Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 52: Sleep “Dopesmoker” (2022)

The 52nd set of exclusive vinyl items offered to Platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in July of 2022. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (usually one full-length album and one 7” single) to its Platinum members every three months.

The 52nd Vault package contained a quadruple-LP version of a studio album from the stoner-metal band Sleep, titled Dopesmoker, also consisting of a 7-inch single containing edited versions of two of the album’s parts. The LP’s in this set were pressed in “green kush” colored vinyl, in keeping with the band’s stoner motif.

Sleep are a California trio who recorded three albums in the 1990’s. The trio’s latest studio album The Sciences, their first full-length in 15 years, was released by Third Man Records in 2018. Their brand of heavy metal is the slow-moving and murky kind, resembling early Black Sabbath played at 16 rpm. The lengths of their songs will often make you feel like you’re living back in the prog ‘70’s. Sleep’s music may well be an intentional throwback to those early days of heavy metal, when the performers and the listeners were so stoned out of their minds that they lost all sense of time. For those of us who are clean and sober, Sleep’s music is not as boring as it may sound, as their detached doom-metal jams are often hypnotic.

Dopesmoker was the third and final album the band recorded in the ‘90’s, although it wasn’t released in its complete form until 2003. The album is now considered legendary by lovers of the stoner-metal sub-genre. The proper Dopesmoker album consists of one long 63-minute track that puts Iron Butterfly’s old “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to shame. The track is broken up into three parts on the first three sides of this LP edition, and is purportedly sourced from the original master tapes which were not used for myriad earlier releases of the album. The crispness of the sound is noticeable, though the volume may need to be turned up for the listener to get the full measure. The first eight minutes of the album consist of a basic buzzsaw-like guitar grind, and that long intro basically lays the foundation for the remaining 55 minutes, which are punctuated by three guitar solos and intermittent growling vocal utterances by vocalist/bassist Al Cisneros (mostly during the middle third), but otherwise show only slight variances. In any form and on any issue, Dopesmoker is not an album for every taste, but its hypnotic electric droning is never exactly boring, even for its length and repetitive tendencies.

The fourth side of this Vault edition of Dopesmoker features an eight-and-a-half-minute recording of Sleep’s previously unreleased song “Hot Lava Man”. Amusingly, this track sounds much like a slowed-down and distorted Metallica recording, which makes it a relatively fast-moving Sleep recording. Cisneros’ lead vocal is so (intentionally) distorted that he sounds like he’s trapped in another dimension. It’s a good bonus track.

Side E contains an alternate take of the Dopesmoker album’s opening section, running approximately 15 minutes, recorded during the same 1996 sessions. This take is quite a different monster, with a considerably faster tempo than the official one, though it might still be slow-paced by most metal bands’ standards. This take is also less repetitive than the official one, with more noticeable guitar layers and faster drumming, resulting in more variance. The alternate solo that ends this side almost resembles an arena-rock band’s guitar heroics, except for the distortion that makes it sound distant. Despite its faster pacing, this alternate take keeps the stoner vibe intact – and it makes sense for this take to not go on for an hour.

Sides G and H document an early live recording of “Dopesmoker”, performed at the I-Beam club in San Francisco on May 28, 1994. Running for a mere 27 minutes, this version shows that the band set the pattern for the song’s grinding buzzsaw guitar sound long before its eventual completion. And that’s the sound we hear most during this raw early rendering, but there is more variance to be heard than usual, especially during the nine minutes or so on the disc’s second side. Drums are more noticeable throughout, and Cisneros’ vocal growling is present for a slightly higher percentage of the time, and some higher-speed guitar solos kick in around the seven- and twenty-minute marks – but, you get the point, right? The gestation period of this stoner-metal opus took place well before it was released even in its first incarnation as Jerusalem in 1998. But who would have predicted that the final 2003-released version would end up running for more than twice the length of this early performance?

Sides I and J are pressed on a 7-inch single. Side I contains a so-called radio edit of “Dopesmoker”, consisting of approximately 4 minutes of some of the less sluggish buzzsaw droning. The short length (relatively speaking) seems to serve no purpose – and besides, did any radio station ever actually play this edit? Side J contains “Proceeds The Weedian”, an approximate 4-minute excerpt from the album/track from its first third.

By the way, Side F contains no music, but instead displays a graphic etching of the robed figure from the cover art.

The bonus items in this package include two full-color posters, measuring 16.5 x 24 inches and 12 x 24 inches, depicting a full-color photo of the band taken around the time of the 1996 recording of the album and the "riff chart" breaking down all the different rational components of the hour-plus-long song, respectively, and a 4.5-inch diameter woven Weedian patch.

On August 26, 2022, Third Man commercially released the Dopesmoker album digitally, with "Hot Lava Man" added as a bonus track. At the same time, the label announced an upcoming commercial release of a plain black vinyl reissue, consisting of the same tracks from the first two discs from this Vault edition, namely the proper album plus “Hot Lava Man”. Here was the real kicker: Third Man also issued a limited edition “Weedian High-Fi" pressing of the album (Third Man TMR-764), which contained – I kid you not – actual cannabis leaves embedded in PVC in a “mosquito-in-amber" fashion. The two discs were packaged in a rounded, transparent plastic sleeve with no artwork. Because of the, um, materials involved in this edition, it was exclusively sold – or should we say, dispensed – at Third Man’s Cass Corridor store in Detroit. Collectors beware: The copies of this pressing are reportedly riddled with pressing bubbles and oil residue, and are probably unplayable. In other words, it should only be considered as a visual novelty item. Also, one should be wary of potential legal issues concerning the sale or purchase of this "Weedian High-Fi" pressing.

Sleep “Dopesmoker” (Third Man TMR-763) 2022

Track Listing:

A. Dopesmoker (Part 1) (21:35)
B. Dopesmoker (Part 2) (20:30)
C. Dopesmoker (Part 3) (21:32)
D. Hot Lava Man (1992, Razor’s Edge Studio, San Francisco) (8:25)
E1. Dopesmoker Part 1 (Alternate Take) (11:51)
E2. Dopesmoker Alternate Solo (Take 2) (3:27)
G. Dopesmoker (I-Beam 5-28-94 San Francisco) (18:14)
H. Dopesmoker (cont’d) I-Beam 5-28-94 San Francisco Cont’d) (8:43)
I. Dopesmoker (Radio) (4:44)
J. Proceeds The Weedian (4:44)

Reviews of other Third Man Vault packages