Much of the derisive end of the response I’ve seen to YOB frontman Mike Scheidt’s first solo outing — given the title Stay Awake and released last month via Thrill Jockey – seems to center around the simple point that, “This isn’t YOB.” This is true. One imagines that had the Eugene, Oregon, native wanted to follow-up YOB’s 2011 Atma full-length, no one would’ve argued. The quick turnaround would’ve been hailed near universally and it would’ve been a great way to continue the momentum from their run of shows opening for Tool and a way to mark their ascendancy as a touring act (new West Coast dates were just announced). Thinking about that, maybe part of the appeal of doing an album like Stay Awake for Scheidt is the purposeful defiance of that expectation, checking that forward push and not losing sight of a personal creative drive. I don’t know that to be the case, but it makes for easy conjecture. Most pivotally, what the album does is balance neo-folk intimacy with Scheidt’s own particular psychedelic lushness, and amid a slew of heavy/doom solo outings – this year alone has brought acoustic works from Nate Hall of U.S. Christmas and Scott Kelly, as well as Kelly’s three-way split with Wino and Neurosis bandmate Steve Von Till tribute to Townes Van Zandt – it’s the flourishes that work to distinguish what is by now a familiar form at its root. Couple that with Scheidt’s relative inexperience in the style – he has said on stage that he’s very new to it – and Stay Awake can’t help but be individualized, whatever aspects of others’ work it might draw on. Some Kelly influence is there, and the interplay of electric backing chords and acoustic picking that forms the musical basis of “Until the End of Everything” is something I tend always to attribute in my head to Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance or perhaps even Angels of Light, but Scheidt maintains his wavering melodic vocal delivery and puts it to use in a variety of constants on the six-track/43-minute Stay Awake, which was recorded by the venerable Tad Doyle at his Studio Witch Ape.
That it’s a genuine studio production would on paper seem to run counter to the album’s bedroom folk intimacy, but in terms of the actual sound of the record, it doesn’t. Whatever room space is added to the third cut, “In Your Light,” the solitary mood pervades, and that’s true from the gradual fade-in of opener “When Time Forgets Time,” which keeps Scheidt’s unique (though increasingly imitated) riff patterning despite the shift in context. Of all the songs on Stay Awake, the first is probably the closest he comes to YOB’s style, but he’s neither near it nor a stranger to straightforward opening tracks – see any of the last four YOB records – so don’t think I’m making a direct comparison. “When Time Forgets Time” does much to establish the overarching aesthetic, but little to set up the dynamics that play out over the course of the ensuing Stay Awake, fading out as it came as though we’ve just glimpsed a piece of a larger whole. The shift toward more radical experimentation first shows itself on “Until the End of Everything,” which dedicates the first 1:45 of its total 4:49 to a slow spoken word piece formed at least in part from the lyrics on which a breathy Scheidt reminds his listeners that “Reason has no place in this,” and “Until the end of everything/You will be loved.” The turn from the momentum of the first track might be set as an analogy for the album itself, but that spoken part also marks a misstep – not so much in concept or recording, but in execution – and it’s the moment on Stay Awake where Scheidt’s inexperience with singer-songwriter material feels most apparent. By the time his jarringly distorted electric guitar kicks in at 1:46, the words he’s saying feel forced and overperformed. The reason I say this relates to inexperience is because once the song starts and the lyrical cycle begins again, that’s not the case. “Until the End of Everything,” on which he backs himself vocally and touches on harmonies here and there, marks one of Stay Awake’s most effective arrangements and most lasting melodies. Even the feedback shortly before the four-minute mark and that fades back and forth through the last minute of the song feels purposeful and impeccably placed behind Scheidt’s soft picking. Really, it’s the pacing and, at the end, the drama in the spoken delivery that derails the beginning and forces the music to reclaim the momentum that “When Time Forgets Time” set into motion, which, thankfully, it does. (I’ll say here as well that in the two times I’ve seen Scheidt perform “Until the End of Everything” live, he’s delivered the spoken part quicker and more effectively.)