Clearing the Path to Ascend is the point at which YOB abandons the formula they’ve been building over the course of the last five years. In its construction and in the execution of the songs themselves, it is still very much their own, but stands apart immediately from past outings, particularly the two released since the Eugene, Oregon, trio got back together after their 2005 breakup, 2009’s The Great Cessation (review here) and 2011’s Atma (review here). Clearing the Path to Ascend – also the band’s Neurot Recordings label debut — strips away a lot of what united those two records, elements like catchy openers “Burning the Altar” and “Prepare the Ground,” and a near-standard foray in guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt‘s signature triplet gallop, which is something that YOB has used to send chills up doomers’ spines since 2005’s The Unreal Never Lived. Songs like “Breathing from the Shallows,” these massive washes of abrasive, unyielding noise, seem as well to be a thing of the past. That’s not to say YOB can’t or won’t ever incorporate any of these things again, but even if they do, Clearing the Path to Ascend will have been the record that proved that wasn’t what the band needed to be. In the meantime, what we’re left with on their seventh full-length and pivotal third since reuniting with Scheidt, drummer Travis Foster and bassist Aaron Rieseberg, is a scathingly honest, human creativity unlike anything else in doom, cosmic or otherwise. An hour-plus four-track release with no individual piece under 11 minutes, it is YOB at their most melodically progressive and an album that dares to let its emotional resonance meet and, especially in closer “Marrow,” surpass an at times barbarous tonal heft. YOB haven’t put a studio LP out in a decade that I didn’t pick as my Album of the Year, and given the sincere nature of the material on display here it seems all the more foolish to feign impartiality. I am a fan of the band, and Clearing the Path to Ascend is their most accomplished outing yet.
Opener “In Our Blood” (16:56) begins with a sample that says simply, “It’s time to wake up.” While this would seem to promise an explosion, but instead, Scheidt‘s guitar quietly introduces the undulating rhythm line that will comprise the core of the song, a roll that, when Foster and Rieseberg kick in after the first minute, sets a lumbering course pace-wise that the bulk of the record will stick to. Vocals, which in years past have typically come either in an ethereal wail or destructive growl, are clearer, cleaner and more confident than they’ve ever been — Scheidt‘s debut solo work, Stay Awake (review here), and subsequent touring could easily be read as a factor in that — but when “In Our Blood”‘s first growls arrive shortly before the five-minute mark, they’re no less vicious than they’ve ever been. Already, YOB have changed course from their last several albums, the way Clearing the Path to Ascend lurches gradually to life rather than slamming listeners with an initial immediacy only to expand from there. It comes across as dispensing with a formality — getting right to the heart of the matter in a different way that’s more immersive for the listening experience of the entirety rather than giving an initial standout and then letting the rest of the album make its statement. Another clean, rolling verse ensues and trades back to growls — it’s not a chorus, but a repeated and expanded part, anyway — before “In Our Blood” shifts into its next movement near its halfway point, a bridge leading to an ambient break, Rieseberg and Foster dropping out to leave the guitar as a bed for an expanded version of the sample that began the song, British philosopher Alan Watts asking, “What is reality? Obviously, no one can say because it isn’t words. It isn’t material, that’s just an idea. It isn’t spiritual — that’s also an idea,” before the “Time to wake up” is repeated and the song bursts back to life, Scheidt loosing a roar that’s primal but which serves more of an ambient purpose than an aggressive one. The riff that will serve as the foundation for the remaining time takes hold, a guitar solo is layered in, deep in the mix, and cycles meet a culmination after 15 minutes in as guitars continue to build and growling lines surface from the plod, the last of them sustained to the point of Scheidt‘s voice breaking as the instruments behind end with a barrage of feedback giving way directly to the punch of drums that start “Nothing to Win.”
That punch, which becomes the core of “Nothing to Win” over its 11:22 run, is not to be understated. Foster‘s tom progression is indebted, almost singularly, to Neurosis‘ “Through Silver in Blood,” but the space those fills occupy, the way they’re used in the track and the sheer stamina required to pull them off make them all the more staggering. The second of Clearing the Path to Ascend‘s four pieces is the most intense, playing off building verse tension via those drums and the guitar and bass that follow them and opening to a chorus that arrives at the title line in a manner fitting the conclusion itself — there’s nothing to win. Listening to it, I’m reminded of a conversation about ambition back in 2011 that was part of an interview with Scheidt for Atma, but without a lyric sheet I wouldn’t speculate in concrete terms what’s being won, or not, and either way, the ferocity remains striking, Scheidt moving into a semi-spoken, seething delivery for the verse and layering shouts and growls for the chorus. Foster again takes the lead after halfway through, switching from the chorus progression to an even more intense run of fills that builds for a minute or so until finally the song seems to collapse under its own frustrations, Scheidt growling out a line that turns to a kind of agonized plead before its end, Rieseberg and Foster coming back in over feedback before the guitar rejoins them on the transition into the song’s last movement, a churning riff, deceptively intricate in its timing, taking hold and carrying YOB through the finish, Scheidt reminding along the way that, indeed, there’s nothing to win, channeling the abrasiveness that once fueled “Breathing from the Shallows” or “Kosmos” from The Unreal Never Lived into a concise declaration that leaves an impression even after the album has finished. Its message gets through, in other words, before a relatively quick fadeout rounds the song out and “Unmask the Spectre” (15:25) begins with a soft guitar line somewhat reminiscent of the opening track and “Marrow” still to come.
Given its heavy/atmospheric tradeoffs — in softer parts, Scheidt‘s guitar seems to have been recorded in some terrifyingly vast expanse, at night — set out along a linear path and the melodic instrumental complexity at which it arrives in its apex guitar solo, it seems fair to think of “Unmask the Spectre” as a lead-in for “Marrow,” but at more than 15 minutes, it’s also a substantial portion of the album, and the fact that it’s paired well with the closer shouldn’t necessarily detract from its individual appeal or the work it does in furthering the atmosphere of Clearing the Path to Ascend overall, cutting back as it does the furious push of “Nothing to Win” and moving YOB back into a more gradual space, patient, encompassing, and resoundingly slow. A high-viscosity chug takes hold as the main riff cycles through early, having lumbered forth from the quieter start, and “Unmask the Spectre” seems to take a different path toward similar venting to “Nothing to Win,” growls and screams topping steady thud from Foster and starts and stops in the bass and guitar. By this point in the album, it’s easy to be lost in Clearing the Path to Ascend, particularly on the first couple listens, and “Unmask the Spectre” sets an especially turbulent course on which the listener is carried, moving between this thunderous stomp and the airy quieter movement, underscored by various rumbling threats, vague noise, and low-mixed shouts and effects-distorted pleas. A rising shout before five minutes in reintroduces the heavy progression, Scheidt losing his fucking mind in the process, and the momentum is carried into the song’s next stage. If there’s a spectre being unmasked, it starts to happen at about the sixth minute, at which the tense, crushing heft spreads itself out to some kind of resolution, Scheidt taking a cleaner approach vocally over his riff, Rieseberg‘s smoothed out bassline and Foster‘s more forward-directed drums. A wavering guitar solo follows a verse past halfway through, but there’s another dropout. As low and minimal as YOB get on Clearing the Path to Ascend, heaviness is never completely absent, Scheidt whispering over windy backing swirl and his own barely-there guitar before Foster thumps the lurch back into place, a crawling return to YOB at their most feedback-drenched and excruciating. It seems like that’s going to be the end — both preceding cuts have had clearly announced final movements — but there’s a switch to cleaner vocals again and the guitar teases melodic leads. It’s a sudden cut to the backing “wind,” but the subdued guitar accompanies, seeming like it’s searching for a way to lead directly into “Marrow,” and not quite making the switch seamless, but coming as close to tying the two pieces together as one could reasonably ask.
Before the album was recorded, the band posted an update to Facebook referring to “the most beautiful arrangement we’ve ever written.” No question “Marrow” (18:49) was the arrangement being described, and accurately. It is lush, and gorgeous, and where it wants to, it launches into a soothing wash of tone more cathartic than “Catharsis” and arguably YOB‘s most singularly ambitious song. Like “Unmask the Spectre,” it starts quiet, but instead of bursting out, Foster and Rieseberg join the quiet guitar line early, making for a more gradual beginning, less jarring in its shift. At 2:25, a fuller rumble emerges, but the soft guitar line is still repeated over it, a peaceful, almost resigned mood emanating from the heavy rollout. There are no growls or screams on “Marrow,” the vocals entirely clean-sung for the duration, but it is Clearing the Path to Ascend‘s most righteous moment, conveying more of an emotional turbulence than a musical one in its initial verse and the movement to the first chorus, which arrives subtly just after five minutes and surprises with Scheidt layering his voice for a kind of harmonized choir effect, resulting in his most soulful performance to date, in YOB or out of it. A quick second to catch breath — one needs it — and the verse is renewed. I’m not sure I can properly convey the sense of arrival that chorus brings with it, or how gently it comes on, led into by a first stage already departed from the verse but not yet giving away the full breadth to come. The effect is only enhanced the second time through, the chorus expanded as “Marrow” moves toward its 10th minute, building to a thudding head, the word “time” repeated and drawn melodically into a hymnal. At 10:33, with more than eight minutes to go, the bass and drums drop out to let the guitar set the foundation of the album’s finale. As with the intro, the guitar, bass and drums all explore this part so that it’s not so much a minimalist interlude as an essential piece of the whole, a background layer of organ — or guitar effects made to sound like organ — hinting of the epiphany and climax still to come. Scheidt sings low and quiet after 12 minutes in, a verse that leads to the most gripping and resonant guitar solo I’ve heard since Ancestors‘ “First Light,” very classic rock in its style, but speaking more to the central melody of “Marrow” than a YOB lead ever has to its respective song. It swirls louder in the mix and carries into a heavier movement — Rieseberg‘s bassline no less astounding than any of the guitar layers — and the vocals return after a few measures to drive “Marrow” further toward into apex, which arrives in multiple stages as a wash of immersive realization. It ends, without a second wasted, by cutting back to the quiet guitar line that introduced the song and noodling out the last note for a final echo giving way to silence.
I know I said this when I saw them play at Roadburn earlier this year, but it’s worth repeating: YOB are a once-in-a-generation band. It is rare enough to find an act willing to push itself at all creatively seven albums in, but to deliberately cast off any sense of playing to expectation in favor of such raw expression — it’s the kind of thing that one or two groups in a decade might actually manage to pull off. More importantly, in doing so, Clearing the Path to Ascend makes YOB‘s a more sustainable evolution by breaking down the increasingly rigid boundaries of “what YOB sounds like” and commandingly taking their songwriting to somewhere new both for them and for the genre as a whole. Nearly 15 years on from their first demo, they sound like they’re just getting started. If this album is true to its title, and YOB are clearing their path by tossing away these preconceived notions of what they are and what “doom” is, and if perhaps what comes next is ascension, then so be it. They’re obviously ready.