Besides choosing between paying rent and buying hilariously overpriced vinyl on eBay, music geekdom’s favorite intellectual exercise is debating and dissecting origin stories. Tracing a contemporary band or genre’s sonic genealogy gives us insight into where particular sounds and styles came from, and how those sounds mutated over time. Also, start talking about this at a party, and everyone will want to sleep with you. Promise. Pinky swear. It’s like Pokemon times 9000. Anyway…I digress.
Metal of the slower, down-tuned, weed-fueled variety has always been a particular favorite of mine and, while the genre has never gone completely out of style, lately it seems that you can’t turn a corner without tripping over fifteen new stoner-doom bands. In other words, the bong overfloweth. And while patient zero of the doom metal pandemic is unquestionably Black Sabbath, San Jose, California’s Sleep took those bluesy Iommi riffs and stretched them into a fuzzy, meditative mantra that has gone on to inform much of today’s contemporary stoner metal. As such, I was mighty stoked for the opportunity to catch Sleep at Theatre Telus last Sunday along with opening act Big Brave.
I knew nothing of Big Brave prior to the show, and had assumed that I was in for a stoner/doom wake-and-bake appetizer before Sleep’s coma-inducing main course. Boy, was I wrong. The Montreal trio’s music was indeed minimalist and atmospheric, but the tone was bleak, austere, atonal, and at times incredibly visceral, combining elements of Björk, Neurosis, Earth, and Sunn O))). The music’s tension came from the giant spaces in between; Drummer Louis-Alexandre Beauregard’s every muscle appeared to tense up in pain between every violent tom drum strike. Lead singer and guitarist Robin Wattie’s vocals were melodically ethereal with occasional punches of gritty anguish. A mid-set sound board fuck up in which jarringly upbeat techno metal was blasted through the speakers only temporarily broke Big Brave’s stride. A violinist joined the band for the latter half of the set, giving the songs a slightly more melodious quality reminiscent of Earth’s Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2. On top of enjoying the overall vibe of Big Brave’s music, I was impressed by their attention to tiny details. In one of the later songs, the drummer used a set of small mallets to produce a wash sound from one of his crash cymbals. While this may be something you could hear on a record, it would be almost imperceptible in a live setting. Big Brave are one of those bands that are wonderfully difficult to classify, so while I can’t tell you exactly what genre they are, I can say that you should check them out ASAP.
As the stage crew made preparations for Sleep, I took the opportunity to readjust my ear plugs, knowing that while Big Brave were indeed loud, the sight of Sleep’s amplifier backline was enough to make my ear drums pack up shop and hide in my kidneys. On that note, part of stoner doom metal’s appeal is the hypnotic effect of incredibly loud, plodding, monstrous riffs. As such, venue sound quality is paramount. Any buzzing or mushiness from the house speakers is going to harsh everyone’s mellow. No worries this evening, as the sound at Theatre Telus was spot on.
After a short delay for last-minute adjustments, Sleep took the stage to thunderous applause from a giant, nearly-reaching-capacity crowd who promptly stopped clapping the moment Sleep played their first note. The band opened with a number of tracks from 1993’s Holy Mountain, each sounding more gargantuan and somnolent than the last. Guitarist Matt Pike of High on Fire fame plays massive riffs that are also remarkably groovy; instead of simply bludgeoning, they envelop as if you were being hit by a freight train made entirely of (THC-infused) marshmallows. Singer and bassist Al Cisneros’s vocals seemed to get drowned out by the giant wall of guitar and bass sound during the first few songs, which may have been due to where I was standing on the mezzanine. The balance seemed to gradually improve, especially when the band launched into “Dopesmoker,” arguably their most famous composition. While my word count limit prevents me from digging too deep into the history of this iconic track, “Dopesmoker” has to me always represented the high-water mark in stoner metal. It has also acted as primary inspiration for a swath of contemporary acts. What sets it apart, besides its 63-minute runtime (the band only performed a portion of the song during the concert), are the layers of subtle variations and shifts. The song feels engaging with each listen, a triumph for such a marathon of a track. Speaking of marathons, kudos to drummer Jason Roeder. Sleep took very few breaks during their rather lengthy set, and Roeder powered through while maintaining great timing and tons of power.
Creating an atmosphere within which the audience can lose themselves is the key to great live music, so it was amazing to watch Big Brave and Sleep create two vastly different but equally entrancing soundscapes. I know that sounds like a really cliché, stoner thing to say, but, yeah, well, you know that’s just, like…uh…your opinion man.
Written by Jesse Gainer
Photography by Hugues Bouchard
*edited by Kate Erickson