As someone who is both a fan and musician in the doom metal scene, one of my biggest pet peeves is when people critique a given band with a dismissive “that sounds like Sabbath.” Iommi and friends are obviously the most influential band in heavy metal history and there are plenty of stoner groups that contribute nothing but “Hole in the Sky” rewrites, but such assertions always feel like superficial tags applied to any hard rock that is vaguely slow and groovy. Groups like Trouble, Saint Vitus, and Candlemass were unambiguously inspired by Master of Reality and Sabotage, but they pushed the boundaries of darkness, melancholy, and tempo to extremes never realized or even attempted by the downtuned blues Brummies.
So I should hate Sleep for their blatantly intentional Black Sabbath homages, right? I mean “Dragonaut,” this album’s opener and the band’s best known song, is basically the verse riff from “Lord of This World” and the opening riff from “A National Acrobat” glued together and bookended by a bunch of aimless lead guitar and bass wah. Yet something about it still feels original. There are probably as many bands ripping off “Dragonaut” nowadays as there are that Xerox their dads’ copies of Paranoid. While Sleep is more obvious about their roots than their fellow forebears, they still pushed the stoner doom genre to previously unexplored frontiers.
For starters, Sleep’s songwriting method is much looser and more interpretative than Sabbath’s ever was. The first six Sabbath albums often utilized unorthodox structures and random tempo shifts but there was always some grounded riff or vocal line they could fall back on after a while. Sleep’s structures tend to be more fluid and atmospheric; you have songs like “Inside the Sun” and “Aquarian,” where tempos are constantly shuffled about, next to songs like the title track and “From Beyond,” where the musicians will ride and develop a single riff for minutes on end.
Going along with that, the band format has its own set of tweaks. Seeing how Sleep was operating as a trio to Sabbath’s quartet (quintet if you count the string of keyboardists hiding backstage), the riffs and instrumental sequences have even more prominence as there is no frontman constantly demanding attention. But while bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros has a tenth of Ozzy’s charisma and his vocal lines often seem construed as afterthoughts compared to Matt Pike’s domineering guitar work, his voice has more substance than he lets on. He proves to be surprisingly adaptable as “Dragonaut” features his signature chanting tenor, while other tracks like “Evil Gypsy/Solomon’s Theme” put in a harsher bellow. Add in the flimsy yet firm foundation set by drummer Chris Hakius and you’ve got a lineup that earns its own set of wannabes.
Finally, the atmosphere and lyrics on Sleep’s Holy Mountain have also become their own clichés separate from Sabbath. “Into the Void” may have ‘rocket engines burning fuel so fast’ and “Iron Man” has its titular character ‘turned to steel in the great magnetic field,’ but those stories had real world subtexts; we never see how the Iron Man transformed or what the astronauts found in said Void. Sleep takes the ideas a step further; reality is completely forsaken in favor of escapist stoner fantasies that detail space dragons, reptile masters, and magic potions. Geezer Butler may have penned the most famous odes to weed and cocaine but when your friendly neighborhood stoner band writes the ten millionth tune about Puff the Magic Dragon, leave him out of it.
Sleep’s Holy Mountain may be the poster boy for the “sounds like Sabbath” stoner doom movement but there is no reason why it shouldn’t be seen as a distinct monolith in itself. The trio’s uniqueness is more obviously displayed on the infamous Dopesmoker and spinoff bands like Om and High on Fire, but their second full-length is something special thanks to a tripped out approach sustained by memorable riffs and stunning performances. Now if we could just get that long-awaited fourth album sometime soon, that’d be swell…