Just one thing stopped Sleep’s Jerusalem from being last year’s best and most ambitious rock album: it never came out. Slated for release in September 1997 by London/Polygram but shelved after the band fell apart last summer, Jerusalem is the holy grail of stoner metal, a 52-minute album consisting of exactly one song–one massive post-Sabbath symphonic drone of a song. And now, with a brand-new CD bootleg hitting stores and an official release to follow in late summer on the new New York-based Music Cartel label, perhaps more than the few hundred people who snagged London promos (or nth-generation cassette dubs) will finally get to hear it.

A teenage quartet when they debuted with Volume One on the indie Tupelo in 1990, Sleep didn’t do many interviews or tour much–their biggest U.S. sojourn to date was opening for Hawkwind in early ’94. Sometime in ’90 or ’91 the original second guitarist, Justin Marler, set off for Alaska to become a monk. And the remaining three members spent much of the middle of the decade trying to get out of their deal with Earache, the metal label for which they’d made their second record, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, in 1992. But bassist and vocalist Al Cisneros, drummer Chris Hakius, and guitarist Matt Pike seem to have used their downtime well, honing their obsessions with outsize riffs (Cisneros has the cover of Black Sabbath’s Volume 4 tattooed across his back), Green amplifiers, and a broadly Christian spirituality (the liner notes written for the London packaging offered “highest thanks to the Father and Son”).

And, perhaps above all else, they smoked truly stupendous quantities of cheeb, usually from bongs fashioned out of fresh coconuts–“chalices,” in Sleep parlance. While they were mixing Jerusalem, their consumption was apparently so voluminous that smoke swamped the high-powered ventilation system at the Manhattan studio Magic Shop, setting off the fire alarm. “Nobody could make that record, or do what they did, without having smoked that quantity of herbivorous material for as long as they have,” says recording engineer Doug Henderson, clearly awed. “There is just no way to fake that.” Not surprisingly, Jerusalem’s working title was “Dopesmoker.”

The two albums that precede it only hint at how fruitfully the band’s greatest loves would come together on Jerusalem, which took years to write and originally clocked in at more than 70 minutes. Its lyric sheet, larded with biblical references, describes a caravan crossing the deserts of the Middle East questing for the high priests of weed. “Drop out of life with bong in hand,” Cisneros bellows after a seven-minute introduction, “follow the smoke to the riff-filled land.” Each syllable is sustained long enough to suggest the cathedral-filling drones of some extremely baked midnight mass–one for which Cisneros’s book-rewriting hard-rock bass, Pike’s mind-bending guitar, and Hakius’s insistent psychedelic march beat provide an ideal sound track.

The cheap shorthand description of what Jerusalem sounds like is destined to be something like “slowed-down Sabbath detuned to C.” But Jerusalem is the space where sheer power-trio heft becomes hypnotic, even spiritual, like if the brutal instrumental Dutch band Gore got its late-80s groove back and found God. Sustaining a coherent song and groove (as opposed to an aggregation of a few thousand parts) at great length, with myriad subtle developments on a basic theme, Jerusalem makes me think more of Glenn Branca or the best late-period Swans (like “Helpless Child” and “Blood Promise”) than Sabbath.

There’s been a boomlet of sludge-metal bands releasing one-song albums of late; I’m thinking especially of two Japanese bands, Boris and Corrupted. The latter’s Paso Inferior, in particular, is impressive and severe, but it still falls miles short of Jerusalem. Then again, in some ways, so does just about everything else. Sleep didn’t do pop hooks; their lyrics weren’t detached and wry and literate. In their single-minded dedication to herb and heaviosity, they practically demanded the scorn of the rock intelligentsia. But with Jerusalem, they pulled off something way more adventurous than any critic’s darling could conceive. Sleep wrote a symphony encompassing all that they’re about. What other rock band has?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): band photo and album cover, both uncredited.