Sleep Token: what's behind the rapid rise of the mysterious masked collective? (2024)

Inside the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, something enchanting is happening. Several thousand black-clad fans are gawking in awe at a group of cloaked, masked and barefoot musicians whose bodies are smeared in black paint. The stage is decorated simply but elegantly, with ferns and back lights that alternatively glow gently and glare harshly as the music swells in intensity.

The band’s frontman, known only as Vessel, is constantly on the prowl: he alternates between skittering about the stage and looking like he’s wading through treacle. It’s in stark contrast to the three cloaked backing singers to the left of the stage, who remain eerily still throughout the 90-minute set. Vessel’s voice is rich and sonorous with a soulful tone, while the whoops which greet his very capable falsetto briefly threaten to bring down his veil of humility. He’s just as engrossed in his performance as his audience is, though: while Vessel doesn’t utter a word between songs, towards the end of the show he does seem to start sobbing.

The mosh pits that erupt in the centre of the venue aside, this is not your standard metal gig. The band themselves prefer to call it a “Ritual”: their audiences are “congregations” rather than crowds, while their social media posts regularly end with the word “worship”. Welcome to the world of Sleep Token– the not-so-hidden gem of the UK metal underground.

Formed in 2016, the band’s origin story is steeped in lore. The story goes that Vessel was visited in a dream by an ancient deity known as Sleep, who promised him “glory and magnificence” if Vessel were to follow him. Each of Sleep Token’s songs are said to be dedicated to this deity, while their sound is just as intriguing: splicing tuned-down tech-metal with the lighter elements of pop and R&B to create a soundscape that’s not only heavy, but curiously accessible.

Of course, countless rock bands have previously flirted with theatrics, aliases and anonymity. Despite some comparisons to the Swedish band Ghost (though the two bands sound nothing alike), Sleep Token’s theatricality feels subtler, darker and richer with detail. It’s an approach that quickly helped them build a cult following, though they’ve since outgrown their status as underground heroes. Having previously supported Architects, the band have since become major headliners in their own right – not to mention the fact that they’re consistently selling out every show they play.

Sleep Token have kicked things up a notch this month. It started on January 5 when the band, with no prior announcement, released a new song, the thrilling and riff-grinding ‘Chokehold’, before following it up the next day with ‘The Summoning’. Two more tracks, the R&B-influenced ‘Granite’ and ‘Aqua Regia’, dropped on consecutive days two weeks later after they were debuted on the first night of Sleep Token’s UK tour in Birmingham. New music and the events of the tour saw the band trend on Twitter, while their Spotify stats skyrocketed from under 250,000 monthly listeners to its current total of 1.6 million.

One notable Sleep Token fan is The DarknessJustin Hawkins, who praised ‘Chokehold’ on his popular Justin Hawkins Rides Again YouTube series. “This is the kind of thing that crosses over: if anything’s going to put prog into the actual mainstream, it’s something like this,” he said. “I don’t know who these Sleep Token cats are, but they’re accomplished, they’re writing big songs… it’s big and uncompromising, and I love it.”

Sleep Token: what's behind the rapid rise of the mysterious masked collective? (1)

The band’s recent rise is all the more staggering due to its organic origin, with their fans doing much of the leg work by spreading the word. Sleep Token have only ever done one interview and that was back in 2017, two years before the release of their debut album ‘Sundowning’. By keeping their identities a secret and staying silent in an effort to preserve that status, Sleep Token’s music has quite literally done the talking for them.

Sleep Token online fan communities, meanwhile, are thriving on Facebook, Reddit and Discord, where the band’s lyrics, symbolism and cryptic Easter eggs, which can often be found in their visuals and merch, are dissected. Scarlett Heselwood is one of the most prolific members on the Sleep Token Discord (where she’s known as ‘Sundowner’), and has a master document full of theories and observations on the band. She believes that the backbone of it all is Sleep and Vessel’s toxic, violent relationship: “Through analysis of the lyrics, I determined that each song can be taken from the perspective of Vessel or Sleep going through this endless turmoil of fighting against and accepting one another on this path to doing Sleep’s bidding.”

These online fan communities have been inundated with curious new members in recent weeks. According to moderator Chris Lloyd, over 1,000 people have joined the Sleep Token Discord since ‘Chokehold’ came out earlier this month – taking the overall member count to just over 3,000 – while the band’s subreddit has welcomed another 2,250 members. “Not only has the membership increased, engagement in both communities is up drastically too,” he tells NME. “There is a buzz among the fanbase, with a mix of veterans and people who have only just discovered the band.”

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Discord user Dane Shoemaker agrees: “We used to gain maybe two or three new members a day on a good day. But now I can’t even keep up with how many people are joining per day.”

Sleep Token: what's behind the rapid rise of the mysterious masked collective? (2)

But what is drawing more and more people towards Sleep Token? The sense of unpredictability in their music – melding genres in a way that gives them an impeccable sense of range – might partly explain it, particularly among the four new songs that have dropped this month. ‘The Summoning’ has arguably done the heaviest lifting of the quartet: its segue from pummelling metal into a sexually-charged funk coda shouldn’t work, but yet it does – and quite beautifully so.

Sleep Token’s anonymity shrouds them in an inevitable sense of mystery, one that certain corners of the internet have been hungry to unpick. As easy as it is to believe that Vessel is an otherworldly character, the humanity beneath the mask is obvious. Although his band’s songs are all dedicated to Sleep, they’re easily applicable to the life of the everyday fan, particularly the heart-rending tales of love and heartbreak on their 2021 LP ‘This Place Will Become Your Tomb’.

Theories about who Vessel could be abound on Twitter in metal’s version of The Masked Singer: they often lean towards the notion that Sleep Token is the side project of an established singer, ranging from Bastille’s Dan Smith to, er, James Arthur. More recently, Don Broco frontman Rob Damiani has been touted, owing to the similarities of his vocal tones to Vessel’s.

Other fans, however, aren’t so concerned with who Vessel could be, with some preferring not to contemplate his true identity out of respect for his desire for privacy. “Identities behind the masks mean absolutely nothing to me and are irrelevant. Their anonymity is sacred,” says Heselwood. “Having that distance from us as consumers underpins the band. I don’t believe it’s my business to pry into what goes on in his head to create his art.”

Ultimately, Sleep Token offer their fans an entire world to immerse themselves in if they so wish. It’s a place of escapism, and the foundation of a huge fan community that’s dedicated to studying the band’s creativity. While they have the same fervour as any other fandom, there’s still a notable difference.

“This is one of the few fanbases I feel comfortable in, because there’s no room for egos,” says US-based fan Destiny Anderson. “Because the band is anonymous, no one’s vying for attention or ‘biggest fan’ status – we’re all simply attending the same ‘Rituals’ and bonding over Sleep Token’s message.”

Heselwood agrees. “Attending the live ‘Rituals’ is an addiction. I have never felt happiness like I have when I’m up there on the barrier before Vessel and the other members of the band. Being part of a huge ‘congregation’, all of us there for the same shared purpose of ‘worship’ and engaging in this communal expression of emotion, is so powerful.”

Sleep Token: what's behind the rapid rise of the mysterious masked collective? (2024)

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