THE LORE OF: Sleep Token - Boolin Tunes (2024)

Each time we battle, the blood and the fury takes us a little higher.

Hiding their identities behind masks and black body paint whilst baring their pain for the world with their music, Sleep Token are among the most enigmatic outfits in metal. It should be no surprise, then, that the stories told within their songs are equally as mystical and open to interpretation. Only one thing is definitive: the UK band is fronted by Vessel, and they are ‘committed’ to worshipping the ancient deity known as Sleep. Each song is a Token (or an offering) in the name of Sleep.

That said, there are plenty of breadcrumbs to follow, though the trails twist and turn, double back, cross over in ways which makes it incredibly frustrating, but also incredibly rewarding, to decipher. Merch designs, music videos, pre-recorded addresses at live shows, and cryptic clues uploaded to their social media are all ways in which the masked collective communicate their message. Most recently, the band unveiled a banner at their live shows, with the encrypted text (using characters of their own alphabet/cypher) reading “I am hunting something and in turn that same thing is hunting me. The beholder, the void beyond. I am the line between. I am the teeth of God.” With such an arcane approach to circulation, as well as their allegorical lyricism, it is important to note that the lore of Sleep Token is not something which can be truly pinned down. That is by design. Vessel guides the listener to their own meaning. However, all the lyrical callbacks suggest there is a continuity. Usually we do this lore segment in conjunction with the bands, but Vessel hasn’t been answering my calls.

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The figure of Sleep demonstrates the methodological problem but also fulfilment of examining the group’s writing: you can look as cursory or closely as you want, and the message resonates equally. Stripped of the mystical aesthetic, Sleep is an abusive partner Vessel believes he cannot live without, and staying hurts him more in the long-term. Worshipping shows the danger of putting someone on a pedestal in a relationship. For those that want there to be more, there can be. Sleep, for example, bears a lot of similarities to the Shadow archetype from Jungian philosophy, consisting of carnal desires and all of the things that are unacceptable not only to society, but also to one’s personal morality – the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos, and the unknown.

The initial summary of Sleep from the band’s original record label, Basick, read: “This being once held great power, 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.” In the band’s only interview, they referred to worshipping as conveying ‘primal and powerful emotions.’ Thus, the above suggestion.

Or it can be Hypnos, whose river washed away the memories of those who drank from it; memory loss, either forced or wilful in service of returning ‘happily’ to an abusive relationship, is present throughout Sleep Token’s records. Further, Hypnos resides in the underworld, which can only be accessed through bodies of water, recalling the title of the band’s sophom*ore album, This Place Will Become Your Tomb (TPWBYT). To be clear, I do not think Sleep is a direct transposition of Hypnos, or any god for that matter, but they may have influenced its aesthetic construction.

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BAND LOGO RUNE:

Iconography, particularly in the form of sigils, has always played an important part in conveying Sleep Token’s message. The sigils for the individual Sundowning singles were written with binds made from a combination of Futhark runes, alchemical symbols, and Ar Goetia runes. The band’s logo, from the original to the iconic one we see today, can be deconstructed into individual runes of Elder Futhark, the oldest extant runic alphabet. In spirit, Scandinavian runes were not merely grammatical morphemes but representations of a deeper, sacred meaning. Bind runes are additive, so it’s impossible to definitively state its constituents, but to me it seems that four runes make up the visualised band name: dagaz – ᛞ, tiwaz – ᛏ, uruz – ᚢ and eihwaz – ᛇ, as well as a fifth which seems to represent Vessel or Sleep in some way (the masks of the other band members bear seven prongs rather than five). All this said, it’s important to consider that finding relevant meaning in the signs will always involve a degree of confirmation bias; perhaps the band and Nemesis Design simply thought they looked cool.

Dagaz — ᛞ. Association: awakening. Dagaz signals that a person’s well-being will increase significantly, and life will be filled with joy and happiness. The rune is harbinger of positive change, concerning not only the material aspect of life, but also the spiritual, high. It portends an imminent improvement meeting with real love, which one can interpret as Sleep.

Tiwaz — ᛏ. Association: justice, sacrifice. Most runologists believe Tiwaz denotes the warrior caste, and others that it is a symbol of self-confidence, adaptability, and readiness for self-sacrifice. According to this interpretation, this rune helps its wearer to clearly set goals and not deviate from the course to achieve them. In this situation, the rune will help to overcome all possible obstacles that interfere with the achievement of the result. In a generalised sense, helping people follow their higher purpose. The implication with reference to Vessel is clear: Vessel is Sleep’s warrior, the god’s way of interacting with the world, and also a tool for whom self-sacrifice appears inevitable.

Uruz — ᚢ. Association: endurance, formation, manifestation. This is energy in its purest form. No action in the world can be without energy — human life, health, relationships, professional activities and everything else depend on it. The symbol is considered a very powerful energy rune, which literally charges a person. A union of masculine and feminine principles, a fusion of opposites, it also alludes to the unification of Vessel and Sleep.

Eihwaz — . Eihwaz symbolizes the balancing of processes and the restoration of internal balance. Every person has positive and negative traits. These properties appear in various situations. The rune personifies the strength and power within each person, which do not appear suddenly, but gradually accumulate due to the development of a person; wisdom formed by one’s collective knowledge and experience. This Place Will Become Your Tomb can be viewed as a dream state, an exploring of the psyche in search of being whole, and this echoes it wholly.

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ALPHABET / LANGUAGE:

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Beginning with the release cycle for the band’s third album, Take Me Back To Eden, ideas began to be conveyed on merch and social media in a proprietary cypher. Continued use of this apparent alphabet constructed specifically for Sleep Token has allowed for most of the characters to be deciphered (exceptions to date being the less commonly used X and Z). More visibly, the symbols are used to spell out the titles on the single covers and the Take Me Back To Eden album artwork. Codes are something the band have experimented with before, but its ubiquity, prominence, and complexity likely indicates this so-called Sleep Token alphabet is here to stay.

THE BEGINNING:

Fans have made many attempts to establish a chronology to the band’s already extensive discography. I make no attempts to posit a definitive one – beyond the Sisyphean nature of the task, the order changes the interpretation of other songs, and that is for the individual to decide – but for the sake of narrative I have come up with a loose one which I think facilitates the tone of the songs without tying them to specific moments.

Jericho”, considered to be the very first city in history, is also lyrically fitting for the beginning. Sleep appears to be searching for a new Vessel, and in the meantime he reminisces on experiences with previous Vessels (“Until I wake I dine on old encounters”), potentially in times when he was more powerful. Given the turbulent geopolitical history of the region, Jericho has seen the rise and fall of numerous civilizations – different populations, urban landscapes, religions – yet the city remained inhabited. New civilizations built over old ruins. This reflects many of the themes of Sundowning and TPWBYT, of the decay of the body and mind. The material dies, but the essence remains. Sleep remains.

Thread the Needle” and “Fields of Elation” from One seem to document the initial identification and seduction of Vessel as a candidate. It’s important to note that all of the songs can be viewed through either a realistic or allegorical lens. Take instance “Thread the Needle”, which can be viewed as both an overtly erotic track or a metaphysical unification of Sleep and Vessel. The French have an expression, la petite mort, which in many ways reconciles this and represents the eventual rebirth of Vessel. Vessel finds a deep pleasure in Sleep, which the track illustrates on multiple fronts: “we can spend the night in fascination” (Vessel would be fascinated by all the things Sleep could teach him, and Sleep might also find Vessel himself fascinating); “something to confide in” (Sleep offering comfort and the promise of support to a character who seems to have nothing and no-one); “something to erase” (either something in Vessel’s past, or his worries and feelings of being lost. Perhaps, in the long run, his identity). Sleep entices Vessel with love bombing, the affection he has been starved of.

Sleep tempts Vessel into sharing his dreams, threading the needle of their connection to make them more intertwined, pulling them closer together, conditioning Vessel into be His Vessel. “You can thread the needle time and time again” is clearly erotic, but also metaphorical: every time they are together, it increases their symbiosis. Threading the needle is a common metaphor for finding the perfect balance and compromise in life. When juxtaposed to the lyrical context of “Blood Sport”, “Dark Signs”, and even “Higher”, it’s very apparently about maintaining balance in relationships. That of Vessel and Sleep is already not healthy.

Bury me inside this labyrinth bed” perhaps indicates Sleep’s co-dependency on his Vessels, making them almost like a tomb. Since Vessel is lost, his mind is a labyrinth. “You turn the lights down, come and find out,” is potentially the most multifarious line in the song: there is the obvious, sensual connotation, but also turning down the lights indicates Vessel lying down to slip into dreams, wherein he can communicate with Sleep more easily. Additionally, perhaps Sleep hopes the ‘dimming’ of Vessel’s will allow him to take over. The nod to time dilation alludes to both dreams and what it feel likes to be with a partner: everything else worldly falls away and only the moment matters. Fields of Elation shows this effect of this: without Sleep, Vessel is depressed – he feels dead already – and believes only Sleep can pull him out from his hole.

THIS PLACE WILL BECOME YOUR TOMB (2021):

This at least seems to be where TPWBYT slots in. “Atlantic”, to me, reads like the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt: Vessel waking up in a hospital or psychiatric ward and being told the damages. “Blue light over murder for me” references the album’s water theme, and perhaps also the blue light that is commonly used in public washrooms to deter drug injections, as the wavelength prevents veins from showing up on arms. Light in the blue to ultraviolet spectrum is said to cause age-related macular degeneration, which is closely related to Alzheimer’s. When viewed in relation to Sundowning, and particularly the line “I look for scarlet and you look for ultraviolet” from “Higher”, perhaps he is saying he would gladly take this degradation of identity and body (in service of Sleep) rather than suicide; changing himself rather than breaking up, as he is empty without Sleep (“just orbiting the vacuum I am”). He believes he has found a new existential purpose in Sleep. That he opts for the term murder than suicide indicates his detachment from living: his form is just a tool for Sleep.

The ‘trenches’ referred to are very likely self-harm marks which are later alluded to in “Telomeres” (open arms and “the buckling sutures that hold shut the wounds of the past”) and “High Water”. I also think that “wash away the blood on my hands” foreshadows that Vessel will do bad things in Sleep’s name, yet will feel vindicated, absolved of responsibility, in doing so.

Hypnosis” is closely related to “The Offering”, both lyrically and sonically, reinterpreting the melody motif from the end and beginning with a similar guitar riff to the breakdown. The lyrical parallels are undeniable:

Lift, oh lift me out
Of my own skin
Of all my doubt
Oh, and take, take from me
Leave nothing left
Take everything

VS.

Sink, sink your teeth
Split my skin, no
Just make me bleed
Oh, and give, give me all
All that I want
Just give me all

They show opposite perspectives of the give-and-take relationship, presented using the same number of lines and mirrored imagery. The first and second verse sound like someone literally ‘offering’ themselves up, which is a good reason for the overt use of the motif. In my opinion, Sleep visits Vessel after his suicide attempt because ‘she’ doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. His fragile emotional state makes him a prime target, and “I am almost under” refers both to unconsciousness and a metaphorical submersion into the ocean that is so prevalent across the record. Vessel wants to give himself over, to have his pain taken away, and possibly the power to pursue the love which is out of is reach.

Mine” shows the inescapable nature of the relationship Vessel has found himself in, through teleological lines such as “we are a crashing course driven by a holy force.” The word ‘tangled’ is used repeatedly throughout Sleep Token’s discography (“Calcutta”, “TNDNBTG”, “Say That You Will”, “Blood Sport”, “Chokehold”) to reiterate the inescapability of the situation. It is obsessive. The song could represent Sleep’s desire, sounding big and sweet and romantic, while truthfully being deliberately manipulative. The end repeats the lyrics to a far darker musical accompaniment – the beginning of the relationship is positive, mutually beneficial, and at the end there’s no escape and the rot has set in. Then it returns to the peaceful rendition. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as the narrator losing faith in the statement and trying to convince themselves, or as a typical response to trauma; rather than fight a situation they can’t see any way out of, people often simply let the waves take them under. Nautical metaphors are littered throughout TPWBYT.

Like That” functions very similarly to “Thread the Needle”. In addition to the sexual undertones, pushing “down into membranes and layers, creating a slow dissection” alludes to a wanton penetration of the mind and body – Sleep slowly taking over Vessel more and more completely. “An addition to your collection” thus refers to previous Vessels or worshippers. In a more concrete, real-world interpretation, it relays more closely to “The Love You Want”, wherein the subject seems to flit from relationship to relationship. They have Vessel’s heart but view it merely as a keepsake. “Like That” feels like the first test of what Sleep and Vessel can do together, exploring the depths of Vessel’s psyche and trying to determine how it can be weaponized.

THE LORE OF: Sleep Token - Boolin Tunes (5)

As for “The Love You Want”, it is clear that there is some woman that Vessel has lost and whom he is still very much in love with (as shown in “The Way That You Were”), to the degree that he simply wants them out of his head. Given Sleep’s nature as a manipulator of dreams, the dreamlike quality of “The Love You Want”’s video following the nightmarish “Alkaline” (which, as the seventh track represents the PH at which a liquid is “neither acid nor alkaline”) leads me to propose that sinking into the ocean is more a dive into the subconscious, with Sleep lending Vessel strength to fight the memories and insecurities that haunt him. The increasing depths accompanying the TPWBYT songs represent Vessel sinking deeper into Sleep’s grasp. Considering the references to memory in “Missing Limbs”, perhaps he gains more memories the lower he goes and also experiences those of former Vessels. The descent seems to mirror that of Dante’s Divine Comedy; visual accompaniments by Dan of Nemesis Design were clearly inspired by the gothic style of Gustave Dore’s illustrations, and this merch design in particular is a 1:1 recreation of Empyrean (based upon Dante’s Paradiso), but with Vessel in the place of Dante/Beatrice and Sleep in the place of God. The journey through his subconscious is his own personal hell, in search of becoming whole.

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In promoting TPWBYT, each song was assigned a depth, beginning at 914m and increasing by 910m with each song. Each of these related to particular nautical features, such as:

Atlantic”: 914m – the depth at which angler fish live (the single artwork is of an angler fish)
Hypnosis”: 1824m – Farallon escarpment
Mine”: 2734m – mean depth of the Arabian Sea
Like That”: 3644m – depth of the Titanic
Missing Limbs“: 10924m – Challenger Deep (the deepest point in the ocean, within the Mariana Trench. Presumably the location of the house/tomb).

Coordinates were also scattered across the band’s merch, including the Parhelion hoodie (35.716 N, 122.7167 W – Davison Seamount, where, during a 2019 expedition, researchers discovered a whale fall at 10,623 feet below the surface) and the intro screen from band’s performance at the 2021 Heavy Music Awards (48.52.6 S, 123.23.6 W – Point Nemo, the furthest point from civilization, and thus the most remote location earth. In effect, it is a different kind of cemetery or tomb – “Space junk started being dumped here in about 1971 and ever since it’s been the prime location for crash landing space junk.”)

The red cave in “The Love You Want” potentially symbolizes Vessel’s heart, with the sword a visual device to cut free from the feelings that still tug at his heart, but ultimately hurting him more. The dancers represent the love Vessel lost, and he’s stuck in an endless cycle of trying to move on from their bond, but she overpowers him easily. There’s a desperation to his efforts. He keeps going on faith alone – whether that is in belief in Sleep or belief that his desired will change her mind, it is clearly not in himself. Tying bows to a tree, as seen ad nauseam in the video, is a tradition in many cultures (from Turkish to Japanese) to represent making a wish. Vessel is caught in an infinite loop of making the same wish.

Seems your heart is locked up, and I still get the combination wrong.
Or are you simply waiting to save your love for someone I am not?
Too many swallowed keys will make you bleed internally, someday.
Maybe you believe that in the end you will be better off that way?

Vessel is being friendzoned. Whatever he tries, he cannot break through this barrier, and nor can he disentangle himself. They’re going through several relationships, all finding the key to their heart, but they swallow it and move on the next one. Vessel believes he is the one for this person, but they don’t see it, and it’s costing them. Much like Vessel, failing to break his own feelings and suffering, they too repeat their own mistakes in a cycle, though the problem is a lack of attachment.

Fall For Me” appears to feature a lost and broken Vessel teetering on the precipice. During the video, text can be seen flashing on the screen: “The truth is, I am due a harsh lesson. In truth itself and how bitter it can be. The truth is, I am ugly, I am inadequate, I am lost. I am no god. The truth is, I want, to want, to live. And so do you. I just can’t do this any longer. I am afraid. Are you afraid? I want to understand what it is to let go. So for now let me serve as a living drama of your pain. If we are to be submerged let us be submerged together.Sleep ushers Vessel in with sweet words to take the plunge into truly becoming their host. Vessel suffers, but in love that feels an acceptable trade. Like how sea organisms feast on whale falls, the narrator might see this love as essential to their own survival. Vessel submerges himself beneath the ocean.

Assuming that the Vessel of One, Two, Sundowning, and TPWBYT is the same, the record feels as though it documents him giving himself to Sleep and truly transitioning into ‘Vessel.’ Eternal reoccurrence appears an overarching paradigm of the band’s discography. “Jericho”, “Atlantic” (“Crumble like a temple built from future daughters to wasteland when the oceans recede” / “So flood me like Atlantic, weather me to nothing”), and “Fall For Me” (“In a city of ice there are burning cathedrals, turning the skies into glass”) refer to civilizational collapse as a metaphor for diachronic change. Relationships erode. Love fades. Happiness is in constant flux. Temples are typically the heart, even spirit, of civilizations. For that to simply crumble away to nothing necessitates decay, either internal or brought about by external intervention. “Temple built from future daughters” seems to yearn for a system of worship, in service of Sleep, whose constitution is eternal. Crumbling reiterates the band’s central tenet: nothing lasts forever.

Before modern cartography, ancient Indo-European civilizations typically viewed the ocean, particularly the Atlantic Ocean, as the end of the earth. The philosopher Thales, looking out to the Aegean, forged a philosophy of quasi-eternal reoccurrence with water as the constituent of all things: everything would come from and eventually return to the ocean, the one to which Vessel surrenders himself for Sleep. Throughout Sleep Token’s music, Vessel puts Sleep on a pedestal, much as one can blindly ignore the flaws of a significant other in favour of the joyful moments, in feeling loved as the narrator so clearly never has. Their relationship is very much an abusive one; Vessel at some point inevitably feels like Sleep’s constant attempts to manipulate him wears him down (particularly by the time of “Higher”). In feeling powerless, Vessel surrenders control, and the results are what we see in “Alkaline” – the first time Sleep is shown interacting through Vessel with the ‘real world,’ Vessel seeing their true potential. It also highlights how relationships, particularly ones as intense as this, can irrevocably change a person.

After that high, Vessel seems to recognise that he is beyond the point of no return (“It’s too late”) and, in falling deeper into devotion, will inevitably become fully subordinate to Sleep. He knows he is broken, and Sleep, however damaging, is the one thing keeping him going. The distorted “It’s too late for me” highlights the merging process, the loss of identity – for his purpose no longer revolves around himself. Vessel can’t find the line anymore. Potentially, the definition of a fraction, in addition to noting shattered mental state, as part of a whole implies that as Sleep changes the Vessels, so too does each Vessel change Him. What is unclear is whether Sleep is malicious or indifferent; does he want to strip Vessel of everything or, much like a narcissistic partner, will he just take as much of Vessel as Vessel is willing to give? In “Descending”, the two bargain for each other’s affection, but it is vindictive, predicated on not trusting the other’s devotion. “You come crawling back … so what would you do for me?

Telomeres” and “High Water” call back to my earlier suggestion that “Atlantic” recalls the aftermath of a suicide attempt. Perhaps it is a stretch to suggest that ‘open arms’ refers to self-harm wounds (“Atlantic”: “bandage up the trenches”), but in conjunction with “the past, the future, through death” it does seem to hark to the references in “Fall For Me” and “High Water” that directly connect wounds with painful memories and looking to the future (“Fall For Me”: “Through echoing futures are the buckling sutures that hold shut the wounds of the past” | “High Water”: “We both bury that history deep… For the time being, you are a perfect reminder of what all of these scars on my arms are for. If I can hold myself together”). There is the opportunity for Vessel to once again prove his devotion, and in turn the promise to have himself made whole. Where “Mine” feels jaded, “Telomeres” sounds like delirium in the throes of a new passion, something that opened both parties up. Despite the toxic relationship of the two individuals, in this moment they are so infatuated and thinking of the endless possibilities (i.e. the hopes of a new relationship’ honeymoon love or the [often temporary] upturn in a relationship).

In my opinion, “Missing Limbs” follows on from Vessel’s outpouring of feelings and vulnerable thoughts in “High Water”. Given the interpolation of Gustave Dore’s Empyrean, this seems to be where Vessel reaches this vision of empyrean – almost as if he is standing right in front of Sleep. In comparison to other Sleep Token songs, this one sounds very close and intimate, as if Vessel were sat in the same room as the listener. Likewise, in contrast to the bulk of their catalogue it is Vessel singing about Sleep, it feels like it is the man behind the mask giving up on his love. The use of acoustic guitar also reflects this raw and ‘unmasked’ Vessel: there are no electric guitars, nor the layers of synths and ambience that typically characterise Sleep Token songs. It does not aim to follow that formula because the context of the song is completely different to anything before it. As the most ‘human song’, it is the closest approximation to what Sleep Token at its heart conveys: loss of love and heartbreak.

TPWBYT concludes with using phantom limb syndrome as a metaphor for losing someone Vessel feels is a piece of him. Letting go of them is necessary. “To balance your convictions with certainty” implies that the person in question professes love but their actions do not align with their words, and thus letting them go is inevitable, though he wishes he didn’t care so much. He knows he will feel their presence even when they’re gone, manifesting in pain as phantom limb syndrome often does. “To sever my connection with everything” invokes both the imagery of actually losing a limb and, returning to “The Love You Want”, cutting himself free of his emotions. The entire album drives home that Vessel does not want to feel anymore, because remembering, loving, is painful. He settles for someone he can have: Sleep. Vessel gives himself over to the mask to deal with the pain of the life outside of it, with Sleep taking away his pain exchange for devotion. The shift between the first and second chorus from “what they did before” to “what I did before” is telling; he is Sleep’s Vessel now. In the depths of his subconscious, of his dreams, he (at least nominally) comes to terms with it.

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Static, which quite jarringly closes out the record, is often used as a sonic device to describe memory loss or the process through Alzheimer’s to sundowning, a neurological condition associated with restlessness in the twilight hours. If we follow TPWBYT as Vessel being asleep, the whole journey a cruel nightmare of Vessel dealing with his trauma, then the static could be him waking up. The start of the album, after all, opens with ‘don’t wake me up’ and Vessel going ‘under.’ Fans have posited that the frequency of the static loop could be inspired by an unknown sound recorded in the Mariana Trench (the final depth listed, connected to “Missing Limbs”), which was initially assumed to be a whale mating call.

Moving on from TPWBYT, the continuity becomes more speculative. Personally, “When The Bough Breaks” seems the natural development. The track recounts a mutual pining, but also an acknowledgement of the toxicity of their connection: “You could stay alive. Just tell me that you notice, even in the dark, the way I left you breathing.” / “Every time we touch, water turns into blood.” Given where I have placed it, this line is of extra significance immediately following TPWBYT, which is centred thematically around water, a suggestion of Sleep, and by extension Vessel’s, damaging nature. Additionally, the asymmetrical nature of their relationship, somewhat condemnatory, is raised by the line, “You don’t really love, you just hate to be alone.” It’s very similar to “The Love You Want”, where Vessel accuses the object of his affection of flitting from relationship to relationship, accepting hollow rather than authentic love, and “Levitate”, where he accuses the subject of feigning love. Vessel is so desperate for answers that he reaches for anything that seems good, which Sleep has not only recognized in its new Vessel, but made him promises.

We could be released
Flowing over sorrow days
We could stay suspended
Even when the bough breaks.

SUNDOWNING (2019):

For the sake of brevity, I shall be more concise in dealing with Sundowning. It explores many of the same themes and turbulences of a relationship but expressed through a more established stage. The relationship is abusive and seems to be breaking down, but it is still viewed as wholly unavoidable. Sundowning feels like a conversation between them with this inevitability in mind. Possibly Vessel cannot remember what he did during the period he was taken by Sleep, as alluded to by the line “sometimes when we touch, everything we love resets.” That or he is wilfully ignoring the mistakes they make, hoping that the periods of accord and happiness offset them. In “Dark Signs”, Vessel says, “I won’t bend and break to my basic need to be loved and closed to somebody,” a statement of intent which suggests he has done so time and time again in ‘worship’ (loving) of Sleep and his love – of course, they might be one and the same. Worshipping anything in itself creates an implicit, unshakeable hierarchy.

From the first track, “The Night Does Not Belong To God”, this loss of memory is poignant: “And you remember everything, only ’til the Sun recedes once again.” Night, per “Thread the Needle”, is when Sleep deigns Vessel with its presence, for good and bad. With “The Offering”, Vessel, seeking Sleep’s favour, asks him to take a bite, a metaphorical piece, of him – the first of many. “You are a garden, entwined with all” indicates his false perception of Sleep as something beautiful and the facilitator of his own growth, and “I want to turn the page once again” shows that he believes they have turned a page in their relationship, turned over a new leaf, and Vessel is offering himself to prove it. The song is wildly obsessive, idolising and putting Sleep on a pedestal. Each song is technically an ‘offering’ to the god, but this eponymous track is the most blatant, with Vessel himself as the offering, the ‘sacrifice.’

By “Sugar”, Vessel is addicted to Sleep and cannot leave, despite the line “addicted to the pain” showing he knows it’s not necessarily good for him. Once again, the band explores the darker, intoxicating aspects of intimacy and reconciling the issues of a relationship. In contrast, “Levitate” showcases the insecurity that can come from this attachment in its various forms. In the light of Vessel’s lost love, she has gone on to a better place, which in turn displays the feelings of inadequacy the character displays throughout the discography. He does not feel loved. In fact, he knows she does not need him. The intense juxtaposition of love and leaving is the main theme of the song; the pain of love alone being insufficient. Likewise, it can be viewed as Sleep testing Vessel’s devotion with hypotheticals.

This is where the community has suggested the remaining songs from Two, “Calcutta” and “Nazareth” slot in. Together, they are the darkest sonically and visually that Sleep Token has to offer, and also the tipping point to catastrophe. Vessel is ‘tangled’ in Sleep’s web, lost in total devotion and obsession. The motif of being lost and feeling incomplete without his ‘partner’ is once again reiterated by “I’m whole again for a moment ’til the morning comes.” By the end of the song, Vessel is dragged under but, unlike TPWBYT where it was a vehicle for confronting his own trauma towards self-improvement, succumbs to Sleep’s wills and desires entirely. The sexual parallels are clear: the narrator gives up everything, returning to someone he perhaps shouldn’t, for ‘just a moment.’

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Nazareth” is perhaps the result of that. It is pure, unadulterated rage. Jealousy, wrath, betrayal. Either the protagonist has been cheated on, and thus the culprit ‘deserves’ retribution, or else it is the frustration of his love not being returned. “I’ll show you what you look like from the inside” may refer to both Vessel’s inner demons and the obvious implication of being shot. All that primal anger, all that resentment, manifested in real-world actions. “I won’t be missing you” repeated throughout the outro feels like a lie the character tells himself. It is a sacrifice to Sleep. The identity of the woman is less clear: an ex, the woman of Vessel’s infatuation (given that the woman is the same from the video for “The Way That You Were”), or a former worshipper of Sleep (she also features robed in “Calcutta”).

Dark Signs” is Vessel acknowledging that he has become a poisonous influence on those around him. In the mythological context, it perhaps indicates that he has a sense of what happens whilst under Sleep’s influence but is powerless to counteract those wishes. To a degree, he laments what he has become, potentially in the immediate aftermath of the sacrifice. Bound as he is with Sleep, “Jaws” and “Higher” constitute attempts from both parties to come to agreeable terms with their symbiotic relationship. In the former, Vessel appears to be bargaining at a church (as alluded to by the line “stand under the stained glass and I will know it’s you”). It is about the subject not wanting to be with the narrator. “I’m not here to be the saviour you long for, only the one you don’t” inverts the concept; they are someone who, like in “The Love You Want”, is unwanted though they see themselves as the perfect companion, a figure the subject does not know they want. In the video of “Jaws”, which appears to have initially been intended for “Nazareth”, this ends in murder.

Higher” is in essence Sleep threatening Vessel. There are constant reminders throughout to Vessel’s isolation – his devotion to Sleep means that now there is no-one left. “Cause I am a fire and you are dry as bone” shows the destructive nature of the god, but also how utterly he could consume Vessel, who is the conduit for Sleep’s interaction with the physical plane and fuel for their destruction. All the love Vessel gives is weaponized and used against him. “You need the melody, I only need the silence. But each time we battle, the blood and the fury takes us a little higher” illustrates the crux of their unhealthy union: despite their discord and constant testing of one another’s limits, their anger and fighting has an almost euphoric effect, one which they find comfort in and continue to crawl back to.

The line “Let the impulse to love and the instinct to kill entangle to one” from “Say That You Will” reflects a brutal but honest reality of love, infatuation, and devotion – the famous sentiment that love and hate are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. Emphasized throughout the band’s discography is the inherent difference and polarity of Vessel and his loves yet the apparent necessity of being together. What one wants is not necessarily what is healthy. Pain is even described as their language in “The Way That You Were”. Despite the band’s name, at no point are we supposed to empathize with or idolize Sleep in the way Vessel does. It is ourselves we should focus on.

In “Take Aim” and “Give”, the pair reach some semblance of an agreement. They show the inherent risk of trusting someone with your heart, and preferring that to loneliness. Vessel is utterly miserable both with and without Sleep, and expresses this in self-destructive behaviour, either physically or in his decisions. As the cycle goes, Sleep seizes the moment to ask Vessel to give himself over completely. The lack of autonomy and responsibility would, in theory, lead to Vessel being less tormented, as alluded to in “Atlantic”. Except now Vessel is awake. “Gods” and “Say That You Will”, though sonically opposing, depict the height of primal rage and mania. Vessel, driven to irrationality by infatuation, offers himself as a sacrifice. Such is the extent of his obsession. After being told repeatedly surrendering himself is the ultimate display of devotion, that is the only way he sees to bring them both joy. Thus, “Drag Me Under” is their final unification, becoming truly and irrevocably entangled.

Placing “The Way That You Were” (TWTYW) proves a conundrum. I interpret it in two ways: either Vessel petitioning his love to open up and share her pain with him and how her suffering has changed her, or ‘Sleep’ doing the same to him. It is clear from the lyrics that the addressee may have been expected to commit suicide due to their trauma (“I am so ready to tear that knife from what once would have been dead fingers lying against the floor”), recalling my theory towards TPWBYT. It is such a sombre, reflective, and compassionate song that tying it to a particular moment feels unnecessary. Here, approaching the end (for now) and following Vessel’s absorption into Sleep, feels appropriate.

As with the closer to their sophom*ore album, “Blood Sport” is as honest and melancholic as Sleep Token get. To me, it feels like some time has passed. The passion has faded, on both ends of the spectrum. The characters seek to reignite that passion, whatever the cost, because otherwise the relationship seems to be rapidly approaching its expiration date. They reassure each other they still care, that they are still each other’s ‘weapon of choosing’, and that they are still divinely intertwined. At the height of their passion in “Alkaline”, their unification is referred to in terms of chemical reactions (“Let’s talk about chemistry, ’cause I’m dying to melt through to the heart of her molecules, ’til the particles part like holy water”) yet now the particles have stopped fusing.

I want to roll the numbers.
I want to feel my stars align again.
Even if the earth breaks like burnt skin,
and the heavens just won’t open up for me.
Would you invite me in again?

In reality, all Sleep Token songs could simply be about sex and breakups. Every song can be viewed through the lens of a real relationship, and the allegory continually drives home the potential damages of unequal love. The above is merely conjecture based upon the repeated motifs and lyrical recycling which permeates the breadth of Sleep Token records and, based upon the recently released singles, will continue with the band’s supposed forthcoming album, Take Me Back To Eden. Even the interaction of Vessel and Sleep, which I have argued for, is, at its core, a relationship. Perhaps the cryptic clues and obfuscated lyrics are simply a vehicle for fans to interpret their own truth. You can even the argue middle ground, that it’s a story without linearity, and the songs merely unconnected snapshots – sometimes the same snapshot – of what is a truly turbulent relationship. We may never know, and that is okay.

Whether within this cosmology the band’s music has (somewhat autonomously) given rise to you believe the figure of Sleep to be Vessel’s psyche, an actual force, or the woman he so loves is largely irrelevant. What matters is the underlying message: healing and moving on, particularly from those that mistreat you and the emotions that hold you back. It’s okay to feel, because that’s what eventually guides you to your own happiness.

Nothing lasts forever.

Thanks to Scarlett Heselwood, the so-called Lore Librarian of the band’s fan discord server, for their suggested chronological placement of “Calcutta” and “Nazareth”. From “Chokehold“, “The Summoning“, “Granite“, “Aqua Regia“, “Vore“, “DYWTYLM“, and beyond into TMBTE, I cannot wait to see what additional meanings can be drawn. The page will be updated to reflect that at the earliest opportunity.

UPDATE 15/05: You can find my review of Take Me Back To Eden here.

THE LORE OF: Sleep Token - Boolin Tunes (2024)

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