How did Sleep Token become the most talked about band in metal and the genre’s biggest hope for leaving an impression on modern pop culture? These two questions continue to baffle. Formed in London in 2016 as a mask-wearing collective, they produced two EPs followed by two albums in 2019 and 2021, both of which left them on the margins of metalcore and rock until January this year, when their single, ‘The Summoning’, entered the listening space of every metalhead. Since then, everyone from Spencer Sotelo (Periphery) to Will Ramos (Lorna Shore) have endorsed the group and proclaimed them the future of music. Many of us did not see them coming, but there’s no doubt they’re the band of the moment if you look at their numbers on Spotify, YouTube and TikTok. Are they worthy of the hype?
Sleep Token’s passionate fanbase will already know the first five songs of Take Me Back to Eden from the slew of singles they published in advance of its release. And these songs are some of the most forward-thinking prog metal compositions you’ll hear all year. Opener, ‘Chokehold’, is a viral hit on social media (but not yet a meme) with its meditative bass distortions and semi-percussive synth clipping. Of course, the main draw is the confident vocal delivery of the anonymous singer and songwriter of the band known as Vessel. His range lies somewhere between Daniel Tompkins (Tesseract) and American pop star, John Legend. You might even hear traces of Chris Cornell in the chorus when the drop-tuned guitars gush through the amps like the aftermath of surface tension. Vessel can also scream. Listen to the epic dynamic shifts of ‘The Summoning’ for evidence of his more aggressive style. Here, the band burrow into your veins like A Perfect Circle and chug their way through a succession of Meshuggah riffs on route to a mellifluous guitar solo that could be from the debut Cynic record. Sporadic falsetto notes change the pitch when you least expect them. The bluesy synth-bass effect at the end is just as thrilling.
The first half of this record is breath-taking in its ambition and variation. You’ll hear trendy terms like “genre-fluid” to describe Sleep Token’s art. They show that metal bands can write serious pop music on ‘Granite’ and ‘Aqua Regia’. The former thrives on strong dual-harmony vocals and hand-clap drum samples as if positioning itself for an R & B audience; the latter uses identical vocal lines and arcs towards an effulgent piano solo. It’s a wise decision to follow up with ‘Vore’. This is a fascinating black metal take on Leprous and does a remarkable job of salvaging a melodic chorus from the debris of noise. Periphery should take note how to write pop songs for their next record. It’s not as easy as it looks, but Sleep Token master their brief with the same confidence as metal’s smoothest experimentalists, Faith No More.
Take Me Back to Eden would be an instant classic if it ended at track six. But Vessel decided that side B should be a stripped-down affair anchored around piano ballads. Here is a lesson in how to squander the momentum of a record. It’s quite inexplicable. ‘Are You Really Okay?’ will remind you of the playful moments on Pain of Salvation’s Remedy Lane album, yet it ends like a sentimental rock number from The Calling. It becomes apparent that Vessel’s R & B vocal phrasings use the same rhythm on almost every song. Four successive piano meditations from track six (‘Ascensionism’) to track ten (‘Rain’) ruin the great work of side A. Spasmodic moments of Vildhjarta posturing do little to retain your interest after such a drop in tempo and aggression.
This record is too long and cannot justify its one hour and three minutes of running time. You’ll approach the title track wondering if it would be more fun to watch a tortoise complete the London Marathon. How can the second half of a record be so dull after such a magnificent start to the listening experience?
It should have been a favourite for album-of-the-year, but Take Me Back to Eden is a clumsy and bloated effort with a poor grasp of how to structure a longform record. The TikTok generation will have no qualms because an album means nothing to them – the singles are all that matters. In that case, Sleep Token will go from strength-to-strength after this release, but the traditionalists might wonder how they could produce a body of work that’s so disjointed.
Release Date: 19/05/2023
Record Label: Spinefarm Records
Standout tracks: The Summoning, Aqua Regia, Vore
Suggested Further Listening: Leprous – Aphelion (2021), Pain of Salvation – Remedy Lane (2002), The Ocean – Holocene (2023)