World-building and worship: Inside the cult of SLEEP TOKEN | Revolver

World-building and worship: Inside the cult of SLEEP TOKEN

The rituals, mysteries and breakthrough of metal's biggest new band
Sleep Token 2023 cover story lead image , Andy Ford
Sleep Token's Vessel
photograph by Andy Ford

This story was originally published in Revolver's Summer 2023 Issue, and has been edited and updated.

The atmosphere before a metal show doesn't usually feel like this.

Inside the main room of the Portsmouth Guildhall, on the south coast of England, soft, ambient music floats from the speakers. The stage is decorated with plants. It feels like an oasis, and it's here that the mysterious, masked alt-metal collective Sleep Token are about to headline Takedown Festival. In their own words, rather, they are performing a Ritual.

The room is packed. Some of the fans leaning against the barriers have been waiting there patiently since doors opened, meaning they have been in that one spot for approximately nine hours. A couple standing near Revolver, John and Tamsin, came to Takedown just to see Sleep Token, traveling 160 miles from Birmingham in the West Midlands for the privilege. "Any other bands were a bonus," exclaims Tamsin.

Sleep Token live 2023 getty UNCROPPED, Burak Cingi/Redferns
photograph by Burak Cingi/Redferns

This is the first time Sleep Token have topped a festival bill, and they're set to fill the same slot at RADAR Festival in Manchester later this year. Even when they have played lower down the bill, however, their popularity has been undeniable.

Standing towards the back of the room is DJ Overdrive, who works at popular Midlands festival Bloodstock. Sleep Token headlined the second stage last year, and organizers had to close the tent because it got too full.

"Everybody tried to get in and watch them, which, for a second stage headliner, doesn't always happen," he says. "Next time Sleep Token play Bloodstock, they'll be headlining it."

Then, the Ritual begins. Four masked musicians dressed in black coats arrive onstage, anonymous to their audience. Led by frontman Vessel, the other members of the band are known only by Roman numerals — drummer II, bassist III and guitarist IV — and their trade is alternative metal that coalesces with a bevy of other genres: pop, R&B, even funk and jazz.

A beam of purple light shines down onto Vessel as he begins to sing the solemn opening lines of "Chokehold," the eerie yet explosive single from their new and third album Take Me Back to Eden. The audience is enraptured, and dozens of phones are held aloft to capture the moment.

At points during the song, his low, sonorous voice only just cuts through the combined volume of hundreds of people singing his words back to him.

It's a mesmerizing mix of sound and theater — one that's helped catapult Sleep Token from an obscure anonymous English act to a fast-rising global phenomenon. Since their 2019 debut, Sundowning, and through 2021's This Place Will Become Your Tomb, the band had experienced steady, slow-burn growth.

But that all changed in the early weeks of 2023, when they surprise-dropped two of their heaviest songs to date, the previously mentioned "Chokehold" and "The Summoning." The songs immediately set the internet ablaze and led to Sleep Token trending on Twitter.

Three more eclectic singles quickly followed — the downtrodden pop-metal "Granite," lush R&B "Aqua Regia" and incandescent, heavy "Vore" — and the band became a constant topic of conversation in alternative circles.

For perspective, at the end of 2022 they had under 250,000 monthly Spotify listeners — within a week of Take Me Back to Eden's first songs being released that number had leaped over the 1 million mark. (At the time of writing, they've surpassed 2 million.) And Sleep Token's spell hasn't let up.

Their streams and views continue to soar as they attract even larger and more diverse audiences: from Discord superfans to scene leaders such as Slipknot's Corey Taylor and Lorna Shore's Will Ramos to mainstream rockers like Chris Daughtry (who covered the band during a March gig at Royal Albert Hall in London).

Their shows, including a first-ever U.S. headlining run this past fall, routinely sell out far in advance. Witnessing the band's impassioned Takedown set it's easy to see why.

Sleep Token's hour-long show is a unique kind of spectacle. The band move from song to song without uttering a single word. Their three cloaked backing singers perform without so much as a twitch. Vessel moves like he is visibly encumbered by something, as he sheds his own feelings with his characteristically vulnerable lyrics that touch on themes of longing, betrayal and spiritual abandonment.

At points, he moves skittishly, as if startled, sometimes devolving into an odd, jumpy dance. During the quietly devastating encore "The Night Does Not Belong to God," which creates a church-like atmosphere in the room, he audibly sobs as he is singing.

"It's not just people onstage playing music, it's a whole show that you experience, and there's a life to it," Loathe guitarist-vocalist Erik Bickerstaffe tells Revolver, sitting in a dressing room a couple of hours before their own Takedown set.

As a band, they've gotten closer to Sleep Token than most, having brought them on tour when both were just starting out. Early last year, Vessel even joined Loathe on a heart-rending piano cover of the latter's "Is It Really You?" — a song that Sleep Token had been playing snippets of during live sets as a tribute.

"I feel like they've never stopped," adds Loathe singer Kadeem France. "They've been very 'go, go, go, go.' They have been nonstop since day one, and now the hard work is paying off for them."

A lot of bands, especially of this genre, make their live shows into theater. Sleep Token, however, do theater like nobody else — their sense of drama is quieter, darker and always entrancing. And whether it's in their native U.K. or further afield, a lot of people want to see it.

In their home country, they've never failed to sell out a headline show, and they went from playing 2,000-capacity to 5,000-capacity venues in the space of just 14 months. Their calendar this summer was full of festivals: Denmark's Copenhell, Germany's Wacken Open Air and the U.K.'s Reading and Leeds Festival before they headed overseas for their U.S. headlining tour.

The stateside run (which sold out in minutes) also featured appearances at Blue Ridge Rock Festival, Louder Than Life and Monster Energy Aftershock. The band's star has risen at an unprecedented speed — and, if anything, tonight's Ritual at Takedown Fest just might be the first step in Sleep Token's metamorphosis to becoming an established arena-filler. (The band will close out their 2023 with a December 16th headlining show at London's 12,500-capacity OVO Arena, a concert they also sold out in just minutes.)

Sleep Token formed in 2016, and the legend goes that Vessel was visited by an ancient deity known as Sleep, who promised him "glory and magnificence" in return for his loyalty.

Each of their songs are said to be dedicated to this deity, though they aren't necessarily devotional in tone — in fact, some fans who make a hobby out of dissecting their lyrics surmise that their relationship constitutes a toxic, violent power struggle.

Beyond the lyrics, Sleep Token's visuals offer the willing even more clues to pore over. The imagery is rich with detail and includes Nordic runes, Hindu symbology and even secret codes, one of which allowed fans to work out the title of Take Me Back to Eden well ahead of its May release on Spinefarm.

Sleep Token red portrait uncropped

Sleep Token's dense world-building, in part, has helped the band attract a rabid cult following. There are several pockets of the internet, particularly on Reddit and Discord, where fans actively congregate to analyze the band's mythology and trade theories about what Sleep Token want to communicate.

In other online circles, especially on Twitter, fans imagine who "the Eepies," as the musicians are sometimes referred to, might be as people away from the stage.

Speculation and theories aside, fans universally rejoice over the very apparent onstage camaraderie of the members during Rituals — there's a quiet sense of brotherhood between them that's becoming increasingly more apparent.

During their Takedown set, they occasionally lean on each other, literally, while III and IV can be seen sitting shoulder to shoulder at the side of the stage as Vessel takes the lead on the slinking R&B ballad "Aqua Regia."

The songs that tend to get the loudest cheers throughout their performance are the newest ones, which makes sense — as it's those Take Me Back to Eden tracks that have been the catalyst for their recent stunning surge in popularity.

Of all these new songs, however, the one that arguably shines the brightest is "The Summoning," a hot-blooded six-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that segues from churning black metal into a funk segment and somehow manages to make it all feel cohesive.

The unexpectedness of this change in style, and the ease with which it's pulled off, lends it a WTF quality that's the stuff of viral gold. (The song's also undoubtedly gained attention for its sexually charged lyrics: "Did I mistake you for a sign from God?" Vessel asks. "Or are you really here to cut me off/Or maybe just to turn me on?")

Lorna Shore's Will Ramos counts himself among Sleep Token's devoted followers. The singer has performed vocal covers of the haunting "Chokehold" and crushing, romantic "Hypnosis" (the latter from This Place Will Become Your Tomb) on his YouTube channel.

Ramos also joined opera singer and The Charismatic Voice founder Elizabeth Zharoff in another video to dissect Vessel's impressive vocal technique on "The Summoning."

"So smooth!" exclaims Ramos at the video's outset. "He is killing it right now! How does he do it? … That's the best breath I've ever heard in my life! It gives me a good feeling inside; I'll tell you that."

"He doesn't even do a lot of screaming, in general," Ramos adds later in the clip. "So, when he pulls out screaming in this song, it's so sick to hear him go from super cleans to whisper talking and straight into a fry scream — it fits the part so perfectly.

"When I [first] listened to [Sleep Token] I was like, I need to make sure this stuff is real – let's watch it live. Then I watched it live, and I was like, Oh my god he does it live. He's amazing."

Sleep token vessel close portrait uncropped

Sleep Token's rise has been as organic as it comes. The band has only ever given two interview to the press, both over five years ago when they were still very much in their infancy, and the word has been spread by the ever-growing community building up around them. Along with the music and art itself, the band's faithful commitment to their anonymity has also helped lure in new fans.

For some, the question of who could be beneath Vessel's mask is a source of intrigue, which has sparked a playful online guessing game. Some have suggested the band could be the side project of an already known musician, with names from Sam Smith to Don Broco's Rob Damiani being floated.

Other fans, however, vehemently refuse to participate. When Louder Than Life Festival asked on its social media who fans thought Vessel could be, some reacted with anger as they believed it disrespectful to speculate over their identities when the band has explicitly chosen to remain anonymous.

After all, on the rare occasion where the frontman did speak to the press, he emphasized to Metal Hammer that the band's identities are "unimportant" and "irrelevant" in comparison to their duty to serve Sleep.

Beyond Sleep Token's mystery and artistry, those fortunate few who are close to the band, including Architects' Sam Carter, report another alluring quality they possess: humility.

"They're a very polite and quiet bunch of people," explains the singer, whose band invited Sleep Token to open for them on tour last year. "They've always come across like lovely people. I've got so much time for Vessel. I always enjoy hearing him warm up; it makes me want to be on top of my game after hearing a singer I love get ready to play."

"By keeping themselves anonymous, they've been able to truly reveal themselves without façade in the music," adds Josh Smith of Northlane, who supported Sleep Token on their U.K. tour earlier this year.

"There are no barriers at all and it allows people to connect on a deeper level than just to a face. It means there's nothing holding people back from their incredible songwriting."

Sleep Token vessel standing portrait vertical

Where Sleep Token go next is anyone's guess, but wherever they're heading it's safe to say they will be creating something that will be impossible to ignore. There's a sense that watching them live is tantamount to watching the future of metal establish itself and grow in power, especially when their explorations into softer sounds may well make them prime candidates to be swept up by the mainstream.

Put your hands together, and — to quote the band's trademark sign-off on all their social media — worship.

Order Revolver's new 76-page Sleep Token collector's issue, featuring rare photos, a deep dive into their trilogy, famous fan tributes, and more, at our shop.