SAN FRANCISCO — The legendary stoner-doom band Sleep took the stage Saturday night at Great American Music Hall to a recording of NASA’s mission control as puffs of marijuana smoke rose over the sold-out crowd. The San Jose trio kicked off the first of a three-night residency to celebrate the end of 2018.
Without a word of introduction, the trio unleashed a tsunami of sludgy, down-tuned guitar fuzz, snarling bass and thundering drums. The simple three-note riff sounded like the best part of a Black Sabbath song, played at the wrong speed, for roughly 15 minutes.
Perpetually shirtless guitarist Matt Pike, flanked by his huge arsenal of amplifiers, stalked the stage. At times, he attacked his strings with fleet fret-work, while at others he’d hold onto long sustained power chords that washed over the audience.
The first song was “Leagues Beneath,” which the band released earlier this year as a free digital single (one that was 17 minutes long) through Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. About six minutes into the song’s epic riffage, bassist-vocalist Al Cisneros added his growling vocals to the slow-moving sonic ooze. Drummer Jason Roeder, a founding member of the legendary Oakland metal act Neurosis, punctuated the sludge with a barrage-heavy percussion.
The first song’s aural assault abated after about 15 minutes, with Pike playing a mellow, psychedelic outro on guitar.
Almost immediately, the trio launched into the Sabbath-inspired riff from the band’s magnum opus, “Dopesmoker,” a song that clocked in on the 1995 album of the same name at more than an hour. Saturday’s truncated version inspired some fans to form a small mosh pit, while others spaced out and nodded along to the quarter notes in the dirge-like wall of sound.
To call the music “heavy” would be an understatement. The super-massive sound emanating from the stage had a gravity all its own. The band’s movements were labored, as if struggling to push the colossal sounds up a steep hill.
Occasionally, the dynamics of the music evoked some motion in the band, like when it launched into “Holy Mountain,” from the 1992 album of the same name, after stopping for just a moment to savor the lingering reverberations of the previous song’s finale. Cisneros prowled the stage dressed in all black, his thick mane of salt-and-pepper hair and his long beard obscuring his face as he approached the microphone.
During “The Clarity,” another single released in conjunction with Adult Swim in 2014, Cisneros stood on the back of the crowd barricade and towered over the audience, pummeling fans with his gargantuan bass tone.
Sleep’s music may seem plodding and simplistic in its minimalism, but the lack of musical variety and the slow tempos demand unerring precision from the musicians. At various points in the set, the band performed slow, roiling tempo changes, during which all three instruments would slow down in unison. While they sounded like synchronized staggering, these changes attested to the serious musicianship on display.
At the end of “The Clarity” Pike left the stage momentarily, leaving Cisneros to fill the void with some of the tastiest, wah-inflected bass tones of the evening.
Almost an hour into the set, Cisneros greeted the audience, saying, “Thank you, San Francisco.” Pike returned and the band played its final three songs, all of which were from the most recent album, 2018’s The Sciences. “Marijuananauts” began with guitar feedback that sounded like a synthesizer, before bombarding the audience with one of the thickest, heaviest riffs of the night.
“The Botanist” and “Dragonaut” closed out the set with the same auditory immensity. The newer songs were a little bit faster and more dynamic than some of the older material, but Sleep’s spirit animal was still the sloth, and there was something majestic and graceful about the leisurely pace the band took as it erected its heavy metal thunder.
As the band filed off the stage after a 75 minutes, Cisneros told the crowd, simply, “See you tomorrow.”
The band’s three-night residency at the Great American Music Hall will be augmented by a variety of opening bands.
Saturday’s opening act was San Francisco’s Grayceon, a metal trio comprised of guitarist Max Doyle, drummer Zack Farwell and vocalist and electric cellist Jackie Perez Gratz, who has played on albums by Neurosis, Asunder and Today is the Day.
Gratz’s cello playing set the band apart from more standard metal fare. Seated with a skeletal instrument, Gratz provided a rhythmic low end for the band. She sometimes performed standard bass duties, while at other times transforming the metal riffage into a baroque hybrid that evoked heavy classical influences like Wagner. The band played a 45-minute set, featuring songs from its most recent album, IV, released earlier this year.
Sunday night’s show features another Neurosis-related side project: Scott Kelly’s band, Mirrors for Psychic Warfare. The show on New Year’s Eve will feature Seattle’s Big Business.