Classic Album Revisited: Sleep’s Holy Mountain

Sleep's_Holy_Mountain

By Gruesome Greg

Sleep’s Holy Mountain – The Holy Grail of Doom!

As the story goes, Tony Iommi once said that Sleep’s Holy Mountain was the album which best encompassed the feel and spirit of Black Sabbath’s Volume 4. When he said this and who he said it to have been forgotten, but it’s become an urban legend in stoner/doom circles.

Alas, while the Sabs were a band with four solid musicians creating a distinct Sabbathian sound, Sleep achieves this effect with just three: the drumming of Chris Hakius, guitar riffing of Matt Pike and bass and vocals both provided by one Al Cisneros. Three-piece bands can be a tricky configuration. When there’s a disagreement, the third party is often left in between two warring one-man factions, which is never a good place to be. (I know this from personal experience, although I wasn’t the man in the middle…) But man, when a good, solid power trio is ON, the chemistry and the vibe is amazing! On their second full-length release, Sleep really had that vibe, and I gotta say, they’re my all-time favourite trio. And yes, that includes Motorhead, Rush and Blue Cheer…

Now, Sleep is perhaps best known for Dopesmoker, the posthumous reissue of their Jerusalem record, with a more stoner-friendly title. Whether you call it Jerusalem or Dopesmoker, the single-track, 52-minute platter is a noteworthy album. But Holy Mountain isn’t just an album, it’s a collection of SONGS, man!

From the get-go, as soon as I hear the noodling that kicks off “Dragonaut,” a big grin crosses my face, as I know what’s to come. The first song has one of the most memorable, hummable riffs in doom, and I’ve spun it so many times that I can’t stop myself from singing along to the silly lyrics about riding dragons into space.

“The Druid” is the closest Sleep ever came to sludge, with Cisneros barking out some angry vocals, while “Evil Gypsy/Solomon’s Theme” is a seven-minute jam that fits in with those slash-filled tunes on the first two Sabbath albums. We get a one-minute (well, 48 seconds to be precise) bluegrass detour in “Some Grass,” before the slow, downtuned heaviness of “Aquarian” gets yer head nodding along. Although this record wasn’t originally released on vinyl (apparently, there’s been a reissue on green wax—but I’ll take my pot-leaf adorned CD any day!), I always picture “Aquarius” as the last song on side one. [Ed’s note – the album was actually released by Earache UK on vinyl in March 1993; I used to have one…]

A note here about the production. In 1993, CDs were still being sold side-by-side with cassette tapes, and weren’t made to shatter your stereo with the levels being cranked through the roof. (Used to be that’s what the volume nob was for…) But even back then, Holy Mountain was a bit of a throwback. Its thin, muddy sound was a lot like the original CD pressings of the early Sabbath records, before they were remastered 27 times with a pile of unnecessary bonus tracks. Billy Anderson, who’s now known as the go-to-guy for stoner rock records, twiddled the knobs on this one, and the one-two punch of Holy Mountain and the Melvins’ Houdini, also released in ’93, made him legendary in smoking circles around the globe.

Now, it seems that the title track is “buried” by modern standards, not coming along until Track 6, which is why I like to think of it as the beginning of Side Two. It’s the longest song to this point, covering nearly nine minutes, with the slow, drum/bass interplay around the 4:30 mark foreshadowing the path Cisneros and Hakius would forge post-Sleep in a band called Om. Along with “Dragonaut” and “From Beyond” —which I’ll get to in a sec— “Holy Mountain” (the song, that is) forms the Holy Trinity of Head-Nodding Heaviness. Vocals are used sparingly once the song gets moving, but with riffs like this, who needs ‘em?

Seventh track “Inside the Sun” is sorta the Fairies Wear Boots of this record. (And yes, I know that’s a Paranoid reference, but I’ve always preferred Paranoid to Vol 4, myself…) It’s slightly faster than its contemporaries—at least for the first couple minutes—and is often overlooked amongst all the great tracks on this platter. The middle section is bass-driven, with Matt Pike’s guitar providing feedback in the higher register until the vocals magically reappear. To be perfectly honest, it’s probably the weakest song on here. But it gives you a much-needed six-minute rest until “From Beyond” kicks in.

Essentially the album-closer, From Beyond breaks the 10-minute barrier, and is THE epic soundtrack of the stoner/doom scene. Starting off with that memorable bass intro, you know it’s going nowhere fast—but then again, neither are you after your fourth bowl and your second bag of nachos. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, as things go from soft to heavy and back to spartan minimalism, Cisernos’ bass and his voice providing twin anchors to the tuneage. Lyrically speaking, From Beyond gave us one of the greatest lines in stoner rock history:

“Stoner caravan from deep space arrives / Rides on the suncraft toward the glowing eye”

Who gives a fuck if nobody knows what it means? The song was so incredibly powerful that it inspired a local group to start playing music in homage to it. TO heavy rockers From Beyond were a pretty decent band, too, although I only saw ‘em once before they broke up in ’06. Still got their EP somewhere, too…

After the epic monstrosity of Track 8, Holy Mountain comes to a close with “Nain’s Baptism,” a three-minute instrumental culled with The Druid from their Volume 2 EP. The preceding EP may have taken the artwork from Black Sabbath’s Volume 4 for the album sleeve, but it was Holy Mountain that fully captured its sound. A must have for all fans of classic, traditional, Sabbathian doom. Twas reissued this year, so you’ve got no excuse!

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.