Sleep Token - Sundowning (Cover Artwork)

Sleep Token

Sundowning (2019)

Spinefarm Records UK

All aboard the hype train! Surely one of the year’s most hotly-tipped and highly-anticipated records in the world of alternative music, or at least on this side of the Atlantic: Sleep Token. A group of arcanely-masked musicians who push their aesthetic to a significant degree, referring to their live shows as ‘gathering to worship’ and who have been releasing a song from this record every two weeks since summer solstice in the run-up the album’s release proper, the songs always being released precisely at sundown (GMT). High-concept, or simply pretentious? Often an artist’s legacy in that regard will hinge on the ability for their music to match, and warrant, the layers that have been constructed around it.

So, occult-looking, ritualistic release schedule, routinely featuring on djent and tech lineups/festival bills over the last couple of years - you might think you have an idea of what the band sound like. You might be surprised. I certainly was. The first thing that hits you is the vocal. This is no rasp, growl or scream; this is a modern, clean, even soulful vocal. Radio-ready and complete at various points with vocoder, falsetto and backing vocals. Ok, so this isn’t what I thought it was. Musically? Yeah, I wasn’t expecting this either. Maybe 75% of the record is hyper-modern, with keys, synths, drum machine beats and more that initially feels entirely incongruous against the band’s aesthetic. Also, maybe a third of the songs on the record are what could be broadly described as ballads. Another curve ball.

So why are they included in the scene they’re apparently part of? On the face of it, none of this fits? Well basically, it’s the other 25% of the musical canvas. Heavy but taught guitars, thudding along with thick bass lines that completely transform the band into something else. In the case of album outlier ‘Gods’, this forms pretty much the whole song and even uses screamed vocals which feel frankly, quite jarring against the backdrop of the rest of the album. What I will say, is that when those guitar breaks do come in (typically in the latter stages of the songs), then they are quite satisfying, albeit in a way that makes the 2 styles on display seem even more disparate.

having listened to this a lot over the last few weeks, I’m still not 100% sure if I actually like it or not. Some of it feels like I could be listening to a perfect gateway band and it is nice to hear something completely different in the realms of alternative and ‘heavy’ music, it’s just that so much of this is the polar opposite of heavy. It’s dreamy and ethereal. In some instances, it’s those things for far too long and in a way that leaves me entirely cold. From a purely critical position, I think this will probably do very well indeed, the aesthetic and theatre surrounding it will help add to the mystique and bring more and more people in from different scenes, but the attempt (if indeed it is one) to meld the two styles of music on display just feels a little blunt. Not clumsy, that would be unfair, but you can certainly see the lines where they’ve been stitched together.

I’d really like to go and see the live show as apparently it’s quite a spectacle, but looking at what we have here on record, I can see why the wider populace might be intrigued, I’m just not sure it’s been crafted quite to the level I would have liked. But then, Sleep Token are trying something new. It was never going to work perfectly from the start.