10 min read

Oh, Let's Talk About Chemistry

Oh, Let's Talk About Chemistry

I don't know if God exists, so I'll worship Sleep Token instead

THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON JUNE 21, 2021

There is a beauty in anonymity that rarely receives appreciation in the digital age. For most of us, everyone we know is connected all the time through one to four social media apps that we switch between as if something astonishing could happen at any moment. We learn everything we can about the celebrities we admire and the fictional heroes that keep us believing in the impossible. We consume information nonstop for the sake of consumption, and many never stop to question our behavior.

Scholars and people with a better grasp of human behavior than myself will cite this interconnectivity as why younger generations are not embracing religion as much as their parents and grandparents. Kids today know about Jesus, but they also know of Muhammed and a half dozen other religious figures chosen by various groups as proof there is some higher power watching over us. The inability for anyone to claim they have undeniable evidence that one or any of those figures hail from some unseen creator is enough to make people lose interest, or at the very least, question their beliefs.

That's why I'm choosing to believe in Sleep Token. The anonymous collective of musicians hails from England with a mysterious look and serious songwriting chops. Sleep Token is not interested in selling out arenas or topping Billboard charts. The band honestly doesn't seem interested in anything outside of finding and providing catharsis through their music. It's a selfish pursuit. Still, it is also selfless, and it's so powerful to witness that I genuinely do not know if anyone could abstain from devoting themselves entirely to the group's efforts.

Even describing the sound of Sleep Token is hard to convey without direct exposure. The band's sound is rooted in metal, and the members display an almost academic understanding of balancing technical prowess with unbridled heaviness. But it’s their use of electronic production, layered vocals, and borderline pop melodies that make the final product so intriguing. It's as if The Weeknd and Hozier spent time with Between The Buried And Me, binging European doom metal and sipping on three too many glasses of deep red deep. You never know which influence will reveal itself next, and that excitement about the unknown is everything the world of religion is missing right now.

The band's debut album, Sundowning, is a testament to their ability to forge cohesion between their numerous influences. It's a sprawling release that begins with a piano-lead ballad and builds to a level of crushing heaviness that could shake the most painful heartache from your soul. Sleep Token is not interested in distracting you from the pain you hold inside. Instead, they want you to feel everything. Sundowning serves as something of a guide to release and growth that acknowledges the full spectrum of emotions that can develop through the human experience.

There's also something undeniably sexy about Sleep Token. I don't know if I've ever used that word to describe any musician or group, let alone many classify as metal, but no other word is more fitting. Woven throughout the group's music is this distinct aura of romance and passion. It's not about specific body parts or sex acts, but more in energy that conveys a sense of profound longing in a sensual yet methodically detailed manner. You can find examples of this on Sundowning tracks such as "Blood Sport" and "Sugar," the latter of which repeats the line "Sugar, I've developed a taste for you " over a dozen times with a reverence often reserved for religious texts. The message becomes clearer still on "Alkaline," the lead single off the band's 2021 album, This Place Will Become Your Tomb. Just look at this passage from the chorus:

She's not acid nor alkaline
Caught between black and white
Not quite either day or night
She's perfectly misaligned
I'm caught up in her design
And how it connects to mine
I see in a different light
The object of my desire

I don't know about you, but nobody's ever spoken to me this way before. Nobody has ever written me a letter that conveyed such a clearly defined sense of longing. Sleep Token's masked vocalist, known only as The Vessel, doesn't simply want to know someone intimately; they want to tether themselves to others on a spiritual plane. By incorporating science and the supernatural elements, The Vessel transcends our basic ideas of reality into something sprawling and infinite. They want to find themselves wrapped up in another, to submit to the notion of togetherness fully. It's not about escape; it's about coming home. Sleep Token wants to know the molecules that make up your being and how they relate to those within themselves. They want to cling on to something on the spinning rock hurling throughout infinite space that makes them feel less alone. They need to reconnect to the source of all things.

So when I say that Sleep Token is sexy, I mean that they embody a sense of unbridled passion. It's provocative. Their music is the audio equivalent to that rapturous peak of intimacy where you entirely give yourself to another, and they, in turn, surrender themselves to you. It's romanticizing ego death in preference of human connection, and the willingness to bear such longing without care or concern about how others will view such yearning is enticing. I want to be that free. You should want to be that free. I want us to love and fuck and fight and scream and give of ourselves in the name of intimacy until there is nothing left.

But there's a problem. As much as we aspire to be our true selves, we also spend most of our lives constructing intricate labyrinths within ourselves to protect the things we hold most dear. We censor ourselves for others because we believe faking similarities makes connection easier when it only complicates the process. We promote a false reality when we cut ourselves down and quiet our needs to keep others happy or distant. We are attempting to forge authentic bonds in an inauthentic world, and we repeat that process with every person we meet. Even those who claim to know us best often know only a fraction of what goes on inside our heads and hearts. We filter everything through the idea of maintaining social norms for reasons I don't understand despite doing the same thing.

Organized religion has many of the same problems. Rather than accept reality at face value and gather together as the human race, we construct barriers between ourselves and others. We do this first by sitting in pews every Sunday, pretending we have neither flaws nor doubts when many feel like they're drowning. Then there are the walls between faith and people. Homophobia, racism, and a general unwillingness to consider alternative lifestyles or beliefs have killed millions throughout time, and they continue to divide billions today. As much as religion can unite the disparate, it can keep us apart.

Any idiot can write a catchy song. Even the most amateur musicians can string together enough chords and notes to create something people enjoy. Talent alone is never enough. Similar to how looks will only get you so far, being proficient is the bare minimum. The artists and the art that truly speaks to us and make us feel alive taps into something that only exists in the furthest reaches of our soul. They expose the sameness between us, and as often is the case, acknowledging things that are often left unspoken is tantalizing. It's the kind of thing you don't realize you're craving until it's right in front of you. Once you taste it, you will never be able to see the world or hear music the same again.

What Sleep Token is attempting to do with their art is twofold. On the one hand, they want to express the most authentic version of themselves. They want to strip away all the rock 'n' roll and metal fantasies to deliver something undeniably raw. Their music is their best attempt at tearing the flesh from their chests, breaking their sternums, and excavating their hearts from the nests within their breasts. It is the purest form of themselves they know how to share. And in doing so, Sleep Token is also showing the world what it means to be ˙human. They remind us that we are broken creatures with cravings and fears and that accepting this truth is critical to living life.

The idea of worship seems to scare people away. When I mention that Sleep Token often refers to their performances as a form of worship, people shoot me a glance that borders on cringe. They don't know if the group is religious or view themselves as deities, but neither could be further from the truth. Sleep Token isn't concerned with sky daddies and mysticism. All they want is to create a space where everyone else can bear their souls. They want us to witness one another as we are, and at that moment, feel a sense of togetherness that we cannot find anywhere else. Their songs exist for us to consume as often as needed, like hymns and verses of the faithful. Consumption and participation are worship in praise of the great mystery of which we are all participants. It's a gathering point for the cosmically lost and unendingly curious.

The lessons of Sleep Token's music are something I'm still trying to learn. For as much as I may know what I want and need, I am historically bad at expressing it. As Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba wines wrote, "I can bend and not break." I can hold myself to be whatever I need to please or earn the acceptance of whoever is around me. I quiet the voice in my head so that others can feel heard, and I give of myself to ensure they get what they want, even if it means shorting myself. The number of relationships I stayed in longer than I should have because I was afraid to speak up are numerous. Each time I say something truthful, there are several more situations where I still bite my tongue.

But what am I to do? If I say everything I'm feeling all the time, only a few things may happen. The first and least likely outcome is that I receive everything I want or need. The second possibility is that my desires become a source of mockery and entertainment for others. The third and most hurtful option is that they fall on deaf ears. In every single scenario, revealing something about myself ultimately reveals something about the world around me. Speaking my truth and show me the truth about my relationships. It will tell me who is around me for me and who is around me because I make their lives easier. It will convey who I am to me and everyone else, and that is terrifying. You can’t take it back. Words are like bombs. Once they drop, you can't ignore the impact.

I recently had one of the most difficult conversations of my life with somebody that I love dearly. The topic of conversation doesn't matter, but suffice to say, I knew what I wanted to share would irrevocably change the dynamics of our relationship. I spent weeks trying to find the right words, consulting books and friends along the way, but none of it mattered. The only way to say what I needed to say was by telling the truth. To my surprise, the other person was expecting the words I wanted to say. They were patiently waiting for me to express what was already crystal clear to them. That didn't make the impact any lighter, but it did give me a moment of much-needed clarity.

Every self-help book and motivational speaker will tell you that you control your destiny. The decisions we make every day impact our lives' trajectory in ways we may never fully understand. You've probably heard these things said in the past and excepted them as truth without much consideration. I know I did. Then I found myself with a handful of thoughts that felt like bullets in a gun pointed towards somebody that I love deeply, and all I could think was whether or not my discomfort in the situation was genuinely worth pulling the trigger. I was telling myself it was selfless when, in reality, it was cowardly.

As soon as the words fell out of my mouth that day, I felt a shift. That relationship was finally going to evolve, and witnessing the immediate influence of my truth on the world around me reinforced the same message that Sleep Token shares in their music. It wasn't a sexy conversation or even a discussion of unrequited love, but it was a moment when I bared my soul in full to another. I shed the armor I use to navigate the world, and in doing so, freed everyone involved from an inauthentic existence. The hurt was still there, and it'll always be there, but there was also catharsis. For a split second, we were both fully alive in the present moment, and we felt the universe adjusting beneath our feet. Our lives were changing, and we were witnesses to it.

The quest for catharsis is universal, and Sleep Token aspires to provide the soundtrack. They call to the shadows with a promise of relief, even if only for a moment, and the huddled masses accept their invitation with open arms. God might exist. It is not impossible to imagine some all-knowing entity sitting high above the clouds shaping the experience of life while remaining silent to the world's cries. However, I know Sleep Token exists, and I believe in their efforts to provide catharsis to those who feel the rest of the world has left them behind. I see their work, and I have experienced the change it can make. If that isn't a religion worth following, I don't know what is.