YOB’s 2009 return, The Great Cessation, was fueled by a seething anger so visceral it practically stabbed its way out of the speakers. The Eugene, Oregon, trio’s first release for Profound Lore following a breakup after 2005’s landmark The Unreal Never Lived and the ensuing unsuccessful legal battle for frontman Mike Scheidt over the name of his subsequent project, Middian, its vitriol was well justified, but in the wake of the full-length’s release, YOB ascended, more or less, to the fore of their generation of doomers. Scheidt, then-new bassist Aaron Reiseberg and drummer Travis Foster were able to capitalize on a reception left for dead after The Unreal Never Lived and earned near-universal acclaim from fellow artists, critics and listeners at large.
That leaves Atma, the new follow-up to The Great Cessation and second Profound Lore offering, in a curious position. For the first time in their career, YOB are coming into an album as an established act with a widespread reputation and an expectation placed on their sound. Whether that played consciously or not into the writing process for these five tracks, I don’t know, but there exists on Atma a delicate balance of familiar elements and stylistic progressions that hints to a growing self-awareness on the part of the band.
All the more appropriate is the title, then, which refers to the Buddhist concept of the complete, spiritual self. This is lyrical ground that Scheidt – as YOB’s principal songwriter, guitarist and vocalist – has tread going back to the band’s beginnings in 2002’s Elaborations of Carbon or 2003’s Catharsis, but there’s a maturity of approach on Atma that speaks to the musical and personal growth they’ve undertaken since then. That self-awareness is pervasive, and one gets the sense from opener “Prepare the Ground” that Scheidt, who seems to pepper in grunts timed just to when the song’s several builds are paying off (the exclamation “Prepare!” at 6:43 that leads into the final movement being especially satisfying, though there’s still another “oogh” to come), and who also produced Atma, knows the effect each move the band is making will have.
What this essentially means is that the processes of figuring out how to be heavy, and of deciding what YOB should be on the most basic level, appear to be over. Atma signals the beginning of the refinement of those processes, and of their mastery.
I should say at this point (actually, I probably should have said already) that when it comes to YOB, I can’t even pretend at impartiality. I’m a fan of this band, having found them around Catharsis and nerded out at every step of their progression since then. Simply put, I think they’re one of the best acts of their generation, and I’ve long held the belief that their influence will be felt for a long time to come. One could argue it can already be seen in YOB’s peers, and Atma – the anticipation for which you could turn into bricks and build a skyscraper – has managed to meet every expectation I had for it. Scheidt’s production is (predictably) rawer than was Sanford Parker’s for The Great Cessation, but the songs here prove that YOB are unrelenting in their creative drive.
Conceptually, that’s even more respectable than the now-characteristic riffs and pulsating kick of “Prepare the Ground,” but when it comes to actually listening, it’s hard not to be engulfed by the sheer heaviness of Atma’s launch and leave all other contextual concerns behind. YOB started The Great Cessation with one of its strongest cuts as well – that being “Burning the Altar” – and “Prepare the Ground” has shades of that track in terms of methodology. From Scheidt’s contrasting growls and spacey wailing to Reiseberg’s huge-sounding low end and Foster’s groove-setting tom runs, it is YOB at their most YOBian and some of the most memorable material Atma has on offer. Beginning with a barely-audible exclamation and launching immediately into a series of chugging hits that sounds like it’s never going to end, the song gradually unfolds to a flowing monstrosity that, nonetheless, is underscored by a contemplative edge present on much of Atma – all the more fitting an opener.
Also evident in “Prepare the Ground” is an increase in melodic awareness on the part of Scheidt, and while that’s usually code for “They’re not as heavy as they used to be,” YOB avoid that trap entirely. Rather, the clean vocals of the verse and chorus complement the sway in the guitars and bass, and the song as a whole sounds that much heavier leading into the title track, which is both more lumbering musically and more tortured in its vocals. Mournful, semi-spoken cries and held chords take hold after an intro of a sampled storm, and “Atma” feels all-around more plodding than was “Prepare the Ground,” less outwardly riff-based.
That said, Atma’s title cut also has the honor of playing host to the chugging guitar triplets that have been a staple of YOB’s sound since they were so effectively put to use on The Unreal Never Lived closer, “The Mental Tyrant.” It was “Burning the Altar” on The Great Cessation, and like that song, the bass and drums drop out initially while Scheidt introduces the movement on guitar, but where “Atma” proves different is that instead of launching right into an über-groove and giving Atma an early apex, they sustain a complex pattern of off-time hits behind a sampled speech that explains the concept of atman as the spiritual self, complete self. In the song’s final moments, deathly growls lie under canned-sounding (there’s a name for that effect) vocals, providing a glimpse of YOB at their most tectonic that echoes into a couple seconds of silence before centerpiece “Before We Dreamed of Two” kicks in with an Eastern-scaled solo from Scheidt – perhaps some reciprocating influence from Dark Castle there – and more lowly-mixed samples topping one of Reiseberg’s most effective bass lines.
At 16 minutes, “Before We Dreamed of Two” is Atma’s longest track. This is a distinction usually reserved for the closer – see “The Great Cessation,” “The Mental Tyrant,” “The Illusion of Motion” from the 2004 Metal Blade debut of the same name, or the title-track from Catharsis – but the break from the pattern is welcome and more than justified by the song itself, which features one of Atma’s two guest appearances from Neurosis guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly and is an indisputable high point of this stage in YOB’s tenure. In thinking back to the many ambient stretches that have cropped up in songs throughout their catalog, I can’t pull a match for it in terms of atmosphere, and when the build of the prior seven minutes comes to an excruciatingly slow close and the song drops to a sort of minimalist run of guitar lines, you just know something’s coming.
The first time I heard the track, and first heard Kelly’s vocals come in over that soft guitar, I literally threw a claw in the air. It’s almost too good, reminiscent of the effective break Neurosis pulled off on “To the Wind” on their most recent studio outing, 2007’s Given to the Rising (my, how time flies). Spoiler alert: at 10:09, the guitars get heavy again and Reiseberg and Foster join Scheidt and Kelly for Atma’s most triumphant riff. Gradually, the vocals return – Kelly staying more melodic than not for the most part, but still in his trademark through-the-teeth guttural style – and the whole reason I’d make the case for “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore” is the interplay between he and Scheidt, who steps into a backing role (what else to do?), adding layers for repeated lines and giving way to Kelly’s epilogue, “Distant silver shore/Bring my body/Bring my body,” which arrives over ever-slowing hits and sustained distortion noise I can just see the wavelengths of as I listen.
In the last minute of the song, there are a total of three hits over said ringing-out, including that which brings “Before We Dreamed of Two” to silence following a final declaration from Kelly (he might be saying, “It was enough,” but I don’t have the benefit of a lyric sheet to confirm that). With 34 of Atma’s 55 minutes passed, and almost half of that time dedicated to “Before We Dreamed of Two” alone, it’s hard to think back to the beginning of that song and get the full scope of the journey YOB has just rounded out. Though it’s shorter than any of their prior longest tracks – “Revolution,” the longest from Elaborations of Carbon, was 17:06 – it lacks nothing in scope, and with Kelly’s contribution, leaves an indelible stamp on the album. If ever a band earned a minute or two for an interlude, or something to let listeners catch their breath, YOB earn it here, but instead, Foster, Reiseberg and Scheidt push forward with “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore,” the shortest of Atma’s components at 7:34.
Like the opener, “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore” is YOB working within what, for them, is a straightforward approach. There are more screams than on “Prepare the Ground,” and Scheidt’s voice sounds rawer, like it had already done a bunch of work that day and was beginning to give out. Because Atma is mixed well, the effect that has is to play up the natural feel, but after “Before We Dreamed of Two,” it’s hard for “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore” not to feel like a comedown. Where a song like “Doom #2” from The Illusion of Motion, itself the shortest cut on its album, was able to feel like a genuine change because of its frenetic pacing, “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore” keeps a doomed plod not dissimilar to much of where Atma has resided, and it’s not until the death growls that top the crashing finish nearly seven minutes in that the song really distinguishes itself.
Still, one gets the impression that “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore” would work better outside of the context of Atma as a whole. That is, if I popped the album on and skipped right to track four (and forgive me, I haven’t yet), the song would have a completely different effect than it does following “Before We Dreamed of Two,” which could easily have been YOB’s sendoff to this collection. But track-order hypotheticals aside, the exhale finally comes in the introduction to closer “Adrift in the Ocean,” which begins with over two and a half minutes of spaced-out guitar ambience (notes, not drones or noise) before Scheidt introduces the riff and is joined by Reiseberg and Foster to begin the build into the song.
Like much of Atma, “Adrift in the Ocean” is patient, which adds to the argument for its maturity. It’s a full four minutes before it “gets heavy” and another two before the first growl introduces the concept of vocals. If the song were 25 minutes long, that would be one thing, but the halfway point is just passed before Scheidt begins a verse. And if you think that’s a problem, you’re doing it wrong. While YOB has shown on “Prepare the Ground” and “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore” that they can work well within a rigid verse/chorus structure (they’ve done it on prior records too), the closer is purposefully more open. Scheidt nonetheless works in a memorable chorus/repetition of melody well met by his riff, and it’s a genuine surprise when the song hits a wall, the guitars cut out and it’s Reiseberg’s bass setting the bed for the second Kelly guest appearance, which begins with whispers over heavy sub-tribal tom hits from Foster.
YOB triumphs again here, Scheidt’s guitar returning over the rhythm of those hits with a lead worthy of capping Atma and an overwhelming psychedelic vibe that transitions surprisingly smoothly into the final riff of the album – which is all doom, agonizingly slow and utterly gripping. As “Adrift in the Ocean” plays out, cutting to just a fading out guitar, the breathtaking silence that follows is nearly as weighted as the crashes, feedback and hum that preceded, and it’s all the more understandable why the band would choose to finish Atma with it instead of the longer “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore,” which isn’t short on noise, but hardly has such a stately feel. “Adrift in the Ocean” is more of a culmination, and for that it’s placed precisely where it needs to be.
The prospect of a new YOB record in 2011 was reason enough to be excited, but the statement of progress the band makes with Atma is – as a fan – a thrill on another level entirely. The creative evolution of this band is what has always made their albums essential, and Atma is no different – even as they set the parameters of what they want YOB to be, they continue to expand the boundaries for themselves. Six full-lengths in, they inspire no less awe than ever, and one can only stand and pity whoever tries to top them in the rest of this year. Atma is completely and truly necessary, and if you’ve read this far into the review, I owe you at very least the debt of making that as clear as possible.
Tags: Eugene, Oregon, Profound Lore, Yob