Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Al Cisneros Mysteries Part I


The first and only time I've been fortunate enough to catch Al Cisneros live occurred during Scion Rock Fest 2012 in Tampa Bay. Cisneros was performing as a part of the reunited stoner rock legends Sleep before an absolutely packed crowd in Ybor City's the Ritz --per Cisneros, it was the first time the group had played in Florida in over 17 years. Original drummer Chris Hakius had retired from music several years earlier, but Neurosis' Jason Roeder ably filled in and the sight of bassist/vocalist Cisneros trading riffs again with guitarist Matt Pike is one few metalheads would be able to pass up.

More than any other show I've seen over the course of my life, this one certainly warranted labels such as Dionysian and comparisons to the ancient Roman festival known as the Bacchanalia. The set opened with only Pike on the stage, along with his trusty six string and what appeared to be a good buzz. Shirtless and already drenched in sweat, he began to crank out the opening riff to "Dopesmoker", the hour plus, album spanning epic that many fans consider to be the group's magnum opus. .

The crowd was utterly hypnotized all the while clouds of cannabis smoke rose heavily into the air. Joints began to flow amongst the audience like water despite the best efforts of the heavy handed security. With each sequel Pike coaxed out of his axe the smoke seemed to grow heavier and heavier, the stage growing hazy. One couldn't shake the impression that Pike should have had goat legs.

Pike at Scion 2012
When Cisneros and Roeder joined Pike on the stage they briefly posed almost like soldiers at attention, with their arms crossed before their chests before taking up their instruments and lurching into the song properly. It certainly gave an air of ritual to the proceedings, as though they were bearing witness. And certainly the debauchery that ensued was something to witness, least of all from Pike himself: he periodically drifted off the stage for shots and to snort something off of a mirror that a roadie conveniently held up to his face while he continued to play guitar.

It was the man's fortieth birthday and he unsurprisingly checked into rehab a day or two after the show.

And so it goes in the hazy universe inhabited by Cisneros, easily one of the most compelling figures in the modern heavy metal scene as well as in music on the whole. Over the course of this series I plan on examining the man's efforts with his two primary, Sleep and Om, in depth. Cisneros also did compelling work with Shrinebuilders, a kind of sludge/doom metal super group also featuring Scott Kelly of Neurosis, Dale Crover of the Melvins and Scott "Wino" Weinrich of Saint Vitus and the Obsessed (as well as Spirit Caravan and the Hidden Hand).

Shrinebuilders, from left to right: Cisneros, Wino, Kelly and Crover 
As I've already written on Kelley (here) and Wino (here) before, it seems inevitable that Shrinebuilders will also be tackled at some point, but for now I would like to focus on Cisneros' main gigs. So on with the show.

Cisneros hails from San Jose, California. According to the man himself, he took up the drums initially before shifting to bass and first attempted to form a band around the age of 13 or 14.  Presumably his discovery of Black Sabbath, a longstanding muse, also occurred around this time frame.

Cisneros (right) and Pike (left) during their high school years
It was in 1989, at the age of 16, that Cisneros founded the doom metal outfit Asbestosdeath along with Hakius and guitarist Tom Choi. Soon Cisneros' high school classmate Matt Pike joined on guitar and it was this nucleus that spawned what would become Sleep. The great Julian Cope provides a good rundown of Sleep's early days:
"So here’s the dope, dopes… Once upon a time, there was a punk rock band called Asbestos Death who came from San Jose that featured Luke Cisneros (bass, vocals), Chris Hakius (drums) and Tom Choi (guitar). They hooked up with Matt Pike (guitar) and changed their name to Sleep after a coupla singles when Choi left and was replaced by the religiously minded Justin Marler. Sleep signed to the same tiny Tupelo label that had fortuitously picked up the European rights to Nirvana’s BLEACH and for production hauled in the excellent Billy Anderson, deffo the Eddie Kramer of proto-doom, nay of all things heavy."
Marler
Note that Cope referred to Cisneros as "Luke" in the above quote. Cope claimed that this was Cisneros' original name that he had potentially changed it to "Al" for some type of mystical reason:
"... Bass player Luke Cisneros now became the sole singer of the band, wrote an album’s worth of meaningless (and it has to be admitted mainly SHIT) lyrics and changed his name to Al Cisneros (which means in Spanish ‘towards those who work with swans’3). In Al’s new guise as the stalker of the swan people, he immediately became not the Ozzie vocal clone we could have anticipated but the Alpha Shaman driving ur-force behind an entirely destiny-led troupe of demented masters of reality..."
In the footnotes, Cope goes on to note:
"Suspicious that this was the possible meaning, I asked my good friend and Spaniard Annexus Quamm about the translation. He wrote: ‘Yes, literally cisnero would be a person who works or deals with swans, like vaquero works with vacas (cows) and porquero with cerdos (pork, pigs) both rather old-fashioned terms. [This] makes sense to me in a literal way.’ " 
Al Cisneros: swan wrangler?
I'm not sure why then Cope found such significance in Cisneros changing his name from Luke to Al, but regardless this is inaccurate. As far as this researcher can determine, Cisneros first name has always been Al. But he does seem to have used the name "Luke" for a time in the early 1990s, and not for especially mystical reasons. The Quietus notes:
"Q: One last thing Al, just before I let you go, I heard a funny story from Matt Pike the last time I interviewed him where he was talking about the early days of Sleep and he mentioned that for a period where you decided to call yourself ‘Luke’ – for about two years or something – what was that all about?
"AC: [laughs] Well, it was a joke really, that was my name in the band; It was an over appreciation of the second title of ‘War Pigs’ on Paranoid, ‘Luke’s Wall’, and so I was just amazed, like 'Why is everybody only calling it "War Pigs"? It’s also called "Luke’s Wall"!' But whatever man, it makes no sense!"

But moving along. After one album of subpar doom metal (Volume One),  guitarist Justin Marler departed the group... to join a monastery (seriously). Sleep opted to soldier on as a power trio and with their sophomore outing, Sleep's Holy Mountain, the group latched upon the sound that would make them underground legends. Imagine a group of musicians locking themselves in a studio with vintage amps, massive amounts of cannabis, the first four Black Sabbath and a Dungeon and Dragon's player handbook, and you essentially have the sound of Holy Mountain.

"Dragonaut", later used in the film Gummo, sets the stage: a stately Sabbath groove drugged out to the max and punctuated by Cisneros almost chant-like lyrics evoking dragons and space travel. The lyrics, such as they are, run the gauntlet of the sci-fi and fantasy lexicon. Space travel of course appears again, as do druids, gypsies, unspeakable cults, Atlantis and of course magic potions. King Solomon is referenced in "Evil Gypsy/Solomon's Theme", but never quite works his way into the lyrics. Only "From Beyond", with its allusions to "stoner caravan from deep space" hint at the far more striking mythos that would appear in the next album.

Two of the tracks, "Some Grass" and closer "Nain's Baptism", are instrumentals while  "Druid" features but one shouted verse. Outside of those three numbers, none of the other songs on the album are under five minutes. Musically, the album rarely ventures beyond the murky depths of Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and possibly the Flower Travelin' Band aside from the faintest hints of psychedlia.

the classic Holy Mountain cover
It should have never worked --simply writing about this album can make one cringe in the right mood. Everything about it is ridiculous and over the top. The riffs lumber along like some prehistoric dinosaur, as though they had been written by cavemen and were just waiting for the right moment to be rediscovered. And the lyrics --the average D & D game surely exerted more quiet dignity than Cisneros' lyrics.

And yet work it did. The album is practically a monument to 70s heavy metal culture in its pristine state before the inane ramblings of numerous fundamentalist ministers laid the foundation for Slayer, Venom and the rest of the faux Satanism that would come to dominate so much of modern heavy metal. But in Holy Mountain the Old Ones found redemption. It was as though every fantasy ever played out in a reefer soaked basements featuring ample amps, vinyl and magic dice was given life in the 1992 issue's nine classic tracks.

Again, it should have never worked. But somehow Cisneros and co had stumbled upon a formula that had very real myth making potential. But it was not till the follow-up album, initially entitled Jerusalem but now known but its original title Dopesmoker, that this potential was realized. Within the metal community, even the making of this album has become somewhat legendary. The great Julian Cope broke it down thus:
"After SLEEP’S HOLY MOUNTAIN caused a big stir and they’d invented the term Stoner Rock (I believe, I believe!), some pretty heavy management took over control of the band and signed them up to London Records, who saw the promise of a big underground band and laid upon them extreme amounts of loot. Now, a note on booklet of SLEEP’S HOLY MOUNTAIN: ‘If you have Orange amplification for sale contact Sleep through Earache Records’ should have maybe forewarned everyone, but Sleep now took the cash and laid out thousands for this Holy Grail amplification (all in delightful orange ‘70s cases, as my contemporaries will so well know). When most groups sign to a major label, they become (in the words of Mark Smith) ‘like peasants with free milk’. The records are made to suit the company, and some bands even freely admit to working for the man (Mott the Hoople always referred to Island Records as their ‘employers’ and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second LP even featured a song entitled ‘Working for M.C.A.’), so it must have come as a something of a surprise to London Records when their new power trio signing from San Jose chose to spend all their money on new equipment and pot and delivered an album that contained only one single 52-minute track entitled ‘Jerusalem’… Gone was the generic lyrical vapidness of much of SLEEP’S HOLY MOUNTAIN (gypsies, druids, dragons, whatever) and incoming was the type of sacred coding that ‘Al Cisneros’ had previously alluded to only on the song ‘From Beyond’, on which he intoned: 'Stoner caravan from deep space arrives.’ "

The original version of "Dopesmoker" was over 60 minutes long and was only pared down to 52 after the record label initially refused to release it. The edited version was also rejected and the album was not released until 1999 under the title Jerusalem in a bootlegged version. By that time the band had already broken up, but Dopesmoker was well on its way to becoming the stuff of legends.

While Holy Mountain established the group's legacy, it was Dopesmoker where they truly moved beyond the shadow of Black Sabbath and discovered their own voice. For the record the group, while remaining firmly entrenched in their Sabbathian origins, brought a surprisingly diverse amount of influences into the sessions. The writing of "Dopesmoker" itself would prove to be incredibly difficult as well and no doubt contributed the epic vibe the work radiates.
"...  Jerusalem is quite simply one of the heaviest psychedelic rock records ever made. Released in 1998, it consists of one fifty-two minute track – massive, monolithic, and lumbering like a brontosaurus stomping through the bog. 'Earache [Records] sat on Holy Mountain forever, and that fucked with us real bad,' Pike recalled. 'It took us about four years to get out of that and during those four years we wrote the song 'Jerusalem.' Al had said, 'Gee, don't you think it would be awesome just to cut through the bullshit and do one huge gigantic piece – like Beethoven, but make it different?' Our influences were real monotone, real Indian-sounding, real dub-reggae. It's pot music, you know what I mean? We were smoking like... God, dude, two to four ounces a day!'
"Not for nothing does the back cover depict one of the funkiest homemade bongs ever photographed. But Jerusalem isn't merely stoned self-indulgence or a particularly inspired jam preserved for posterity. After its four-your genesis, it was painstakingly recorded during two months of intense studio sessions. 'Man, it took a long time,' Pike told me. 'When I was playing that slow intro, that was a bitch to play the whole thing through and keep the time perfect. And then once the drums and bass come in... there were like fucking math charts on the wall, everything. There was so much to remember.' This included the mystical lyrics that would do the Cult of the Illuminatis proud. 'It was a real spiritual, holy thing for all of us. All of us are very unorthodox Christians and amateur theologians; we like to study different religions but kind of believe in one God. I give a lot of that album's doing to Him. Without a lot of prayer and without a lot of marijuana and our past psychedelic experiences, that album wouldn't have happened.' "
(Turn on Your Mind, Jim DeRogatis, pgs. 549-550)
the 2003 edition of Dopesmoker
Your humble researcher will go out on a limb and speculate that not many recent heavy metal albums have been credited to God, cannabis and "past psychedelic experiences." Certainly this is but one of the unique aspects of Dopesmoker, a kind of loose concept album/song following the plight of the Weedian. Presumably the Weedian are a race of pot smoking extraterrestrials who have come to Earth, and may possibly have seeded the human race if lines such as "Judgement soon come to Mankind/Green herbsmen serve rightful king" are taken to their logical extreme.

the Weedian
Cannabis worshiping ancient aliens mythos? Julian Cope certainly seems to have gotten something from the sixty minute juggernaut:
"Furthermore, the lyrics (all ten repeated lines or so) were the kind of accessible pseudo-religious genius that started genuine religions...
"New lows in redundant amphibian shamanism or watt, Motherfucker! Gimme gimme gimme, and then gimme some more. When I was a kid making 1/72 scale model plane kits by Airfix and Revell, I used to paint flies with Humbrol gloss and watch them drag themselves around slower and slower until they… finally… dried up underneath the sheer weight of the glossy overalls I’d painted them into. Now, listening to DOPESMOKER, I was a fly dying of paint inhalation and loving every exoskeletally en-crisping moment. Lying comatose and aware of nothing but the thousands of glow-in-the-dark stars on my bedroom ceiling, I wondered what could have been behind such a fundamentalist statement as DOPESMOKER. Of its three creators, I visualised them (in my hash-mashed mind’s eye) inhabiting a world in which the first four Black Sabbath LPs - BLACK SABBATH, PARANOID, MASTER OF REALITY and VOLUME 4 – had become sacred testaments on which to base their entire belief system (this wasn’t really too hard to envisage – Mormonism and Rastafarianism were based on far less). But then, as I sunk deeper into Sleep’s San Jose psyche, I began to think… imagine that you first came to these four Sabs LPs not in their British Vertigo swirl guises, but in their U.S. Warner Brothers versions, with the first LP losing its gatefold and (therefore) controversial inverted cross, but (more positively) side two opening not with the original slightly incongruous Fontana 45 ‘Evil Woman, Don’t You Play Your Games with Me’ but with the far more typically doomaholic stop-start Iommi-heavy multi-parted B-side ‘Wicked World’ – an altogether more auspiciously damned beginning to side two of such an iconic rock’n’roll debut. Imagine, if you will allow me to continue this metaphor, that being a teenage American stoner and already of the opinion that, being in possession of the aforementioned 4 LPs, you have your hands on some sort of holy sonic reliquary umpteen times greater than Islam’s piece of sacred meteorite at the centre of Mecca’s Haram enclosure, you begin as time goes by to read more and more into the titles of those ‘extras’ that Warner Brothers had insisted Black Sabbath added to their tracklisting to stop the general public from thinking they wuz buying some too-short LPs. And imagine that the addition of those extra U.S.-only titles on BLACK SABBATH (‘Wasp’, ‘Bassically’), PARANOID (‘Luke’s Wall’, ‘Jack the Stripper’), MASTER OF REALITY (‘The Haunting’, ‘Step Up’, ‘Deathmask’) and VOLUME 4 (‘The Straightener’, ‘Everyday Comes and Goes’) to the already murky official Sabbath tracklisting contributed further confusion to the thorny question of exactly when songs ended and others began, so much so in fact that each already oft-changing riff-o-thon now appeared to meld seamlessly and tidally, each into the next until your teenaddled stoner cranium saw, heard and inhaled it all as a single ever-undulating ever-spiralling ever-squirming Midgardian Worm of sonic oil spill building and building layer upon relentless layer on a seashore until the whole beachscape, complete with sunbathers, coastguards and concession stands, had been lacquered under a one-metre-thick obsidian black layer of petrified chemo-gunk… I visualised Sleep in their pre-Sleep configuration, their teenage stoner minds fixating collectively on these first four Sabbath LPs to such an extent that certain repeated words in the song titles became iconic mantras to be treated (Brigit Riley-stylee) as repeatable motifs almost in the psychedelic manner of 6,000-year-old Western Atlantic passage grave art. In this mood, titles such as ‘Sweetleaf’, ‘Behind the Wall of Sleep’, ‘Planet Caravan’, ‘Under the Sun’, ‘Warning’, ‘Snowblind’,1 ‘Luke’s Wall’, Supernaut’, ‘A Bit of Finger’, ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’, ‘The Wizard’; each becomes a useful jugglable commodity on which to hang your own variant of Geezer’s lyric, of Iommi’s heavy up-the-neck wound-string S.G. riffs and of Bill’s Bible-throwing drum fills. I heard evidence within these Sleepian grooves that a genuine cult had grown up in San Jose, a cult dedicated to the results of Black Sabbath’s controversial decision to rip off2 a song title (‘Sweetleaf’) from Clear Blue Sky, their eighteen-year-old Vertigo label-mates, and write it not as a soft homage to grass but as a riff-heavy ‘Pot as THEE Sacrament’ John Sinclair/MC5ian-type Odin-receiving-the-wisdom-of-Urd’s Well thank you thank you you-saved-my-life Shaman’s gift to the Goddess eulogy. I imagined that on hearing Ozzie’s echoplex’d coughs at the beginning of the song, and the desperation in his voice when he sung to Sweetleaf ‘I love you… you know it… my life was empty… my life was down… my life is free now’, the Cult-that-would-become-Sleep had heard it as such a rallying cry from within that it finally motivated their otherwise Total Pot Refusenik Butts enough to get up from the couch long enough to lay down some extreme sonic monotony on behalf of the Vegetation Goddess who had spoken so eloquently to them, their few close stoner mates, and Messrs. Osbourn, Butler, Iommi and Ward. But after I’d imagined all of the above, I had to stop imagining such things because this thing had actually happened and the results were amazing."
a fan in a Weedian Halloween costume
In case you're wondering dear reader, yes, the sound of Dopesmoker is so vast, so expansive, that run on sentences and rambling, page-spanning paragraphs seem the only way to adequately do it justice. I had considered writing an equally combobulated paragraph probing its depths, but why bother when Cope has already managed the job so elegantly?

But as much of a curiosity as Dopesmoker might be, it is not a work in and of itself that warrants an in depth discussion on a blog so esoterically obsessed as this one. It is, however, important to note these early spiritual musings, for after leaving the music scene for several years Cisneros would unleash one of the most metaphysically oriented bands to emerge in recent years. Stay tuned for the curious ruminations of Om in the next installment dear reader.