After wearing a doom crown of their own design for years with monstrous albums such The Unreal Never Lived, YOB made their first real attempt at change in years (other than that brief breakup) with 2011’s Atma. The change didn’t come in the songs or overall mentality, but really just the production, which had long been such a key element of the YOB sound. Their dynamics depend on that colossally heavy, flange-and-reverb-shimmering treatment that creates atmosphere as much as it crushes, and Atma lacked it, instead delivering a far rawer, flat sound, and the good set of songs within suffered a bit. It didn’t really result in a bad album, but it did fail to achieve any kind of real development that may have been intended.
But… this is not a three-years-late review of the band’s last album, but one for the band’s seventh album, Clearing the Path to Ascend. That bit of background was necessary to highlight a major trait of this new album: that YOB is again tweaking with their sound. Now, however, instead of changing things in the studio – they have returned to their signature production, bringing back that abysmal depth and crazy weight – it is the approach to songwriting that has shifted; sometimes subtly, sometimes hugely. The band’s apocalyptic grooves are far less prevalent, while sprawling melody, emotional heft, and an undercurrent of prog permeate the album.
In short, Clearing the Path to Ascend is the sound of a brilliant band aging gracefully, finding new ways to deliver heft without necessarily moving the boulders of the past. It’s still pretty insanely heavy at times, but there’s a real script-flipping going on here. As if to emphasize that from the beginning, opener “In Our Blood” starts the album with the type of crawling doom that typically closes a YOB album—almost 17 minutes of poisonous molasses. The music – including Mike Scheidt’s impassioned and piercing vocal performance – weaves its tale as slowly and methodically as the tempo, eventually reaching a climax for the ages.
Because the opener is so draining, the relentless “Nothing to Win” feels like a second start. Part YOB flexer (tons of their “pull-it-back-in” hooks) and part super churning Neurosis (think “Eye”), the song also finds plenty of time to get downright catchy in the chorus. It’s a meat grinder of a tune, and one that should bring plenty of smiles to longtime fans.
But then, something happens… YOB evolves, and in dazzling fashion. The final two songs on Clearing the Path to Ascend represent the most drastic shifts in the band’s sound in quite some time, even if they are still largely identifiable as YOB. The structure of “Unmask The Spectre” harkens to early prog rock in how each new section feels like some sort of movement in an epic whole, using foreshadowing and self-referencing to move things along. The breadth of dynamics is also massive, with every one of Scheidt’s bellowing growls or harrowing wails again leading the way.
If “Unmask The Spectre” reveals a desire to move into new terrain, “Marrow” is the unveiling of a brave, emotionally naked and introspective YOB. The nearly 19 minute track – which seems to go by in barely half that time – is loaded with everything from sorrow, loss, and melancholy to acceptance, remembrance, and even hope. Emotions ride on the backs of a few perfectly simple chord progressions, aided by subtle shifts in the instrumental performances, particularly the wonderfully understated work of drummer Travis Foster. But like much of the album, Scheidt’s vocal performance is the centerpiece. The man has always been unique in extremity, and he remains so in his moments of soulfulness, somehow expressing all of the emotions stated above while turning “Marrow” into one of the most exceptional songs in the band’s catalog. Go ahead and name this one the recipient of the “Patrick Walker Award for Making Doomheads Cry” for 2014.
It isn’t until the finish of “Marrow” that the album’s brilliant arc is fully obvious, with each song working to ensure that Clearing the Path to Ascend is far more than the sum of its parts. YOB’s most celebrated albums work in this way, but here the dynamic landscape is far more sprawling, both musically and emotionally. For these reasons and many more, YOB remains one of the heaviest bands currently walking the third rock from the sun, even if they sometimes sound as if they are transporting their sounds from deep space.
There is an immediate urge to call Clearing the Path to Ascend one of YOB’s greatest achievements; time will tell. There is little doubt, however, that this was a very important album for Mike Scheidt and company to write at this stage in their career, proving to themselves that they could truly evolve, without just changing something on the surface such as production. Evolve they have, and as a result, achieve they have.
Album titles can be funny things, and that is certainly the case here. YOB made their ascension years ago, and have reached heights higher than most doom bands even dream of in this millennium. Because they have rediscovered how to clear their own path, they should continue to soar. Here’s to the next leg of the journey.