In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: our favorite songs that come in at over 10 minutes long.
Sleep, “Dopesmoker” (2012 officially, though bootlegs existed before)
Heavy metal is obsessed with mythos. With many of the genre’s formative acts singing about mysticism and the occult, or ancient fables, metal has always had a fascination with epics. The San Jose stoner-rock trio Sleep built a world of its very own with the over-an-hour-long “Dopesmoker.” But the difficulties the band faced trying to release the song infused it with a different kind of lore.
“Dopesmoker” was initially intended to be Sleep’s third album, and its first for London Records. There was nothing surprising about Sleep writing an ode to marijuana—its previous album Sleep’s Holy Mountain had plenty of cannabis references baked in—but the sheer mass of the piece was too much for the label to take. It shelved the record, and even when the band offered a truncated, 52-minute version called “Jerusalem,” there was still no way London would release it.
This rejection would be the nail in Sleep’s coffin. After spending four years working on “Dopesmoker,” the band’s tensions were high, and seeing its masterwork go unreleased brought the band to its breaking point. But the fact that Sleep was no longer active didn’t keep rumors of the song from spreading. Many hacked and chopped versions of the track were released, often as bootlegs, with the shortened “Jerusalem” surfacing in 1999 and the first full version of “Dopesmoker” coming in 2003. It took about a decade for the purest version of the song to come out: In 2012 Southern Lord Records released a version of “Dopesmoker” that matched the band’s intent and made good on all its hype.
For just over an hour Sleep proves why the band was stoner-rock elite, as guitarist Matt Pike’s drawn-out, hypnotic sludge riffs slowly become transcendental. Paired with bassist-vocalist Al Cisneros’ mythologizing about the Weedians traveling to find the magical land of bong rips, the track is so potent that it justifies its length. “Dopesmoker” is so densely packed, it feels like the song will never end. And when it finally does, as it approaches its 64th minute, it still feels abbreviated. “Dopesmoker” is metal that’s downright meditative, locking into a groove and never letting go, all before petering out in a way that still leaves listeners wanting more. That anticlimactic ending doesn’t hamper the song as much as it reminds of the power of the journey, and all the goodness that awaits upon arrival in the smoke-filled land.