From brutal, clipped guitar work to huge, foreboding sounds created by guitars that are more akin to synths, Russian Circles scrolled through a wide range of styles that it executed with both ease and precision, like a great progressive metal act. Instead of coming off like some GIT grad, guitarist Mike Sullivan, who exhibited some fluid finger tapping, sounded like he'd made a genuine and successful fusion of classical sensibility and experimental rock.
Later, the band dialed its dizzying intensity back to a whispery drone that swept across all the instruments before unfolding into an otherworldly, transcendent beauty reminiscent of Sigur Ros. At one point, the melody even sounded like a heavy version of the Cure, and anyone paying attention had to marvel at Sullivan's masterful layering of guitar loops on top of one another in real time. With a rhythm section that started and stopped intuitively with the guitars and vice versa, Russian Circles put on quite an impressive performance.
The moment Matt Pike of Sleep strolled on to the stage -- shirtless, belly showing, not giving a shit, owning it -- the crowd went crazy with cheers. No nonsense, Sleep went right into a bit of "Jerusalem," and the sonic presence was Motorhead-like in its sheer volume and power. Curled, anguished hands, rather than fists, pumped the air near the stage as though some people in the audience had been yearning to hear that sound all their lives.
Sure, some of Sleep's dynamics and core sound were nicked from Black Sabbath, but there's something more biting and aggressive about Sleep. "Dragonaut" followed soon after, and Al Cisneros hit his spooky quaver perfectly. A lot of people had high expectations going into this show, and Sleep more than met them with cuts from all of its later albums, as well as all, or at least most, of its bona fide classic, Holy Mountain.
Pike and Cisneros rocked out throughout the show, but it was Pike, always the showman, who did much of the running around stage and striking poses, all while executing lava flows of guitar and some of the most able solos in recent rock history. When Sleep jammed out, it never got boring. Self-indulgent, perhaps, but you felt like you were along for the ride with these guys as they traversed some bumpy, burning rock-and-roll territory.
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There didn't seem to be anything tentative or hesitant about the music, and so the term "stoner rock" didn't really fit the band playing this show. The guys dedicated "Aquarian" to a friend who is no longer with us, then performed a version of the song that took the album version to stunning new heights of intensity and improvised instrumentation. "Holy Mountain" itself felt like Sleep had taken Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan" to hell and back.
For the encore, Sleep started off with a broken, shredded, splintered, effusive and completely original cover of "Over the Mountain," by Ozzy Osbourne. During the blistering solos, Pike proved he could easily play the song as written if he had wanted to, but clearly the band had more fun making the song its own.
Throughout the show, it looked like the guys were having fun, and while Pike's smile was mischievous at times, it was genuine. Likewise, it was obvious this crowd appreciated a rare chance to see and hear this foundational band in person. Normally, two hours of one band is too much, but Sleep made time fly by.
CRITIC'S CHOICE Peresonal Bias: Holy Mountain is one of my favorite albums of the last two decades. Random Detail: Ran into John Call of Veronica and Baldo Rex outside after the show. By the Way: Yelling the name of a bandmember regularly for nearly two hours is not helpful. See: Dean Vernon Wormer's advice to "Flounder" and replace the first two adjectives with whatever is appropriate. Also, owing to the massive line outside the Gothic, I completely missed Git Some.