Sleep Token vocalist Vessel stands in front of 1,500 people at Birmingham’s 02 Institute, and the room falls silent. All eyes are fixed on the masked and cloaked singer for a sign – any sign – that might betray some message or hidden meaning behind the band’s mystique.
“We love you!” cries a young woman. Finally, the spell is broken, and the crowd erupt into cheers that Vessel politely acknowledges with a slight nod. Then he moves, and the church-like quietude falls again.
Leaning towards the mic, for the briefest of moments it seems Vessel’s five years of almost total silence will end, with Birmingham about to receive gospel from one of metal’s most enigmatic forces. Instead, he clenches his hands together in a sign of gratitude, saying everything by saying absolutely nothing – and everyone loses their minds.
We’re at the second night of Sleep Token’s eight-date UK tour, and since emerging in 2016, they’ve maintained an iron grip on their anonymity: they obscure their faces, they don’t talk onstage, and they have only ever done one interview – with this very magazine in 2017.
The closest comparison is Ghost, but even they had ‘Nameless Ghouls’ who acted as regular spokespeople until Tobias Forge eventually broke cover, a decade into the band. It’s all very impressive – but who the hell are they?
Here’s what we know: in that 2017 interview, Vessel told us that their music is all in service to ‘Sleep’, a mysterious deity whose roots stretch back centuries. “How we got here is as irrelevant as who we are – what matters is the music and the message,” they said. “We are here to serve Sleep and project His message.” And… that’s about it. Cheers for the insight, pal.
Despite – or perhaps because of – their secrecy, Sleep Token are fast becoming a cult sensation. While the lore is centred around Vessel, Sleep Token describe themselves as a collective, suggesting a collaborative effort between seasoned musicians, all feeding into the art.
That may go some way to describe their fluid approach to genre, pulling elements of everything from tech metal and alternative to pop and R&B – part of a new breed of heavy bands who aren’t afraid to embrace multiple genres, as well as nontraditional ways of working.
In 2019, they drip-fed a series of singles that eventually became their debut album, Sundowning, rather than going ahead with a straightforward release. Even though they couldn’t tour during the pandemic, last September’s This Place Will Become Your Tomb charted at No. 39 in the UK, and this current run will conclude at London’s 2,000-capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s no small feat.
“Sleep Token are an expression of where metal is in the 2020s,” says Ihsahn, co-founder of black metal legends Emperor and pioneering avant-garde solo artist, who’s on the same label as the collective. “From the first time I heard them, I was completely intrigued – the way they mix modern metal elements with very dark moods, but also very clear, modern R&B-style production values.”
Sleep Token are by no means the first anonymous collective in metal, but their symbol-emblazoned masks, dark body paint, and use of everything from Nordic runes to Hindu symbology in their artwork have piqued the curiosity of metal fans and fellow musicians.
“It’s similar to what we had with the black metal scene, with the masks and mystery that helps to raise it all,” Ihsahn explains. “Emperor wouldn’t be where they were without that theatricality, because we needed to do something to distance ourselves from the spotty teenagers we were!
“It creates a clear distance and space between the art and the artist,” he continues. “I’ve always appreciated artists who created that distance – going back, you can watch all these interviews with David Bowie but it never feels like you knew him. The art he created was an offering and you just had to try to understand it.”
Of course, with Vessel it’s even more difficult. Our attempt to get answers in 2017 was like grasping at mist: when we asked why they wished to remain anonymous, Vessel turned the conversation towards what he thought was truly important – the art itself. “Our identities are unimportant,” he said. “Music is marketed on who is or isn’t in a band; it’s pushed, prodded and moulded into something it isn’t. Vessel endeavours to keep the focus on His offerings.”
When asked what the future held, Vessel simply replied: “Nothing. Lasts. Forever.” Does that mean there’s a time limit on the band? What the fuck is going on?
Tinfoil hat time. Outside of live performances, Vessel has only appeared in music videos. His first onscreen appearance came as a shadowy, grasping figure in the 2016 video for Thread The Needle, before appearing maskless in the 2017 video for Calcutta – albeit with Slipknot/Before I Forget style editing that only showed his mouth, cheek and eye. He’s become more prominent in recent videos – even telekinetically taking out a room of hazmat-suited goons in the video to Alkaline – but still no obvious, overarching narrative has emerged.
Elsewhere, his mask has made its own separate appearances. In the video for Fields Of Elation it floated free in a body of water, and in Nazareth it appeared standing alone in the video’s final moments, before appearing in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments in Jaws, where it’s worn by the video’s star. Which raises the question: is Vessel the man behind the mask, or something the mask brings forth?
Sleep Token’s acolytes have been searching for clues. In a Discord server set up by Coventry-based fan Chris, they pore over the band’s lyrics, album artwork, music videos and merchandise in an attempt to decipher hidden meanings, like a metal take on The Da Vinci Code. “It was actually through Metal Hammer that I got into the band,” Chris tells us. “Reading the interview with Vessel on the website, I wanted to find out more. I took to Reddit to see if there was a community for the band and at the time there wasn’t, so I decided to create it.”
Now numbering more than 900 members, the group have become adept at deciphering codes left by the band. They discovered that a string of numbers featured on a t-shirt design were coordinates for a ‘whale fall’ – an event where a whale’s carcass falls to the ocean floor and becomes a source of nourishment for an entire ecosystem. When This Place Will Become Your Tomb was released, Benjamin, one of the admins, even took on the semi-joking role of Keeper Of The Lore, maintaining and steering discussions for each new song.
“I loved the hidden identities and world-building the band was presenting,” he explains. “There was a whole experience outside of just the music. The new album features heavy imagery of a decomposing whale and the animals that would feed on it; a representation of life in death – a topic lyrically discussed by Vessel frequently – and eternal recurrence.”
The Discord continues to provide fascinating insights into what the band may – or may not – be exploring through their art. But without any form of ‘official’ statement on their theories, and with a potential fixed end point for Sleep Token, couldn’t the fanatics be setting themselves up for disappointment down the road? “Nothing lasts forever – until then we Worship,” Chris says matter-of-factly.
Aside from discussions on mythology, the Discord has also become a social club that binds people together. “The Discord community is amazing,” says New York-based fan Veronica, aka BluKittie. “There are people from all over the world and we share the same love and passion for the band. We are always there for each other. Last year my father passed away and the members of the community helped me through that rough time, and still do. I am just happy to have found friends there.”
An hour before Birmingham’s 02 Institute opens, the queue is already snaking down the street as far as the eye can see. At the band’s request, we’re not allowed backstage lest we see their faces, but we do speak to their support act, solo artist AA Williams. Like Sleep Token, she’s found an audience with metallers even though her music spans alternative, pop, soul and metal – a sound we’ve previously tagged as ‘death gospel’.
“I think we work pretty well together,” she says. “It’s great to see an artist who is able to explore both pop and really heavy music without the need to hold back or overcompensate on either element. The shifts in dynamics really come to life live, and their crowd utterly lap it up – it’s like going to church.”
Are there any difficulties that come from playing with such a secretive act? Has anyone tried to get her to reveal Sleep Token’s identity? “Well, it’s not like we’ve had to sign NDAs or anything,” she says. “At the same time, you do want to make sure you’re not impinging on their privacy, and respecting their choice to present their art in a particular way. If anyone asks who they are, I think I’ll make up a celebrity – it’s Robert De Niro. Next question – ha ha ha!”
Tonight AA commands rapt attention, but there’s no competing with the headliners. All chatter is silenced as the room plunges into darkness. Moments later, Vessel strides onto the stage alone to cheers of approval, his mask the only thing visible against now-muted lighting. He tinkles the ivories for Atlantic and the crowd are soon singing along to every word, even though the album has barely been out two months.
For 90 minutes, Sleep Token hold attention in a way that defies logic. How can a band that don’t speak be so damned expressive? Compared to the stagecraft of bombastic arena bands such as Iron Maiden or Sabaton, Sleep Token are low key, but Vessel radiates gravitas, his twisting and grasping movements bringing to mind the theatrics of interpretive dance, where each flick of the wrist could be conveying some hidden meaning.
The fans are utterly enraptured, moshing and singing along with religious fervour, lending credence to the band’s social media descriptions of their shows as ‘rituals’.
As it was in Birmingham, so it is in Glasgow, Sheffield, Dublin and beyond. By the time the tour arrives at London’s sold-out Shepherd’s Bush Empire, it’s clear that, much like Ghost before them, Sleep Token are fast outpacing their status as a cult phenomenon, smaller academies no longer able to contain their rapidly growing fanbase.
If Birmingham was about reverence, London is outright revelry – an irrepressible crowd engaging in a bacchanalian frenzy that has little to do with the extortionate bar prices and everything to do with the explosive performance unfolding onstage. And then, a couple of lads start Cossack dancing in the middle of a circle pit. Sleep help us…
Not to be outdone, Sleep Token bring out their own dance troupe for Fall For Me. Not that they need any help capturing people’s attention: here, Sleep Token are preaching to the converted, a cult threatening to spill over into the mainstream.
No one knows what direction Sleep Token will go in next, and it’s not as if they’re about to tell us. But then, that’s how things have always been with the band – each release a mystery that fans can’t wait to unwrap. “When I heard the second album, there was no indication of where they were going, so in my mind it just had so many seeds of development,” Ihsahn says. “There’s more maturity and there’s clearly something they are building towards, though exactly what that is, is impossible to say…”
Perhaps the stock answer from Vessel, five years on, would still be “nothing lasts forever”. Will they push their sound even further? Will they start conducting interviews? Will they ever unmask? Right now, anything is possible – and that’s what makes Sleep Token so exciting.