Smoke and Stars: YOB’s Our Raw Heartby John Amen
Emerging in 2002 with Elaborations of Carbon, YOB mined the sub-genre of doom metal, with Mike Scheidt’s lyrics frequently indecipherable, his voice ranging from a whispery snarl to a trebly howl to a demonic roar. With 2009’s The Great Cessation, the band moved in a singularly aggressive direction, adhering to the slow-riff Sabbath-circa-Ozzy-via-Kyuss songbook while experimenting with distinctly recurrent instrumental lines. 2014’s Clearing the Path to Ascend showed the band working more self-consciously with epic narratives, using tones and progressions reminiscent of Dio-era Sabbath and ’80s Iron Maiden—occasionally lapsing into sonic schmaltz, moving away from earthiness towards the otherworldly (celestial and infernal).
With their latest release, Our Raw Heart, YOB continues to explore a mystical orientation, the opening track, “Ablaze,” a sludgy trek through a solar system of existential angst. “Wings in oceans vast / Swells in azure skies,” Scheidt bathetically sings. And: “Unknown by time / This ache of beyond / In stars and stone.” Hmm.
Much of YOB’s aesthetic success, especially pre-Clearing the Path can be attributed to the band’s ability to engage a listener’s repressed instincts, that part of the self that naturally resists conditioning, societal expectations, and—most pressingly, at least in this part of the world—Western morality; i.e., Judeo-Christian norms. “Ablaze” exemplifies Our Raw Heart’s dilemma: with their latest, YOB has assumed a less primal emotional palette, modeling what strikes me as metal’s version of equanimity. However, the resultant distancing from animalistic drives and catharses renders the album less accessible, and less galvanic.
That said, the second track, “The Screen,” founded on a grating riff that brings to mind Metallica’s “One,” shows the band briefly on terra firma. On the first verse, Scheidt mixes a growling vocal with a rumbling harmony. On the second verse, Scheidt’s voice transforms—as if the singer is undergoing a metamorphosis—bringing to mind a pissed off Dave Mustaine, instruments sawing and chopping along in the background. The song continues to unfold, featuring moments of undeniable poignancy. That said, there’s a wandering quality to the piece, a trancey repetitiveness, and an employment of winning formulae to the point that what is initially enthralling grows tedious, much as many of Sleep’s riffs and tones, initially irresistible, can turn monotonous when reduced to sonic motifs or mantras.
“In Reverie” again adopts the doom approach—reiterative progressions, roiling chords—Scheidt’s vocal oddly incidental, paradoxically both mesmerizing and irksome. “Lung’s Reach” opens with ambient tones, a sinister swell towards a crescendo with cosmic ramifications, sounds that would aptly portend disaster in a sci-fi film. Roiling guitars, bass, and drums—along with Scheidt’s bestial vocal à la David Vincent—explode into the track like a prototypical big bang. “Original Face” fuses innovative instrumental lines with vocal variations, reminiscent of Neurosis, Liturgy, or Dark Castle. The closing title track opens with a gossamer but spookily textural passage, segueing into a mucky venture through soundscapes that, again, conjure astral references: black holes, novae, and spatial dissolution, Scheidt referring to his “restless ghost.”
Our Raw Heart is YOB’s most enterprising project, an attempt to integrate the visceral and the heady. The band strives to remain accessible while venturing into domains that, by metal’s standards, can seem esoteric, the music often devolving into a disembodied sound that strikes me as oddly zombic. This is not entirely counter-effective. If metal represents in large part a declaration of autonomy, a shedding of political, cultural, and religious chains—no less than a reclamation of the hijacked soul—then Our Raw Heart subtly illustrates YOB struggling, succeeding, and failing in its quest for integrated presence and uncompromised expression. Viewed in this context, the album’s shortcomings can be regarded as humanizing elements that mirror each person’s battle for freedom.
A final note: I can’t say that I was ever a big fan of cannabis. Perhaps for that reason, I seem to respond ambivalently to stoner metal, a label which many listeners apply to YOB (as well as the above-mentioned Kyuss and Sleep). Psychedelic metal, okay—an entire piece could be dedicated to discussing the differences between the two—but I’ve grown to associate stoner metal, rightly or wrongly, with a kind of blurriness, an emotional distancing, a quasi-dissociative state in which the micro tends to be cast as macro and the macro tends to be navigated sentimentally. I’ll add that I’ve never thought of Sabbath as stoner metal, though the band is almost universally credited as the sub-genre’s primary source. Even in their muddiest, most looping riffs, Sabbath avoided stasis like the proverbial plague, Iommi et al always jonesing for the next rhythmic or melodic transition. Those guys were too compositionally ambitious to be considered stoner. To sum it up: YOB’s latest is frequently cogent, frequently evocative, and frequently transcendent, even if the album is frequently diluted by an impalpable abstractness.
John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, including strange theater (New York Quarterly Books, 2015), a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award. He is co-author, with Daniel Y. Harris, of The New Arcana. His latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, work from which was chosen as a finalist for the Dana Award, was released by New York Quarterly Books in 2017 and was a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award. His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He is a Staff Reviewer for the music magazine and website No Depression. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.