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Tony Iommi once famously said that Sleep, out of all stoner doom bands out there, most "embodied the spirit of early Sabbath," and from the opening head-nodding notes of 'Dragonaut' through to the slowly capitulating doom of closer 'Nain's Baptism,' that spirit echoes on down the Holy Mountain, one of the best records to come out of the burgeoning 70's revival scene two decades ago.
Unlike Kyuss, Monster Magnet, and Cathedral, Sleep holds back nothing. There are no concessions whatsoever on this record. The riffs are heavy, deep, and catchy, often loose, sometimes sloppy. The lyrics are uninhibited stoner fantasy. The drums bash with hypnotic monotony. The bass wobbles all over. When they hit a groove, a pocket, like they do at the three-minute mark of 'Dragonaut,' they go full-force, swinging like no one has since almighty Sabbath themselves. Weed becomes essential, it adorns all aspects of the record, from the cover art and insert, to the lyrics, to the music itself. Al Cisneros once telling Dig of Earache to smoke first before listening to their demos.
And while Sabbath holds sway, there is some Blue Cheer, some Thin Lizzy, lots of Trouble and Saint Vitus, and whereas it is tempting to think of Sleep as unabashed homage (they were teenagers at the time after all), there is something more to them than mere photocopy and pastiche. What makes Sleep timeless, so that their music has endured beyond themselves or even OM and High On Fire really, is that they took a series of easy 70's templates and in their enthusiasm for them, generated something uniquely their own. No other stoner record sounds like this, while it is close to Sabbath, it sounds like Sleep, it is their own.
'Dragonaut' is perhaps the most accessible tune here, adhering to more conventional song structures and containing several dope head-nodding riffs that kaleidoscope into one of the most memorable metal songs in history. 'The Druid' is stoner menace, the song you feel a little tweaked out listening to as Al Cisnero's warped vocals bark out at you about dark magic and evil wizards. His bass takes the fore too, harnessing and creating a mighty tension before the riffs kick back in. 'Holy Mountain' is the heaviest song on here, slow and impactful, the sound of a funereal caravan trudging across the impenetrable desert scorching beneath a thousand astral suns. Matt Pike's riffing is so hypnotically perfect, you could lose yourself in it, particularly during the seemingly endless interlude, a moment that just builds and builds before drowning you in cascading waves of heaviness. This song, more than any other, escapes the clutches of Sabbath to sound entirely of its own.
Many thanks here are due to the production, which is unabashedly heavy yet not suffocatingly so. Whereas many stoner doom bands try to outdo one another in the heaviness department, Sleep steps back and lets their songs breathe. There is a vital separation between the instruments instead of the usual wall of sound production. You can hear every note of Matt Pike's sludgy riffs and ringing solos but also catch Al Cisnero's bass underscoring all, moving in deft counterpoint and harmony. Chris Hakius's drums are expertly recorded, his signature hypnotic ride cymbal up front carrying the rhythm while the rest of his kit lays back, filling out the sound. This was one of the rare cases where Earache pretty much released an album as is, allowing Billy Anderson's demo production to essentially become the album master. That's a testament to both the band's vision and his excellent skills as a producer.
In summation, if Tolkien-ish lyrics sung over druggie riffs emanating through walls of Orange amplification is for you, you've probably already taken the climb up Holy Mountain and worshiped with Sleep at the shrine of Sabbath. If not, it's a journey worth taking. More essential even than ascending the Dopethrone of Electric Wizard or descending deep into the bowels of Sky Valley with Kyuss.