Sleep Token: “Our identity is represented through the art itself”

Millions of listeners. Sold-out arenas. No identity. Sleep Token’s unstoppable rise has been breathtaking to behold, doing it all on their terms, giving the briefest of glimpses into the multiverse they’ve created. Ahead of their biggest-ever headline show at Wembley Arena, we search through past interactions for the meaning behind the mystery and find real beauty in anonymity…

Sleep Token: “Our identity is represented through the art itself”
David McLaughlin
Andy Ford

If you’ve come here looking for answers, welcome to the club. The questions you’re posing might offer more useful insights. When we asked our own, in the end, we were left with even more questions. All of this has very much been by design.

Contrary to popularly held misconceptions, Sleep Token have done more than one press interview in their seven-year rise through the alternative ranks. They’ve communicated to the wider world through Kerrang! twice, in fact – in their early days via their enigmatic, faceless leader Vessel, and again through an unnamed ‘Servant’, each time leaving behind brief but tantalising breadcrumb trails that offered intrigue and suspense.

“The true identities behind Sleep Token are immaterial and ultimately irrelevant,” Vessel boldly decreed in our profile piece introducing them in 2018. “Our identity is represented through the art itself.”

“It matters not who they are,” the Servant doubled down at the band’s behest in our follow-up Q&A (admittedly, it was more ‘Q’ than ‘A’, but still…) accompanying the printed review of their 2019 debut album, Sundowning. “It matters not what they say.”

The key takeaways from those teaser dispatches only reaffirmed and repeated the messages they left now-K! Editor Luke Morton with at the conclusion of his earlier 2017 communiqué. That “nothing lasts forever”, and giving one simple instruction: “Worship.”

Since then, worship is exactly what’s gone down. Across a trilogy of albums that’s included 2021’s This Place Will Become Your Tomb and culminated in this May’s Take Me Back To Eden, they’ve transformed themselves from the status of eyebrow-raising cult proposition to a genuine scene phenomenon. How big the anonymous collective could become is a compelling unknown.

At the time of going to press, they have amassed more than 2.3million monthly listeners on Spotify, a rapid and impressive increase on the not-exactly-shabby quarter-million mark they hovered around at the tail-end of 2022. On May 31, when they announced they’d be playing a headline date at London’s OVO Arena Wembley on December 16, the event sold out in just 10 minutes, such was fan fervour for tickets. To borrow an old phrase, there’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

To their credit, Sleep Token have orchestrated all of it beautifully. In their parlance, they don’t play gigs; they play Rituals. Those in attendance, they consider their Congregation, devoted and primed to bow down and pay tribute. Onstage, Vessel stands barefoot, cloaked and masked, with any exposed skin daubed in charcoal to conceal his identity. The rest of the band remain equally incognito, distinguished only by the Runic marks on their masks and their Roman numerals: II (drummer), III (bassist), and IV (guitarist). Flanking the musicians with disquieting stillness are three hooded backing vocalists.

When it’s working in concert with the rustic staging, lights and music, the effect is akin to one of Ari Aster’s folk-horror fever dreams. Under all that garb, nobody knows who anyone is. And that anonymity appears to be entirely the point.

“Art has become entangled with identity,” Vessel explained in his initial communications with us. “The aim with Sleep Token is to provide something people can engage with and relate to without being obstructed by the identity of its creator. Our aesthetic is there to fill the void left by that absence.”

There’s also a hefty dose of baked-in lore to sort through, should you so desire. As legend has it, Vessel was anointed in a dream by an ancient deity called Sleep, who promised “glory and magnificence” for his servitude, loyalty and carrying out of Sleep’s bidding. Each of the band’s songs are but offerings to this deity, detailing their stormy relationship and the power dynamics at play between them.

The cryptic words of the band’s old bio offered some colour and context to this central thematic tension.

“This being once held great power,” it read, “bestowing ancient civilisations with the gift of dreams, and the curse of nightmares. Even today, though faded from prominence, ‘Sleep’ yet lurks in the subconscious minds of man, woman and child alike. Fragments of beauty, horror, anguish, pain, happiness, joy, anger, disgust and fear coalesce to create expansive, emotionally textured music that simultaneously embodies the darkest, and the brightest abstract thoughts. He has seen them. He has felt them. He is everywhere.”

The real-world origins of the band remain shrouded in just as much mystery. As if to muddy the waters further, the music defies easy categorisation, wilfully ranging in tone and shape across a sphere of alternative sounds. One minute there’s a super-technical, djent-like assault on the senses; the next it descends into sparse and delicate balladry, with glossy touches of modern R&B and pop sensibilities in between.

That level of invention and mystique has caught the music-loving public’s imagination and sparked wild theories about the identity of those responsible, as well as the possible meanings behind it all. The undeniable talent and creativity fuelling the endeavour has led many to believe that it must be the work of an already established and accomplished artist.

Bastille’s Dan Smith has been considered a potential candidate. There’s some left-field speculation about people like Sam Smith, James Arthur or Hozier possibly being involved. Wannabe online sleuths have noted some stylistic similarities between Vessel’s vocals and those of Don Broco’s Rob Damiani, further highlighting how the two appear to never be booked for live duties at the same time.

The band’s hyper-engaged online communities have debunked most suggestions thus far, only adding to the mystery that surrounds their rise to prominence. In the social media-driven age of TMI oversharing, it’s an impressive feat to have kept things so tightly under wraps all this time.

To that end, rule one of the band’s official Reddit page states that “revealing the real names or providing information that leads to identifying members is strictly forbidden”. That’s a mark of “respect and gratitude” according to user PersimmonOwn2478.

“Vessel has given all of us a gift,” they explain. “Through this magic music that makes us feel. To go against their wishes, to discuss the people behind the masks, or to sully a sincere wish for anonymity, would be a disgrace.

“In giving of himself, his past traumas, his emotions that gave birth to a beautiful catalogue of music,” they summarise. “He asks of us just one thing: to focus on the message behind the music.”

Someone who knows a thing or two about the power of a mask is Corey Taylor, who counts himself among the band’s ever-growing legion of devotees. On his recent visit to the UK, we tried to pin him down on what it is he digs about them so much.

“I love how there’s nothing but the music and what they want to put out there,” the Slipknot frontman says of the band’s unique allure. “I love that people are so into that, too. I mean, I know how fucking hard it is to keep that up. There’s definitely something to be said about the mystique. But if the music wasn’t amazing, it wouldn’t be as cool. The thing that inspires me the most is watching people really come into their own.”

That’s putting it mildly. Earlier this year, Take Me Back To Eden’s lead single Chokehold became a viral sensation, with fans uploading their reactions and interpretations to TikTok. Lorna Shore singer Will Ramos recorded an a cappella cover and raved about the band on his YouTube channel. During his headline performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London in March, American Idol star Chris Daughtry performed an acoustic take of his own. They join Ihsahn from Norwegian black metal legends Emperor, The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins, Loathe’s Kadeem France and Architects’ Sam Carter, who’ve all been vocal about their adoration in the past.

With a clutch of show-stealing festival gigs under their cloaks, including Reading & Leeds, an upcoming sell-out U.S. tour, and that crowning headliner in the capital to look forward to, it’s hard to see anyone having a better 2023 than Sleep Token.

How the hell did they pull all this off?

Just how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go? What you put in might determine how rewarding you find the experience. It’s entirely possible to simply appreciate the talent, enjoy the spectacle and find entertainment in the mix of theatrics and musical ambition. There’s a reading of much of the material that sees it as a classic framing device for navigating challenging real-life relationships. It might all be as simple as a metaphor for sex and break-ups.

If you’d prefer, there’s a whole Sleep Token universe to immerse yourself in, so rich and dense is the fantastical narrative realm they’ve created across their lyrics, artwork and associated iconography. Spiritually, the effect is similar to the mythological world-building of J.R.R. Tolkien or Frank Herbert, set to music.

That’s what’s drawn Scarlett Heselwood in. One of the band’s most active followers on Discord (where her handle is ‘Sundowner’), she has created a comprehensive, labour-of-love guide to the band, on which she’s been working for four-and-a-half years and counting. In her 32-page, 15,000-word-plus document she details her personal interpretation of their output, which in tandem with a three-and-a-half-hour playlist that works as a chronological discography mirroring her timeline of events, she dives into everything from quantum entanglement to Mesopotamian religion. It’s all part of her quest to bring coherence and understanding to what she interprets as toxicity and drama between Sleep and Vessel.

It doesn’t claim to be authoritative. In fact, with the release of Take Me Back To Eden dropping new clues and shedding fresh light on some earlier events in the trilogy, so much remains open to alternative interpretation. Rather than being right, this is precisely the point of the exercise. Hers is but one of many possible takes. You’re invited to offer yours, too.

“The intention is to take your own personal meaning from the songs,” Scarlett writes in her guide, by way of disclaimer, to ward off anyone mistaking her passion for anything other than just that. “The thing is that a huge part of the point with Sleep Token is to be wrong, and to explore what your personal feelings are with regards to each song. Being incorrect doesn’t make the work any less valid. This is why we have never been given a concrete answer on anything.”

Those thoughts echo what Vessel said in his first interview in Kerrang! and speaks to a key reason so many people have latched onto this band in almost obsessive fashion. Vessel’s anonymity allows the congregation to project onto him, receiving Sleep’s message in their own unique ways. He is but a conduit, and the power of that space for personal reflection cannot be underestimated.

“There exists a considerable body of art that explores the deeper recesses of the human mind. Sleep Token serve as a means to explore this on an individual basis,” he stated. “The music is a representation of one individual’s deepest and most fundamental emotions and desires. This is what people connect to, as they see themselves in this individual, and the music becomes about them.”

Our past interaction with the Servant is called to mind on this point, too.

“‘Vessel’ is no name,” they explained. “It is merely a descriptive term, one that may indeed be applied to us all. He is no different, in this regard. The entity is the music. There is nothing further to discover. The gathering of Followers only further exemplifies the truth, that the identity of the creators matters not to those who believe.”

That’s certainly borne out by the devotion these online communities have shown since those early days. Such is the forensic level of analysis involved, their most dedicated Followers even picked up on visual clues to work out the title of the collective’s latest album, way before its release.

There are extensive threads dedicated to cataloguing and dissecting Sleep Token lore. Fans post images of their homemade costumes, the artwork this music has inspired them to create, their custom memes and tattoos, and share personal stories about how the band have helped them process and deal with real-world issues. The community that has huddled around Sleep Token’s success seems to communicate with uncommon levels of respect and empathy, valuing inclusivity and lifting one another up.

Masks in music are nothing new. Artists like Hollywood Undead, Ghost and, of course, Slipknot have all worn them and built rabid fanbases off the back of their distinct brands of mystique. But not since the runaway success of twenty one pilots has a band’s following appeared so immersed in every detail of what they do. Sleep Token seem to inspire something similarly devotional. Worship, even. Those who go all the way down that rabbit hole tend to unearth all kinds of fulfilment and reward.

Given the unexpected growth spurt Sleep Token have experienced so far, it would be a fool’s errand to put a limit on when that might level out. It has taken years for this recent surge in interest to coalesce in a moment, but a moment they are most definitely having. What comes next may even be mightier still. Perhaps we’d best leave it to The Great Big Mouth, Corey Taylor, for some parting wisdom. He’s kind of an authority on this stuff, all things considered.

“Sleep Token can be the next generation,” he states in no uncertain terms of their long-term potential. “What they’re accomplishing right now is fantastic. Selling out Wembley in, like, what, 10 minutes? That’s crazy.”

It’s a bold proclamation but you’d expect nothing less. Good luck arguing otherwise. And just as the success of his own band once blew the doors down for others to follow in their footsteps, he’s seeing equally good omens in what’s happening here, too.

“Anytime somebody in our genre is blowing up, it’s great for everybody,” he asserts. “Screw the competition, man. If we don’t walk together, we’re just going to be tripping each other up before we hit the fucking finish line.”

The future will take care of itself. The glory and magnificence Sleep vowed to bestow on Vessel seem to have arrived. Enjoy it. After all, nothing lasts forever.

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