Written by Parisa
Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” is known as one of the great masterpieces of doom metal. This blog attempts to explain what makes this track a gold standard for this genre, and relays a story of the author’s first time hearing it.
One of the shared milestone moments in our collective lives is being handed our driver’s license for the first time. A licence meant liberation and no longer having to rely on anyone else to get around. For me and my friends, however, it mostly meant that we could drive to each other’s houses after school and get high before our parents came home. It was the glory days when getting high was still such a novelty and the whole sneaking around thing made it feel so mischievous.
I had two dear friends, let’s call them Milo and Odis, who were my partners in crime during these adolescent years. It became ritualistic that as soon as the bell rang at 3:00 pm, we’d get into our cars and head straight to Milo’s house to smoke before his parents got home from work. We’d spend the rest of the afternoon listening to music and take turns picking songs. There was a running joke that whenever it was Odis’ turn he’d say, “Hey, let me play this one song real quick.” That one “real quick” song he’d always try to play was “Dopesmoker” by Sleep, an hour-long saga of slow, heavy doom metal. We’d always tell him to fuck off and laugh it off, and we’d end up playing some Shpongle or something bizarre and trippy instead.
Then the day came, about halfway through our junior year, that a friend of mine visiting from California bestowed hash oil unto me. I honestly had no idea what to do with it because neither I nor any of my friends had seen it before. I told Milo and Odis about it, and we anxiously went through the next school day watching the clock in anticipation, waiting to hear the last bell ring.
We finally get to Milo’s house, go out to the backyard, and smoke half the jar. We had no idea of its potency. Within minutes of smoking our entire world transformed into this fucked up, distorted dream haze. Time slid by, and every time I blinked I felt like an eternity had passed. Each step I took to get back to Milo’s room felt like I was trudging my feet through a thick sludge.
We get back inside, Odis sits by the computer and without hesitation says, “Alright… okay… I’m going to play this one song… just… yeah, real quick.” Of course, I was greeted by the first booming note of Sleep’s “Dopesmoker.” Although I had enjoyed the small portion of what I had previously heard, the song suddenly became an entirely new auditory experience. I felt myself melt into the thick, doomy atmosphere. I could synchronize my thoughts to the blues-driven grooves, and I match my pace of perception to the long, drawn out strum of each note.
Neither Milo nor I refuted Odis’ song choice. As soon as the song started, no one said a word or felt any need to express themselves. I remember closing my eyes for what could have been ten minutes or forty minutes, but I just remember waking up to the sound of Milo’s mom knocking on the door. Much to her dismay, she walks into a room booming with the deep riffs of stoner metal at full blast and subwoofers shaking the ground. And there is Odis, nodding off at the computer desk with one eye open, Milo sprawled out on the floor face down, and myself in a puddle of drool on the bed. We all perched up for a second, and Milo’s mom stood there with a blank expression on her face and stuttered, “Hi… well, I just wanted to let you know that I made some snacks. But um...okay, I’ll leave you guys alone.” As soon as she closed the door, each of us sunk our heads back down and rode off the peak of our high with the epic journey that is “Dopesmoker.”
And thus was the day I was exposed to stoner doom metal — hash oil’s best friend and a mother’s worst nightmare.
“Dopesmoker” is understood in the doom metal realm as gold standard for this style of music. I would argue that it’s not only the best track in Sleep’s discography, but it stands as being a manifestation of all things doom. Upon listening to it, it’s quite evident why this song became an instant classic. It has this incredibly entrancing groove, but is brimming with these intricacies that prove this is not some haphazardly-written song by a bunch of burnouts. I mean sure, the opening lines of the song proclaim to “drop out of life with a bong in hand,” and the song is called “Dopesmoker” for fuck’s sake. Nevertheless, this song was carefully crafted over the course of four years to become a rite of passage for metal heads (stoner or not) seeking to travel through the heaviest pilgrimage known to music.
What is truly so genius about “Dopesmoker” is how it may seem like a repetitive song on the surface due to the constant strumming of C’s to create the riff, but it actually undergoes several fluid form changes that keep propelling this song through its narrative.The listener stays rooted in the standard pentatonic blues scale and looping riffs (which are techniques commonly used to create the “groove” feel in stoner metal), but keep progressing from, according to a Brandcage article, “its unique variation between repeats, the placement of lyrics to aid in looping riffs, and melodic motifs that are, in a way, different every time they’re used … none of the song is exactly alike, making the composition a creative process rather than a copied process”. Brandcage continues to aptly describe how the listener can feel completely lost in time and space from this riff because there are no clear resolutions at the end of each bar, so the seamless repetition makes it feel as though you’re listening to one extremely long melody instead of a monotonous riff.
In layman’s terms, you can relate this to when you’re really high and you feel like your feet have planted, roots in the ground, hindering you from moving, yet your mind is traveling light speed as your thoughts seamlessly progress from one strange speculation to another. It’s as if you start off thinking about wanting cereal and next thing you know you’re contemplating your meaningless existence in the universe and how this whole notion of reality is a complete fallacy. Similarly, “Dopesmoker” feels like a stagnant riff keeping you rooted on the surface, but it so cleverly creates a sense of movement with these nuances that you find yourself traveling on this hour-long journey without any idea of how you got from beginning to end. It’s like traveling the astral plane when you haven’t even left the comfort of your own couch!
In the final hour, however, we should consider where this journey really led us. Where did this movement take us? What is the end point of this hour long ride through bass-heavy doom? Really, this answer is completely subjective. “Dopesmoker” could have been a mystical journey through the desert, with each strumming note compelling you to drag your legs slowly through the thickness of the gritty terrain and be one step closer towards Nazareth. The end point could also just be you face down in a puddle of drool on your friend’s bed after smoking a half jar of hash oil.
Both journeys equally valid.
Sleep will be headlining this year’s Southwest Terror Fest. The four-day fest features some of the country’s finest doom metal bands, and takes place in Tucson from Oct. 15th - 18th.
More information on SWTF: