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Album Review: Sleep Token - 'Sundowning'

11 November 2019 | 2:15 pm | Alex Sievers


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In three years, Sleep Token have become one of the best, most unique new underground acts in heavy music. The masks, the anonymity, a beautiful OutKast cover, the vague and metaphorical lyrical content, the mysterious "Sleep" deity their songs ("rituals") are in worship of, their forward-thinking fortnightly single release schedule for this LP; everything this band does is a careful calculation. But honestly, all of that stuff sits on the peripheral of why they're such an interesting band; mostly superficial aspects of the band that any hack writer out there would drone on and on about in order to fill up word counts and time.

No, Sleep Token have become one of metal's best and brightest new groups of late through writing powerful, emotive and dynamic songs that are seldom ever just one thing. This band is an enigma and their music follows into the same extremes. You can trace their talent, vision, and vast musical range all the way back to their debut single, 'Thread The Needle,' as well as 2017's exceptional 'Two' EP. And you can feel it, hear it, and taste it across every single second of their debut full-length, 'Sundowning.'

Outside of the word 'impeccable,' another word that I think best summarises Sleep Token's debut album is 'juxtaposition.' This record is full of epic contrast: it's an incredibly dynamic listen. Yet if it was just packed in with darker, heavier songs like 'Gods' or 'The Offering,' it wouldn't be anywhere near as compelling or as thoughtful. If it was only an album of minimal, soulful hymns like the heart-touching and lovesick 'Levitate', or romantic pop ballads a la the blissful 'Drag Me Under' or the sublime 'Take Aim,' it wouldn't be as moving or as good. As each musical side of Sleep Token needs the others to exist. Their music requires delicacy, divinity, decay, and also destruction. Their potent mix of pop, electronica, progressive music, jazz, rock, and metal is the grand sum of its many parts. For them, a crushing prog breakdown with low-tuned guitar chugs is as important as a cleanly-sung atmospheric pop passage; as important as using synths at any given chance. This melting-pot of sounds is a symbiotic relationship, and that attracts listeners from differing tastes and backgrounds. You're just as likely to find Periphery and Meshuggah fans at their shows as you are Florence & The Machine die-hards.

What's most staggering about this release is the level of competency and effectiveness that Sleep Token display no matter the sound they choose to opt into on any given track. Their synchronicity as a unit, as performers, is unlike many of their peers. Bands tenfold their age and popularity wish they could show this degree of expert songwriting and musical dexterity. Yet not all bands are Sleep Token. Vessel's vocals carry as much weight and control in their low and high ranges as the instrumentals do, and their drummer - whoever he is - is one of the tightest and tasteful players in this microcosm of heavy music currently; every time those ghost-noted, odd-time grooves kicked in, like on 'Blood Sport' or 'The Night Does Not Belong To God,' I couldn't help but grin ear to ear. And I cannot tell you just how rewarding, just how fucking satisfying an album like this is to listen and then wax-lyrical about in a review. Despite the array of styles partaken in, 'Sundowning' is still such a cohesive, complete listen, even with all of its drastic genre twists and dramatic shifts in mood. This release always feels and sounds like Sleep Token - no one else.

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Opener 'The Night Does Not Belong To God' is a wonderful exercise in compositional layering and dynamic building, always racing towards the next peak, and its six-minute run-time rockets past in mere seconds as a result. 'The Offering' is a brooding mixture of hard-hitting, djenty prog-metal and grimy synths that crawl deep under one's own skin, with an equally pleading and menacing calls from singer Vessel to "take a bite." It's also on cuts like 'The Offering' - or during the huge change of pace that is the Deftones-like 'Gods' or that HUGE, rapture-esque breakdown that closes out mid-album highlight, 'Higher' - that we see a more volatile, more manic Sleep Token rear its bludgeoning head. In doing so, it shows their repeated quiet-and-soft-slowly-turning-loud-and-heavy songwriting formula of their EPs and singles has developed and deepened so much in the last two years.

Come its earth-rendering, gut-churning metal outro, the inviting 'Levitate' sees Vessel soar over accompanying keys, choral vocals, and well-produced electro drums. It's the classic Sleep Token songwriting and song structure approach but is no less powerful for it; a spiritual climax that is only matched by the jaw-dropping finale of 'Higher' that sees the LP, fittingly, reach new heights as it evolves over the course of a five-minute journey to the stars. 'Dark Signs' embraces a seedy, underground club vibe with boosted low-end, pitched-vocal samples, slick lo-fi beats, and Vessel's earthy drawl sliding over the top of it all. The way that it slithers into these sky-high refrains of "and I miss the man I was" is just so goddamn impressive; easily one of the best choruses of 2019.

The acoustic guitar strums and angelic high-register singing that backs up the slower, poppier aesthetics of the heart-warming 'Take Aim' are followed by the soft intimacy of frayed relationships heard on 'Give.' Then, the violent prog-metal 'Gods' lands with the surgical precision of a tactical nuke; seeing Sleep Token fire at their heaviest and most aggressive yet. Other sections of this record see solid glimpses into these heavier shades ('Higher,' 'The Offering,' etc.) but this explosive rager is the curtain fully pulled back on that side to the band. To be blunt, it's sick! In fact, the three-track run from 'Take Aim' to 'Gods' is a shining example of Sleep Token's expansive dynamic; I especially love the glittering, melodic bridge that 'Gods' wonderfully morphs into, before returning to its breakdown-laden, nu-metalcore attack.

With a harp-like synth and sweet falsetto vocals, 'Sugar' sounds like a nursery rhyme but with a nightmarish feel. Yet it then quickly becomes this foreboding, surging alt-rock number coupled with that trade-marked Sleep Token heavy instrumentals and some feral, lower-range cleans from Vessel. The nostalgic reverie of 'Say That You Will' becomes more gripping with each listen, and it's a fantastic example of how solid the album's production and arrangement quality really is. It's also a great example of how Vessel sounds like he's often on the verge of tears when he's singing, yet the hefty amounts of melodrama that his voice carries imbues so much emotion into these 12 songs. They wouldn't be the same without him fronting them, that's for sure. 'Drag Me Under,' with just a piano ostinato and drifting vocals, still sounds as large and as full as anything else heard on 'Sundowning.' The records send-off, the piano-heavy and ambient piece that bleeds into a tear-jerking, down-tuned climax, 'Blood Sport,' is a gorgeous finale where the heavens open up as it best captures the album's themes of love, lust, betrayal, trust, heartache, and regret; themes that'll infer different meanings for different listeners.

'Sundowning' is one of those rare records that leaves me speechless. It's an album I find incredibly difficult to fault as well. It isn't just a wonderfully dynamic & accomplished new release from the enigmatic Sleep Token, it's also one of the most striking debut LPs of 2019. Every song is deftly necessary; every song is diverse in one way or another; every song here is as cohesive as the one before it. There's not a single point on 'Sundowning' where I'd be thinking: "Hmmm, maybe they could've done that better or tired this instead." It's all in its right place, it's all as it should be. This isn't just one of my favourite albums of the year, but it has some of my favourite songs of 2019 contained within it too - 'Gods,' 'Dark Signs,' 'Higher,' 'Levitate.' I could just go on and on, and I'm not at all embarrassed or ashamed to say that I'm a little bit obsessed with it either. The splatterings of keys, the superbly produced synths and beats, the jazzy and intricate drumming, Vessel's incredible vocal range and emotional palpability, the brutal prog-metalcore moments, the poppier influences; there's just so fucking much going on with 'Sundowning,' both subtle and obvious. Perhaps more than I could ever hope to best articulate in a review. So I'll just leave it at this: listen to 'Sundowning' if its the last thing you ever do.

  1. The Night Does Not Belong To God
  2. The Offering
  3. Levitate
  4. Dark Signs
  5. Higher
  6. Take Aim
  7. Give
  8. Gods
  9. Sugar
  10. Say That You Will
  11. Drag Me Under
  12. Blood Sport

'Sundowning' is out November 21st: