When Slipknot hit the heavy metal scene like a nuclear bomb in 1999, armchair detectives across the then-fledgling internet got to work. There had of course been masked bands in metal before, from Gwar to Mushroomhead, but never had one shot to prominence so fast. Intrigue as to their identities was stratospheric, and forums were filled with false leads and fuzzy photos of what may or may not have been the true faces of The Nine.
In the near two-and-a-half decades since then, this fascination with seeing the men and women behind metal’s masks hasn’t faded. Ghost’s arrival in the early 2010s prompted a similar reaction, with mastermind Tobias Forge’s identity ultimately being outed by zealous fans scouring through legal documents when the band were sued by ex-members. Slipknot are still feeling it too: both of their newest additions – percussionist Michael “Tortilla Man” Pfaff and their keyboardist that’s almost definitely Zac Baird – were swiftly unmasked by Reddit. So why does the same obsession not apply to the most ardent fans of Sleep Token?
Easily metal’s biggest masked buzz band since Ghost, Sleep Token have rocketed to viral fame over the past year. Their mixture of djent with modern pop has struck a rare balance where it’s both heavy enough for metalheads and accessible enough for mainstream ears. Combine that with a fun gimmick – the band are dedicated to a deity called “Sleep” and have a catchphrase, “Worship” – and some sexy songwriting that’s got the internet hot under the collar, and you can understand why they sold out Wembley Arena in 10 minutes this year.
However, none of Sleep Token’s diehards want to see the four-piece, all hooded and led by a faux-priest called Vessel, unmasked. The band’s dedicated subreddit has a rule of not allowing the members’ identities to be discussed. Plus, earlier this year, when Metal Hammer published an article investigating who Vessel might be, many fans objected to its existence.
The pivotal thing to understand is that the Sleep Token audience is not the same as your garden-variety metal bands. When this writer saw the band headline Radar Festival in July 2023, it was a younger and, in terms of gender, more diverse crowd than heavy music usually attracts. Sleep Token’s emphasis on contemporary-sounding pop and their enormous success on TikTok has made them a gateway band for people who may not have otherwise touched progressive metal.
With a different following comes different priorities. Sleep Token fans are hugely enraptured with the band’s gimmick and quasi-mythological backstory, and it’s easy to see how unmasking Vessel as “just another bloke” would sully that. Of course, Ghost had that lore about them as well. The main difference, though, is that Sleep Token never do press. In the sole interview Vessel’s given (to Hammer in 2017), he said: “Our identities are unimportant.” And that was it. There seems to be a stronger desire for anonymity and a “normal” backstage life among the members when you compare them to Slipknot and Ghost, who made public appearances and granted interviews all the time, even when no one knew who they were. The fans – many of whom are, again, younger and may not have experienced this kind of aura before – seem to be respectful of that.
There’s also the whole sex appeal thing. A huge component of Sleep Token’s success this year was The Summoning making TikTok horny and, post-pandemic, actual scientists discovered that men in masks are just hotter now. Vessel has a very sensual, seductive voice and nothing adds to that allure more than a bit of mystery.
Ultimately, it’s just a folly to compare Sleep Token to other masked heavy bands, since theirs is a new fanbase with different priorities to your more ardent metalhead. It’s a younger following with more mainstream tastes who may even never have interacted with masked musicians before. This doesn’t make them “poseurs”, it just means that Sleep Token are doing something we should universally applaud them for: opening metal up to new ears so that our scene can continue to thrive. If that appeal comes at the cost of us not knowing who four blokes on a stage are, we should accept that that’s more than a fair trade.