They say weed is a gateway to heavier things. No one has proven this to be true quite like the members of Sleep. Throughout the 1990s, the Bay Area trio took a simple idea—slow, bluesy metal in the spirit of Black Sabbath, that recasts smoking pot as a ceremonial ritual worthy of hour-long suites—and executed it with the kind of artful intensity that helps metal bands crossover to more disparate shores. Had their masterpiece, Dopesmoker, been released as intended towards the end of the decade, it would have been easy to imagine Sleep following a common path: chilling out and slowing down, releasing a string of increasingly less beloved follow-ups until they started to veer on the side of self-parody.
Instead, the album’s protracted creation and non-negotiable terms (one long track with no breaks) left the band at the hands of a label that just didn’t get it (London Records). This ultimately led to Sleep’s dissolution and to Dopesmoker’s “lost album” lore, cemented over the last 20 years with at least five releases of the record in some form (including under the name Jerusalem). But the members of Sleep did not rest for long. While guitarist Matt Pike further explored the guitar pyrotechnics at the heart of Sleep with his thrilling new band High on Fire, drummer Chris Hakius and vocalist/bassist Al Cisneros honed their meditative crafts. With their drone metal group Om, they made music innovative yet subtle enough to be released through metal institution Southern Lord as well as indie mainstay Drag City. Between the two projects, the members of Sleep matured well past all that weed-priest stuff. After all, you can’t keep getting stoned forever, right?
Wrong. After some reunion shows starting in 2009 and a low-stakes comeback single in 2014, Sleep has returned with a stunning fourth album, The Sciences, released with no warning on 4/20. Though the lyrics do get a bit dad metal at times (Tony Iommi’s influence is referred to as “Planet Iommia,” Geezer Butler as “Giza Butler” aka “The CBDeacon”), it’s a testament to Sleep’s power that not only does the album stand out in their storied discography, bearing some of their most accessible music (“Marijuanaut’s Theme”) alongside their most experimental (“Antarcticans Thawed”). The Sciences is also just one of the year’s best metal releases to date.
Even before Sleep awoke, 2018 has been an uncommonly great year for the subgenre they helped to define. Stoner metal, like stoner comedies or stoner friends, can be equal parts fun and uninspiring, a pleasant distraction at first but an energy suck in larger doses. The releases that stand out—like Dopesmoker, or Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone, or Saint Vitus’ Born Too Late—are the ones that surge with equal parts wisdom and chaos, the ones you turn to for mindless escapism, yes, but through visceral intensity. Below, find five notable releases from this year that complement Sleep’s surprise tour de force.
Merlin: The Wizard
It’s been a banner year for Kansas City, Missouri, doom quintet Merlin. They recently reissued their 2014 Nick Cave–worshipping song cycle Christkiller in “ultra high-definition,” giving listeners a chance to revisit a career highlight. But looking back and pushing forward are not mutually exclusive, and the band have also released another solid album, (inevitably) titled The Wizard. If doom metal is a genre where evolution happens slowly and subtly over the course of 20-minute songs, this album brings with it at least one notable push forward: now they’ve got a saxophone player. Stu Kersting’s horn blasts bring to mind the devilish skronk of early King Crimson, but The Wizard never goes full prog. It’s slow, stoned dragonslaying at its best.
Green Druid: Ashen Blood
Denver quartet Green Druid inject psychedelic music with all the warped horror of a bad trip. Their debut album, Ashen Blood, is unquestionably hallucinogenic, but it also arrives with the terrifying intensity of unrelenting noise. With an 80-minute runtime, it’s a hypnotic spiral of pummeling riffs and fuzzed-out, lurching doom metal. The 18-minute “Cursed Blood” is a highlight, with guitarist and vocalist Chris McLaughlin’s distorted vocals buried so low in the mix, he sounds like he’s gasping for air.
Eagle Twin: The Thundering Heard
Salt Lake City stoner-sludge duo Eagle Twin make alluringly dismal music. Gentry Densley sings in a squelchy growl like he’s doubled over clutching his gut, and his riffs project a similar kind of nausea. Along with Tyler Smith’s expansive, often cinematic percussion, Densley spins myths of the terrifying inhabitants of the (super)natural world: birds that seem prehistoric, wolves whose very presence feel like an omen, snakes that morph into antlers. Their extraordinary third album, The Thundering Heard (subtitled “Songs of Hoof and Horn”), boasts their sharpest recordings yet. Even without the fog that hung over their previous releases, their visions remain haunting.
Marijannah: Till Marijannah
Sitting squarely at the center of the Venn diagram for fans of Black Sabbath and Harry Potter, you will find Marijannah, the Singapore stoner metal quartet featuring members of Wormrot and the Caulfield Cult. Their action-packed debut album, Til Marijannah, features four blazing epics that inject doom metal with a healthy dose of classic rock swagger. And of course, there’s also “Snakecharmer,” the band’s grizzly ode to that time Ginny Weasley took the reins of the 50-foot Basilisk in The Chamber of Secrets.
Various Artists: Bow to Your Masters Volume I: Thin Lizzy
Thin Lizzy spent their career in swift evolution, from the word-drunk folk rock of their debut to the skittering anthems of Jailbreak to the solo-filled arena rock of their ’80s albums. On a new tribute album from Glory or Death Records, an impressive roster of musicians (including High on Fire, plus members of Yob, Poison Idea, Earthless, and more) reimagine the band’s music through a metal lens. While only the first volume is currently available, some of the highlights, like Red Wizard’s take on “Chinatown,” suggest the band were the unwitting architects of modern stoner metal.