Eugene, Oregon’s YOB have come a long way since their beginnings way back into the nineties. They started their career on a high note by churning out a pretty unique beast of an album, Elaborations of Carbon, whose mad, gigantic sound would become the band’s trademark. Massive Sabbathian riffs, Mike Scheidt’s insane shrieks and growls, and all of this underlined by a dirty, but vibrant production. Each subsequent record delivered music with the same basic characteristics with only minimal divergences. By 2005, albums like The Unreal Never Lived ensured them the status of one of the frontrunners of the sludge/doom scene and following that record, the band went on a two-year hiatus which looked like a permanent disbandment at the time. When they came back from the dead, fuelled by the perseverance of mastermind Mike Scheidt, it was clear that YOB underwent some kind of transformation, which was reflected on the following two albums. Taking that into account, the expectations and fears for their first new material in three years were running high through a mist of uncertainties and worries about the direction the band would take.
Well, we don’t have to worry anymore. Clearing the Path to Ascend is very good and, in most aspects, it bests their previous release Atma. All of the elements that are usually associated with YOB are still here, but they’re now embraced by a wider story and given a deeper meaning. In many ways, this album feels both like a logical continuation to YOB’s well-known style and a detour towards mellower, more introspective soundscapes. For better or worse, a special kind of dualism has been introduced into the music. Of the four new tracks, the opening two songs, “In Our Blood” and “Nothing to Win,” are more in the vein of what we’ve come to expect from YOB; Crushingly heavy riffs and Scheidt’s full range of vocals appear on both of these straightforward tracks, but while “In Our Blood” sounds like YOB through and through, “Nothing to Win” appears to be sped up, dynamic, relentless and almost melodic.
But it’s “Unmask the Spectre” and “Marrow” that show just how much the band diverges from their old formula. These are longer songs (“Marrow” goes on for almost twenty minutes) with whispered lyrics, almost acoustic meditative and atmospheric sections, and touches of solos that fill the space between segments laden with heavy, mighty riffs. They feel like a look into a future where YOB no longer rely simply on overpowered riffs and the demolishing weight of their sound, but instead try to develop song structures more vehemently. A future marked by the shift from anger and struggles brought forward aggressively through pure sludge towards a more epic and romantic, doomy display of pain and turmoil. Heck, “Marrow” might even remind you of a doom metal version of “November Rain.” [That’s disconcerting — Steel Druhm]. These softer tendencies unfortunately come at a cost since the band loses some of the guttural impact. Nonetheless, the second part of the release feels sincere, like something that Scheidt was compelled to record by his personal demons, while the first two songs can be seen as a throwback to YOB‘s past. None of the tunes feel forced. Quite the contrary.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Atma was certainly the production, which made the music sound congested and flat. This time around the sound mastering is a notch better, but it still sounds as if they’re intentionally trying to be muddy and moody, with the riffs feeling a bit smeared at times, which is especially obvious on the fast paced “Nothing to Win.” Too bad, because the musicianship is really good. Travis Foster and Aaron Rieseberg provide a reliable, imposing foundation for Scheidt’s riffs and his much improved singing – still the centerpieces of the music.
Clearing the Path to Ascend will be on many end of year lists, that’s for sure, and with good reason. When approached with an open mind and willingness to accept the changed, new-old YOB, it becomes obvious that it compares favorably to any similar band currently riding the hype wave (hint: Pallbearer) and deserves the same amount of recognition.