacing of the material is straight 21st century, quickly jumping from hook to hook with little of the plodding scene-setting to which older bands were beholden. Even the near 14-minute title track that somehow calls upon every singer in Sweden to lend it their voices (sup, homie from Candle) zooms by without many dead spots. It’s like scrolling through an Instagram feed of powerized speed metal: a snippet of attention-grabbing bombast and then some more and the some more. Plus, duder has really matured as a player. Ced and his partner in strings Emil shred the hell out of these songs, no doubt touching fingers with the extended hands of gods reaching down from power heaven. I guess that’s what happens when you never stop playing. Stay busy, my friends. [From Celtic Kings, out now via Stormspell Records.] –Ian Chainey
5. Our Place Of Worship Is Silence – “Artificial Purgatory”
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Subgenre: death metal
Bear with me as I violate the natural order: Here, for perhaps the first time in metal journalistic history, I will share an instrumental intro to a non-instrumental album rather than a proper song. I can hear you screaming from your basements and cubicles, but it must be done. So unplug your ears and behold “Artificial Purgatory,” the best death metal album intro in forever. What is it, you ask, that could make me do something as dumb as force you to listen to an intro? It’s pure brute force; gnashing, clanging, grinding death; a gutter-magic blend of black death and violent hardcore, intimate and huge and mean as hell. It’s the sound of a tire iron dragged across blacktop, eager to knock out teeth. Picture Hatebreed and Deicide stranded in the Bronx after a NYDM swap meet gone wrong, stripped of their singers and forced to unite, armed only with pointy guitars and a will to kill, forced to fight through hordes of weak bands to get back home to Coney Island. Let’s try another one: Picture “Redneck Stomp,” Obituary’s mindless chestnut of ignorant instrumental death and the sonic equivalent of camouflage truck nutz spattered with roadkill, but strip away the mouth-breathing and focus on the swagger and senseless violence, which makes it roughly 100x better. Our Place Of Worship Is Silence go one further by folding in layers of sampled screams, spinning up the intensity till your blood starts to pound and there’s no choice but to slam through the entire album in one go. Fortunately, the full album is streaming at Bandcamp, and the rest of it rules, too. [From With Inexorable Suffering, out now via Translation Loss Records.] –Aaron Lariviere
4. Brutal Blues – “02”
BB is the second collaboration between Steinar (PSUDOKU, Parlamentarisk Sodomi, owner of my heart) and Anders (Noxagt) and the two have outdone themselves, besting their 2014 debut in both sheer bugfuckery and enjoyability. These 10 tracks lay waste to most anything else that gets tagged as an “aural assault,” battering orthodox grinders with wave after wave of stop-start blasts, rhythms atop rhythms, guitar squalls, and wordless yells. But Steinar and Anders decorate the wall separating music and noise with an intricately designed mosaic that makes more and more sense after each listen. And that’s kind of the thing: this album is, and this is a rough calculation, a bajillion times more fun to listen to than read about, because what’s written about it will assuredly be 1/1,000,000,000th as creative. Any descriptor that tries to measure its impact is going to be like someone telling you about their dreams, something far more relevant to the prime experiencer. Like, if I scrunched up my stupid little writer face real hard, I might say this sounds like an alien yelling at a finicky warp drive to turn over, or getting mauled by a monster made out of TV static, or the soundwave conversion of the collective ID of an IT department told to patch a legacy application written in Malbolge. I mean it’s like that, but it’s not like that at all. And I think the reason for that is because BB is less about definable points of interest in the traditional sense and – ugh this is going to read as so lame – more about feeling the music, man. That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever written (*cough*) because it’s so self-evident, but maybe think of it this way: It’s like how some people like food for the texture. In BB’s context, it’s the way it washes over you, the relief you feel when the gears finally catch; that kind of stuff instead of “HEY, CHECK THIS RIFF, BRO.” I’m not going to front like this is for everybody – and despite my yearly protestations, Steinar hasn’t appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, so it might not be for anybody. However, you’re probably not going to experience anything else like this until Brutal Blues returns. So, by all means, please experience it. [From BB, out now via At War With False Noise and Give Praise Records.] –Ian Chainey
3. Exesa – “Visurus Magam”
Location: Warsaw, Poland
Subgenre: black metal
The second wave of black metal birthed the menacing hypnotic swing that gave the genre its somewhat mythic quality. Here were riffs that evoked some malevolent and grim distant past, loaded with enough tension and dark righteousness to turn a field full of Europeans into a coordinated side-to-side hair maelstrom. In rekindling the flame, Exesa is pure gasoline for the fire — it doesn’t just honor the best of yore, it takes the flag and storms into battle with reckless abandon and enormous amps. From Poland, Exesa will no doubt evoke comparisons to melodic compatriots Mgła, whose infectious guitar work has destroyed many a festival field. Exesa will too — it’s an absolute gut punch of pure, invigorating spite. [From Exesa, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall
2. Elfsgedroch – “De Broedermoordvloek”
Location: Groningen, Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
A cool thing has been going on in the Netherlands over the past few years, and the Dutch have carved out space as the masters of bright hypnotic riffing. It’s a vibe, and you’ll know it when you hear it — sometimes there can be a hint of spaghetti western vibes going on, with open chord, hanging air dissonance wafting about and distorting the senses. This is all to say that the jangly celebratory riffing of “De Broedermoordvloek” quickly brought to mind the guitar glory of Fluisteraars and Turia, two Dutch bands that rip with effortless style. On “De Broedermoordvloek,” Elfsgedroch flexes its muscles, putting on a masterful performance of narrative black metal that is awash in sorrowful atmosphere. It should be noted that, according to Encyclopaedia Metallum, “Elfsgedroch is Dutch for Mischief of Elves.” [From Dwalend Bij Nacht En Ontij, out now via Diaphora Produktion.] –Wyatt Marshall
1. Mesarthim – “Recombination”
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal
In the ever-expanding pantheon of space black metal, Mesarthim is probably my top pick. From slow-orbit works of atmospheric wonder sprinkled with bleeps and bloops to hyper drive techno piled high with riffs built to soundtrack a supernova, Mesarthim is your playlist for the most excellent of deep space journeys. (If you look through their discography, you’ll notice that album art credit inevitably goes to NASA.) On recent albums, the duo has turned up the synth, boldly going where more self-serious bands wouldn’t dare. But Mesarthim do so in stride, loading up on big sweeping synthscapes that celebrate whatever nebula is the farthest away. On recent albums, Mesarthim was a bit grimmer — now, their music is a celebration of the awesomeness of space. [From The Density Paramater, out now via the band.] –Wyatt Marshall