“I think they just want to know that I am feeling something”: How Sleep Token conquered America and became metal's hottest new band

Vessel with a snake
(Image credit: Future (Photo: Andy Ford))

A deep, distorted voice is coming through the PA of Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre. “Do you think they want you to cry?” it’s saying. “Do you think they like it?” A second voice, lighter in tone but still distorted and oddly inhuman, replies. “Not as such,” this one says. “I think they just want to know that I am feeling something, feeling what they are feeling, perhaps.”

The audience in this ornate, 800-capacity venue stand silent, entranced by the voices. The band onstage are masked metal sensations Sleep Token, tonight playing their first headlining show in the City Of Angels as part of their month-long North American Rituals tour. The dialogue that is playing out around us is hugely significant to everyone in this sold-out crowd. It marks the first time cowled frontman Vessel – the lighter voice – has broken his silence in public. The deeper voice he’s communing with belongs to Sleep, the god-like entity at the heart of the band’s lore. As the conversation continues, you could hear a pin drop.

“Do you think that this amount of crying is healthy for you?” Sleep asks. “I don’t know,” comes Vessel’s response. “But at least I feel something. If I don’t feel anything then why would I even do this?”

At this, the crowd lose their minds and a wave of mania ripples across the floor. That the voices are pre-recorded doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that this isn’t, strictly, the first time it’s happened – Sleep Token have been doing it throughout this tour. But modern metal’s most enigmatic band have done something they’ve never done before: they’ve cracked open the door and given us a tantalising glimpse into their
inner world.

This show isn’t the biggest Sleep Token will play this year. In December, they will headline London’s Wembley Arena. But Los Angeles, together with New York, is one of the twin epicenters of the US music business, and the buzz that’s surrounding the anonymous band suggests that America is paying attention to them. More than that, La La Land has always had a thing for cults, from the Manson Family to Scientology, as well as the countless smaller ‘spiritualist’ groups that operate in the city today. An anonymous, masked British band with their own mysterious, quasi-religious mythology? LA never stood a chance.

“There is a new atmosphere at these live shows, an electricity,” says Benji Purdy, an American fan who also acts as moderator on the band’s official Discord server. He first saw Sleep Token when they supported metalcore act Issues on a 2019 US tour. After witnessing their headline show in Portland, Oregon a few days ago, he says they’re an entirely different beast this time around. “We’ll never see this band at this level ever again,” says Benji. “They are catapulting themselves.”


(Image credit: Future (Andy Ford))

2023 has been the year Sleep Token’s cult success went fully overground. On January 5, the band released Chokehold, the first single from then-upcoming third album Take Me Back To Eden. Twenty-four hours later, they chased it with another new song, The Summoning. By the time the tracks hit TikTok, videos of listeners reacting to their genre-defying sound were reaching users around the world, with some even hitting a million-plus views. Their escalating profile was helped by celebrity boosts from Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor, Architects singer Sam Carter and Lorna Shore’s Will Ramos. And in May, they announced that Wembley date. All 12,500 tickets sold out in just 10 minutes. Sleep Token had officially become an arena band.

Chris Lloyd, a Sleep Token fan based in Coventry, set up a subreddit for the band back in 2018 after discovering them via their nomination for Best New Band at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods. The same year, he saw their first headline performance at St Pancras Old Church in front of 150 people. He’s had a front row seat to their dizzying rise.

“To go from that to Wembley in December, it’s incredible,” says Chris. “[Creating the subreddit] was a bit opportunistic really. Nothing like it really existed and I wanted to see what other people were saying about the band.”

It took a while, but fans eventually began to head to Chris’s Reddit page to share their own interpretations of Sleep Token’s music, art and lore. After the release of Chokehold and The Summoning, the page exploded with new users. “The volume of people posting day-to-day is massive now,” Chris says, adding that it has grown from around 6,000 users to 34,500 at the time of writing. “We’ve had to take on more moderators just to maintain a bit of order.”

Much as the fandom has expanded, so too have the opportunities afforded Sleep Token. This summer, they stepped up to festival headliner status in the UK, with appearances at Portsmouth’s Takedown in April and Manchester’s Radar in July. Radar organiser Joe James admits they lucked out with the timing of the band’s booking.

“We got them at that sweet spot that every promoter dreams of,” he tells Hammer. “We’re a festival that wants to book progressive, contemporary music. Sleep Token tick all those boxes: they’re doing something fresh and are at the top of their game at the moment.”

Headlining the first day of the festival gave the band a full eight hours’ rehearsal time, which in turn resulted in a truly headline-worthy performance. “It looked and sounded amazing,” Joe enthuses. “They’re so massive now, but they don’t behave like they’re blowing up just yet. I truly think they’re the next Download headliners of the new breed.”

Vessel with a snake

(Image credit: Future (Andy Ford))

It’s 4pm in Los Angeles when Hammer arrives at the El Rey Theatre, and queues are already stretching around the block in both directions. Some fans have brought chairs and blankets to sit on, while others are propping themselves up against the walls of the venue, clinging to the scant shade to avoid the glare of the Californian sun. Amy McLaurin and her friend Sarah Hibbert are standing at the venue barrier. They’re from Virginia, and arrived at the El Rey at 9am, despite having fast-track passes that guarantee them priority entry.

“I found them on TikTok,” she says of how she discovered Sleep Token, with a nervous smile that suggests she’s worried angry gatekeepers will leap out and chase her away at any second. The pair saw Sleep Token for the first time a couple of weeks earlier in Baltimore, but couldn’t resist booking flights to come more than 2,000 miles to repeat the experience. It’s doubly impressive because Baltimore was Amy’s first ever gig, full-stop. “I’d never really found an artist I loved enough,” she says. “Right now they’re everything I want in music. I listened to rock before Sleep Token, but not much metal – I’ve actually discovered more metal through them. I also met Sarah at the Baltimore show and we both decided to fly here.”

“They make you think about things you otherwise wouldn’t want to talk or be open about,” adds Sarah. “These songs can mean something different to everyone, a universal pain we all feel but the band make us feel safe to express that.”

Vessel famously doesn’t do interviews - the only one he has given was to Hammer in the band’s early days – but their fans have been more than happy to pick up the slack. Sleep Token’s official and unofficial social media channels are full of running narratives, memes and jokes. It hasn’t all been deadly serious, either. In April, a fan-filmed clip of an audience member at a gig in Sydney letting loose a “sinister” fart during the quiet part of the song Atlantic went viral. Similarly, after the release of The Summoning, a section of their fanbase dubbed Sleep Token “metal’s sexiest band”, largely thanks to lyrics such as ‘Or are you really here to cut me off? / Or maybe just to turn me on’ and ‘I would be lying if I told you that / I didn’t wish that I could be your man / Or maybe make a good girl bad’, combined with a raunchy bass drop in the song’s second half. This sexiness is something the band have leaned into on this US tour. During The Offering, members have been seemingly kissing through the masks, reportedly promptly a suitably ecstatic reaction from the crowd each time.

There are other, more wholesome displays of fandom, from fluffy crochet plushies to homemade necklaces. A video of guitarist IV putting on a cowboy hat given to him by an audience member at a gig in Dallas has yielded close to two million views on TikTok. Back at the barrier at the El Rey stands Cassie Knox, who has come to LA from Houston, Texas. Cassie has now seen the band eight times, including at Radar in the UK. “Sleep Token have a big thing about community,” she says matter- of-factly, when we ask whether it gets lonely following the band on tour. “I met two girls last night in San Diego, they’re now here with me and we’re also going to Anaheim [the next gig on the tour].”

While every fan has a personal answer for what Sleep Token mean to them, Cassie’s response seems to be shared by many. “They taught me self-love,” she says, holding a sign stating as much.

Sleep Token's Vessel

(Image credit: Future (Andy Ford))

In May, shortly before the release of Take Me Back To Eden, several select fans were invited to an exclusive listening session for the album in London. Chris Lloyd, who runs the Sleep Token subreddit, was one of them. He won’t divulge too many details of the event, but offers an anecdote that highlights the band’s dedication to keeping their enigma intact.

“We got there and there was just this stage with curtains,” he says. “They opened at the start of the album and we thought there was a Vessel mannequin just sat in a chair. It was really dark and there was loads of smoke, but it was really exciting. Then right at the very end of the session, the ‘mannequin’ stood up and it was actually Vessel – he’d just sat perfectly still the whole time! It was insane.”

The band show no sign of changing their minds when it comes to preserving their mystique. Hammer’s request for an interview with Vessel is, predictably, turned down. But this anonymity is something that their devotees embrace. The golden rule of Sleep Token fandom is to never, under any circumstances, divulge or speculate on the members’ real-life identities. Still, that hasn’t stopped some people trying.

“The mystery surrounding the band will always be a key element that draws people in,” says Discord mod Benji Purdy. “It’s a rabbit hole and people love diving into them. But I have found that since [2021 album] This Place Will Become Your Tomb, there has been a culture shift within the fanbase between those who want to respect the band’s wishes to stay anonymous, and those who show a general lack of respect and think the band don’t care.”

This ring of secrecy is intact today. Before the show, Hammer is sitting at a table in the taco restaurant adjacent to the El Rey. We can hear and see the security manager briefing in front of the venue.

“Tonight’s show is Sleep Token,” the security manager says, marching along his ranks like a general on the eve of battle. “Their whole deal is that they are anonymous. If anybody - anybody – tries to go where they shouldn’t, you MUST. STOP. THEM.”

In reality, transgression seems to be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. The people queuing outside the El Rey are here to Worship, after all. “Their music transcends their personalities as individuals,” Cassie Knox tells us. “Everybody has a part in this music, and from the messages that the band have put out, it seems like that’s exactly what he [Vessel] wanted.”

By the time the doors open, the excitement is palpable. Airport-style security gates mean everyone is thoroughly searched before entry and it seems half the audience has brought along trinkets, gifts and signs in their own expression of Worship. One fan has turned up with a bouquet of roses so big it seems to engulf her head. They all make it through security without issue.

While some fans have been dressing up in full Vessel cosplay elsewhere on the tour, there’s no such regalia tonight, although many have covered their faces with painted Sleep Token sigils. Equally, it’s striking just how young the crowd is as a whole.

“It’s been like this the whole tour,” reveals Matt de Burgh Daly, guitarist/keyboardist with support A.A. Williams, as he sits down next to Hammer to grab a bite pre-show. Williams and her band previously supported Sleep Token on their 2021 UK tour, and now they’re here on these US dates, suggesting they’re within the headliners’ circle of trust.

“It’s funny actually,” Matt says between taco bites. “This is actually one of the smaller shows on the tour, I think. But we’re pretty nervous.” Oh? “Yeah, our drummer’s broken his arm – he’s having to play Def Leppard style!”

With its art deco exterior, crystal light fixtures, chandeliers and blood red decor, the El Rey Theatre feels more like it should be hosting a séance than a metal show. It’s not your typical dive venue. But then Sleep Token aren’t your typical metal band, sonically or visually. From Hammer’s vantage point, a dark balcony overlooking the main floor, it looks like nearly everyone is adorned in some kind of Sleep Token memorabilia, be it t-shirts, hoodies, or even smaller items like necklaces or homemade earrings. A queue stretches from the merch stand to the barrier throughout the entirety of A.A. Williams’ set and right up until Sleep Token themselves appear.

Sure enough, the headliners’ arrival elicits a frenzy of activity. An extended shriek of pure ecstasy greets the band as they march onto the stage, and it’s not long before the audience is singing along ardently, tears literally streaming from some fans’ eyes. Detractors may point to the prevalence of piano ballads in Sleep Token’s sound, but there’s no shortage of heft in tonight’s set. Chokehold is explosive, its pendulous riffs cutting through the air like a buzzsaw. Hypnosis has the looming, almost floating menace of a great Deftones track, fans waving their arms wildly throughout.

Even in terms of physical presence, there is a marked difference from the band that toured in support of 2021’s This Place Will Become Your Tomb. Back then, Vessel seemed like a solid, rooted entity, his movements stiff and minimal, clinging to the mic-stand like he was tethered to it. This time out, he’s a ball of kinetic energy, bouncing, dancing and stalking his way backwards and forwards across the stage, even dropping to do push-ups during The Summoning. Bassist III and guitarist IV are similarly lively, headbanging furiously and commanding circle pits and walls of death with finger gestures.

The Take Me Back To Eden songs are especially visceral live. Vessel skitters across the stage during Vore like some malevolent entity, switching between howls and soulful melodies before intoning the song’s key lyric: ‘I want to go where nobody else will ever go.’  For all the excitement, background chatter falls away completely when segments of conversation between Vessel and Sleep play out. The distorted voices discuss everything from the fandom to the role the masks play in their mythology.

“In order for all of this to work there has to be a certain boundary in place,” Vessel says, his unearthly, pre-recorded voice spilling from the speakers. “They need to be able to project themselves onto this, without anyone else’s identity getting in the way. In turn, I need to be able to show my true self to them in a way that does not compromise their ability to connect.”

There’s certainly no shortage of connection as fans roar along to the likes of The Summoning, The Love You Want and Alkaline, some moved to tears once more as the music takes on new dimensions, the closing rave-metal thrum of The Offering ending the night on an exultant and triumphant note, before Vessel clasps his hands in thanks as Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) plays incongruously over the PA.

So where next for Sleep Token? In a year where they have notched up a Top 10 album in the UK – Take Me Back To Eden peaked at No.3 – and sold out venues around the world, it’s hard to say exactly where the ceiling could be for them. “I could easily see them playing arenas here in the States within two years,” Benji states. “The demand here is intense – as seen by the number of people who’ve lined up early at almost every show of this tour.”

For a British metal band to break into the US market is no mean feat, and the buzz and excitement Sleep Token are generating here is starting catch up with the noise that surrounds them back home. Equally, their pop sensibilities enable them to serve as a gateway, their success on TikTok showing they don’t just appeal within the metal sphere, but to wider audiences who then tumble further down the metal rabbit-hole after discovering them.

Uniting newcomers and dyed-in-the-wool metalheads alike, Sleep Token are a new breed of band, transcending genre boundaries by simply refusing to stay in one box, and backed up by a mystery and aesthetic all their own. They are as at home supporting Slipknot and Architects as they are appearing at festivals like Reading/Leeds – testament to just how undeniably brilliant and breakout their talent is.

Crazy as it may seem, 2024 will likely be an even bigger year for Sleep Token, further ascent lying ahead for one of metal’s most important and unique new bands. With Wembley Arena still to come, and an appearance at the second edition of Sick New World next April, Sleep Token look poised to answer the question of who the next major festival headliners will be – it’s just a matter of when it’ll happen. After all, how big can a cult get before it becomes a religion?

Originally printed in Metal Hammer #381

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.