**the following is a rough analysis of Sleep’s “Dopesmoker,” which does not include a description/introduction of the band members or the history behind the song/album, which is laziness on my part, but I think I did enough. Judge me.
Dopesmoker is the cornerstone of modern-American stoner doom-metal because it displays staple characteristics in intelligent and well thought-out, original designs that entrance without loosing meaning. It has become a stoner rite of passage, exploiting minimalism, variation, and ritual repetition; slowly unfolding as a crafted beauty. Its use of homorhythm emphasizes the glory of the bong and a large sectional form embarks the journey to the riff-filled land. Subtly varied repetition (usually done by rhythm) ensures the endurance of such ritualistic pounding riffs over 5-minutes of mostly C’s while the slow development reveals new pitch-relationships at almost every new part up until the half-mark of the song. There is an abundance of patience and creativity that propels the song forward without forcing it, which only further illustrates the pilgrimage from bong-rip to Zion.
Included in the 2012 release of Dopesmoker is an example of the only written notation of most popular music, the riff chart (fig.1). In academe, we could attribute this as a musical score, organized by memorable (usually melodic) material, notating how many repeats and which members play according to assumption. There are no references to lyrics, time signatures, pitches, pedals, or rhythms, which makes the feat of composition and memorization a daunting task to the classical musician and yet, completely natural for the vernacular musician. Although it can be argued that popular music is easier to compose/memorize due to the simplicity of material, Dopesmoker far outweighs simplicity by employing variations, complex rhythmic patterns, and returning themes in a large 9-part, sectional form; existing as a collection of a rondo and small forms, bookended by two main riffs, Departure, and Sonic Titan.
By breaking down the riff-chart, putting it into larger sections, it would appear that Dopesmoker is physically unbalanced, devoting 11 minutes each to the large B and C-sections. It seems peculiar that even though Sonic Titan is only used once, it returns at the end in its new form (Idmmis Vault). However, aided by the lyrical content, it seems completely natural, implying a significant importance on the iconic line, “Drop out of life with bong in hand,” (which, by that point in the song, we can all identify with). Despite small discrepancies and details, the song has an organic development to it due to an increase in sub-divided rhythms as the song progresses. For example, the Morris riff (fig. 3) used in section-C becomes more sub-divided and expanded in the flight version (fig. 4) at section-G.
Although Morris (flight version) is a direct quotation of the Morris riff, there are other references (perhaps unintentional) such as the A#-B-C figure used in both Hotel Room (fig.5) and 10th-11th-12th (fig.6), which appears to be just an extrapolated snippet of the former. (The score may seem like 10th-11th-12th is slower, it’s just due to the change in time signatures. It’s the same tempo.)
Roger Sessions, an American composer contemporary to Aaron Copland had only a 3-point rubric for the creation of forms: a sense of progression/accumulation, an association for repetition, and a feeling for contrast. The revamped large form structure created by Sleep uses an organic design that weaves small and large forms together in a cohesive narrative, exemplifying contrast, development, and repetition that enables the listener to find his way through the smoke.
Melody and Minimalism
There are several staple characteristics of melodic use in stoner rock/meal that Dopesmoker seems to demonstrate and perfect: its adherence to the standard blues scale, homorhythmic motifs that emphasize the lyrical content, and the construction of looping riffs. All of these factors are fairly standard in the genre, but what makes Dopesmoker unique is the variation between repeats, the placement of lyrics to aid in looping riffs, and melodic motifs that are, in some way, different every time its used. Contrary to popular opinion, the song is not all the same thing. In fact, almost none of the song is exactly alike, making the composition a creative process rather than a copied process.
Although there is a significant portion of deviants (Black Sabbath frequently uses mixolydian and dorian modes), the “groovy” feeling we get with Sleep always comes from the standard blues scale, a pentatonic scale with a diminished fifth. With the exception of the guitar solos and a few chromatic (non-standard pitches) passing tones, Dopesmoker utilizes a C-based blues scale and has a reoccurring pentatonic-scale motif that pops up in the bass track often, first appearing on the 12th solo riff (fig. 8) in the guitar as F-G-B-flat-C, then again as F-E-flat-C-B-flat. It returns in the 20th Low Heavy riff (fig. 9) as C-A#-G and D#-F-B-flat-C.
The construction of repeating riffs is particularly interesting due to the nature of phrases. Because there isn’t a clear resolution at the end of the bar, the riffs repeat seamlessly, acting as one long phrase rather than feeling as if it is the same phrase over and over again. In Sonic Titan (fig. 7), lyric placement aids to this effect of circular riffs by ending a line at the beginning of the first repeat. This allows for the listener to get completely lost in the riff due to the fact that it seems to never end. Because there are so many repeated C’s throughout the riff (this is called a “pedal tone”), no one questions exactly where the repeats are and where the phrase ends because the riff can easily go onto the next one. Another factor in reducing the redundancy of repetition is subtle variation. For example, in the riff chart, it notes the opening riff, Departure (fig. 10), as being repeated four times by Matt and four times by everyone (this is called “tutti”). However, the pitches themselves change every other repeat, and the exact line is really only repeated twice by Matt and everyone else. This is only a minor pitch, changed from a D-flat to a B-flat, but taking into account small changes in drumming and bass lines, it makes nearly every repeat different.
Another example of this subtle variation is used in the 20th riff (fig.11). Initially, the last two beats are four eighth-notes. In the second repeat, Matt adds a pick-slide at the end and the eighth-notes become two quarter-notes (fig. 12). In the third repeat, the second half of bar 2 becomes two quarter-notes, using the second ending (fig. 13). In the fourth repeat, a groovy bass-line is added (using the downward-scale pentatonic motif mentioned earlier) and in the fifth repeat, the texture becomes more bass heavy. We assume there is not octave or chorus pedal.
The use of homorhythmic (all voices using the same rhythm) motives to emphasize the lyrical content is common in all metal. This is best demonstrated in the Sonic Titan riff (fig. 7) where the guitar and bass use the rhythm of the line “Drop out of life with bong in hand.” However, because of the prolonged absence of the vocal track for the first seven minutes, Al Cisneros’ powerful belt, and the guitar and bass in unison, the delivery of the line becomes so much more impactful than, for example, the 10th-11th-12th riff (fig. 6) where the syllables of “Proceeds the weedian” is sung over a pedal C. (An argument can be made for the use of “Nazareth” on the second picked-C being homorhythmic, but really it’s just good theatrics.) Homorhythm returns in large section-H during Hot Lava Man and Spade (which I’ve nicknamed “attack of the C’s”). The punishing repeated C’s only make sense due to the lyrical content, making homorhythm an important factor in keeping the song cohesive.
The combination of these above factors are what make the composition of Dopesmoker function. Because the details and nuances change every repeat, the listener is never left with total boredom. It may seem that the slow development takes too much time, but the sectional minimalism results in a stoner paradise because of subtle changes, references, and meaning. There is a strong connection between the musical material and the poetic narrative of the song, which has not been fully accounted for in this analysis. Al Cisneros’ lyrics have always been full of mysticism and lore. In some sections (Hot Lava Man, Sonic Titan) the lyrics become the main focus. In the end, the journey of the weed-priests is the real image of the musical gestures.