Stoner Legends Sleep Enthralled the San Antonio Crowd with the Power of the Riff

click to enlarge Stoner rock icons Sleep pummel through their show closer, "Dragonaut." - SANFORD NOWLIN
Sanford Nowlin
Stoner rock icons Sleep pummel through their show closer, "Dragonaut."
They may have titled their most recent LP The Sciences, but stoner rock legends Sleep proved themselves to be alchemists, turning lead-heavy riffs into gold Friday night at the Paper Tiger.

The doom-mongering power trio hit the stage surprisingly early, lumbering into action before 10 p.m. They owned it right out of the gate, piling riff upon riff, creating layers of sediment: epics from another epoch. A typically shirtless Matt Pike (also of High On Fire) crushed it on guitar, while bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros, sporting a look popularized by Slayer’s Tom Araya a few years back, bounced all over the neck with his distinctive low-end approach. Pike seemed no worse for wear, despite having a toe amputated recently — an event that predictably made the rounds on social media. Current drummer Jason Roeder provided a strong foundation, having held his own since joining in 2010.

Sleep’s strength lies in unity. The band, from San Jose, California, serve the song, presenting a glacially-paced temple of sound that envelops the listener, drone-style, and invites the time dilation that accompanies such shenanigans. Coincidentally, there was a whiff of weed smoke in the air, which some naysayers might claim played a part in the madness. Keeping with that theme, the band was intermittently bathed in green stage lights.

If there was any doubt, Cisneros helpfully informed the crowd that the second song would be “Dopesmoker,” the notorious album-length song that contributed to the band’s late-'90s fallout with its label and the decade-long hiatus that followed. They cut it off after about 20 minutes, because, hey, even their power-trio brethren Rush abbreviate the old epics.

While Sleep is obviously from the school of Black Sabbath, they never placed the focus on a frontman. Ozzy can be the focal point of Sabbath, especially visually, but Cisneros isn’t the same way. He steps up and sings, then sinks back into the pummeling instrumental heaviness after delivering his verses.
Sleep’s sound isn’t groove-based, but it does have a rhythmic pull, and swaths of the audience responded with synchronized, in-unison headbanging as the band moved effortlessly between slow, slower and really slooooow.

The Sciences has been one of 2018s most acclaimed releases, but the band chose to pull equally from their catalog, including only “Marijuanaut’s Theme” and “Sonic Titan” from the recent album.

The audience groaned when Cisneros announced the last song, but nobody complained that it was “Dragonaut,” the powerful album opener from Holy Mountain and the band’s “hit single,” courtesy of its inclusion on the Gummo soundtrack. In testament to their low-and-slow style, the seven-song set list clocked in at nearly 100 minutes.

As “Dragonaut” ground down and the band left the stage, some looked relieved that no cracks had appeared in the club’s walls. It certainly wasn’t for lack of sonic effort.
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