“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 / Time . . . to wake up”
Start your record with a heady Allan Watts quote followed by a crushing wall of doom sludge and demon growls like that of Gandalf’s Balrog, and you have my attention. YOB’s most recent effort: Clearing the Path to Ascend is the kind of album that makes sautéing your dinner veggies feel like the heaviest and most profound thing you’ve ever done. This is not your lightning fast, blast-beat rage metal. Nor is it some goat sacrificing devil-worship anthem. Here we have crackly Alan Watts recordings, introspective growl/whispers, and what ultimately amounts to a beautiful and atmospheric doomscape experience. This is a different class of heaviness, a foggy philosopher stroking his beard and nodding his crooked brow along to the honey-thick riffs, and warm apocalyptic tone. At just over an hour yet only containing four songs, Clearing the Path to Ascend is a sundering molasses-beast of an album, shrouded in mist and desolate sludge riffery.
The opening 16-minute track “In Our Blood” starts the album off with a quick clip from our friend Alan Watts: “Time to Wake Up” he says. This is followed by a clean but ominous guitar riff, the kind that invokes imagery of cave-ridden crags and parting fog. It repeats upon itself in solitude for over a minute before being joined by the magnificent soul-crushing heaviness of the full team. At a skeleton crew of just three members, YOB packs a ferocious punch. Tar-thick distortion and well-constructed layering are the foundation of their looming sound mountain. At the 3:00 mark of “In Our Blood” we get our first taste of the desolate, warbling vocals that punctuate the progression. Not until the fifth minute, when most songs would be wrapping things up, do we get our first taste of the aforementioned Balrog growl. Mike Sheidt’s barbaric beast-howl contrasts his clean vocals to great effect. The voice work on is brutal and devastating on “In Our Blood” but by no means not over-the-top in the barking cookie-monster sense. Having experimented with the doom-genre for close to 20 years now, YOB’smastery of vocal layering and atmosphere is clear, and this opening track of Clearing the Path to Ascend is a perfect illustration. The song feels very much like you are traveling through the nine levels of some purgatorial hell-cavern, and the growled moments are there to let you know when you have reached a particularly dire level.
The follow up track, “Nothing to Win” picks up the ambling pace to what feels more like a gallop, while maintaining that relentless sound-wave feel. Here we get the closest thing on the album to a proper wash/rinse/repeat chorus style formula. YOB tunes often feel as though they are some lost giant, aimlessly wandering through the soundscapes without cause or direction. “Nothing to Win” is the shortest song on the album (at only 11:22) and returns to the same catchy chorus-riff a number of times. Not quite a pop track, but the closet thing we will find to one on Clearing the Path to Ascend. The loose drums in conjunction with ambient and atmospheric feedback towards the end of “Nothing to Win” come together to create a particularly strong moment for this song.
“Unmask the Specter” brings us back down to more of what feels like YOB’s real wheelhouse. That is to say it begins with a creeping-paced riff seemingly born from nothingness, and slowly builds towards some unimaginable immensity. Here our intro riff is accompanied by reverb-cloaked whispers and astral musings. While the first half of the album consistently offers up waves of unrelenting sludge brutality, “Unmask the Specter” is the first song to introduce progressions that suggest a faintly optimistic feel. Mike Sheidt’s guitar work on this track finds an admirable balance between bleak doom-chords and a subtle melancholic beauty. Hinting at what feels like some kind of transcendent optimism. However, these moments are usually short lived, and the song finishes with an audio clip that sounds like winds from some post-apocalypse waste, reminding the listener that this is in fact a doom metal album.
With the closing track “Marrow” we get another a slow and subtle sludge-ballad, but it is unlike any of YOB’s previous efforts. This is a carefully woven doom-quilt of a song. Here we have more of their signature layers and spacey atmospheric wanderlust, but to that of a different tune. “Marrow” is a climatic display of Clearing the Path to Ascend’s masterful blend of bleak and beautiful, first hinted at on “Unmask the Specter.” They expand on this idea in the nearly 20-minute riff within “Marrow” which abandons much of the bone-crushing heaviness found on the earlier tracks, in exchange for what feels warm and soothing in comparison. I imagine Alan Watts in a rocking chair on a porch in the afternoon sun listening to “Marrow” slowly nodding in approval to this snail-paced doom-opus. Considering the length and creeping tempo of this track, it is somewhat of a time investment and exercise in patience to take on. While getting familiar with the album, I found myself avoiding this song at times because of the daunting length and less-than-stimulating pace. Looking to “In Our Blood” and “Nothing to Win” instead for my quick doom-fix. However, upon repeated listens I have come appreciate “Marrow” as the hidden gem of Clearing the Path to Ascend, and a song representing a step in a new and exciting direction for YOB and the doom genre they represent.
Clearing the Path to Ascend as a whole is the kind of album that requires a little bit of patience and personal investment from the listener. These are long, ambling songs that explore existential ideas swirling around in YOB’s carefully crafted doom-universe. Because of its massive scope and wandering nature, this is also an album best experienced with a start-to-finish listen in order to get its full atmospheric effect. However, the reward is well worth the investment, and Clearing the Path to Ascend is easily my favorite metal record of 2014. With their most recent effort, YOB has created a progressive addition to the doom genre that offers listeners more than just bleak, detuned riffs. So, if you’re at all inclined to heavier music or simply feel as though it’s time to wake up by all means give Clearing the Path to Ascend a thorough listen, it won’t disappoint.