Sleep, Live at Third Man Records: The Botanist Goes to Nashville

sleep live at third man records

‘The Vault’ is a quarterly subscription service from Third Man Records, the Nashville-based imprint, record store, studio and apparently live venue owned by Jack White, formerly of The White Stripes and currently of Jack White doing whatever the hell he wants, which would seem to include putting out Sleep records. The subscription fee is $60 per quarter, so not nothing, but the pull is that the releases are exclusive and limited, and at least in the case of Sleep‘s Live at Third Man Records, that $60 breaks down to $15 per each different-colored LP of a quadruple-LP box set release. It almost sounds sensible at that rate. I don’t know what releasing Sleep did for subscriptions, but the package in which Live at Third Man Records arrives is equal parts gorgeous and heavy — that is, you feel like you’re carrying records when you hold it, because you are — and with this kind of release, that’s definitely a piece of the experience, like the poster and patch also included.

The other part is a two-hour live set from Sleep — vocalist/bassist Al Cisneros, guitarist Matt Pike, drummer Jason Roeder — recorded in Dec. 2018, months after the release of their awaited album, The Sciences (review here), and its companion single “Leagues Beneath” (review here), that finds the landmark trio playing much of the record to a duly salivating audience, as well as classics from 2003’s Dopesmoker (discussed here) and the mega-influential 1993 sophomore outing, Sleep’s Holy Mountain (reissue review here). It is, essentially, a fan piece, special in hindsight for those who were there to see it and a work for the rest of us plebs to chase down however possible. For what it’s worth, I don’t imagine anyone who is a more than casual Sleep fan doing so would regret it. The sound throughout the 11-song set is raw in live-set-recorded-to-acetate fashion, but that does no disservice to the material, and the band of course sound spot on. If they didn’t, Live at Third Man Records probably wouldn’t exist. It’s about as close to a sure thing as you can get, again, if you’re a fan.

They open with “Leagues Beneath” and then go directly into the trimmed down version of “Dopesmoker” they’ve been playing live for however long. It’s broken up into “Dopesmoker Pt. 1” and a much-shorter “Dopesmoker Pt. 2” and when one factors in the subsequent “Holy Mountain,” that already covers sides A, B and C in basically three songs. Welcome to the Sleep show. It’s as though they knew their audience showed up wanting to get pummeled by riffs so they got it out of the way quickly so they could get down to the business of… more pummeling with riffs, I guess. But what a way to go. Cisneros‘ vocals sound right on in a way that demonstrates how much he’s found a way to meld the newer, less guttural vocal style of the more recent songs with his throatier past, and his vocal patterning in “Dopesmoker” only adds to that meisterwerk’s unique appeal.

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Of The Sciences, only “Antarcticans Thawed” isn’t aired (or the title-track intro, if you want to be technical about it), and a slowed down version of “Sonic Titan,” particularly in following “The Clarity” (review here), which was released in 2014 as a standalone single and the band’s first studio work in more than a decade, which also hits the brakes on tempo to some degree, is a righteous highlight, with Roeder‘s march setting the pace via snare taps that do justice to original drummer Chris Hakius while adding his own sense of purpose to each crash that accompanies. Likewise, Pike‘s solo shred is a fitting reminder of his near-unmatched stage force. “Sonic Titan” accounts for side E all on its own after “The Clarity” and “Aquarian” on side D, and from there, the three-piece dig even deeper into The Sciences, with “Marijuanaut’s Theme,” “Giza Butler” and “The Botanist” one into the next.

The difference is a live version of “Sonic Titan” had appeared on the 2003 Tee Pee release of Dopesmoker, but the other three were exclusive to the new record. The band break into the manic groove of “Marijuanaut’s Theme” after “Sonic Titan,” and then follow with “Giza Butler”‘s mellow intro and omega-riff later. With the languid, solo-topped “The Botanist” as a comedown after that, it’s as dynamic as Sleep have ever sounded on a recording, and absolutely representative of what they do on stage, whether it’s Cisneros announcing “The pterodactyl flies again over emerald fields” as part of the weedian storytelling of “Giza Butler” or Roeder‘s final tom fill in “The Botanist.” Closing out with “Dragonaut” is essentially a victory lap.

One more full dose of fuzz overload is applied, and Sleep ride the dragon on Mars all the way to unmatched stoner supremacy. The recording ends with Pike‘s guitar feeding back while the crowd cheers, which is a pretty efficient way of saying it all. I don’t think Live at Third Man Records is a release for a novice Sleep fan, and I also think that if one hasn’t seen Sleep since The Sciences came out, something of the context here will be lost. However, I also don’t really think Sleep have casual fans. This isn’t a band you maybe put on every now and again because, eh, whatever. This is a band that incites worship, as the increasingly rabid response to their post-reunion run has shown.

As they’ve shifted back to being a working band promoting a new album, touring, headlining festivals, etc., they’ve not only harnessed a new generation of followers, but they’ve managed to give those who would pay homage a fitting altar to do so. They’re as much a community as a band at this point, and Live at Third Man Records is more than just a companion to The Sciences. It’s a document for and of that community at a pivotal moment, just months after the surprise release of that studio album, capturing the band as they set about that work. Not everyone’s going to get it, but isn’t that part of the appeal too?

Sleep, “Dopesmoker” live at Third Man Records

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One Response to “Sleep, Live at Third Man Records: The Botanist Goes to Nashville”

  1. This is really good. Thanks a lot.

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