If you follow baseball, you know what an analyst is talking about when he refers to a pitcher’s “arsenal,” but if you don’t, here’s a quick primer: Over the course of their development, pitchers are taught maybe a dozen different types of pitches (four-seamer, sinker, splitter, change, etc.), and by the time they make it to the big leagues — if they make it to the big leagues — they can throw one or two of those pitches with authority, and can maybe call upon one or two others, with substantially less confidence, in cases of need. That may seem like a pretty limited skill set, but don’t be fooled: Pitching is really hard, and harmful, and even practicing certain pitches is an invitation to career-ending injury. And anyway, most pitchers can get by with an arsenal of one or two good pitches and one or two less-good pitches. The guys with an outright mastery of three or more pitches are a rare breed: dark wizards, freaks of nature. Pedro Martinez in his prime, for instance, threw four pitches, all equally lethal, all available to him in any situation.
But greatness isn’t defined by arsenal; it’s defined by effectiveness. Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of baseball, threw one pitch: the cut fastball. He pitched for nearly two decades at an absurdly dominant level with only that one item in his arsenal, but he threw that pitch, that cutter, so well that it was almost unhittable. Batters stepped to the plate knowing what was coming, having had years to prepare for that one pitch from that one pitcher, and still, when he threw it — much more often then not — they swung and missed, or they made contact, but their bats shattered upon impact with the ball. It was too heavy, and eventually, too daunting. Batters stood in the box against Mariano, got blown away by the cutter, and walked back to the dugout to sit down. That’s how Mariano got the nickname “The Sandman” — he put the opposition to sleep — and that’s why he eventually took the field to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Mariano Rivera had no idea who Metallica were! But when he entered the game, his opposition couldn’t help but succumb to the cutter. Exit light, enter night. He had one pitch, and that pitch was doom.
In many ways, Yob — not Metallica — are heavy metal’s answer to Mariano Rivera. For years, Yob threw only one pitch, and that pitch, too, was doom: the heaviest, most impressive, most oppressive doom metal the world had ever witnessed; suffocating stuff capable of splintering lumber. Yob’s music was almost impenetrably dense, hypnotic, psychedelic, louder than bombs and slower than sleep (slower than Sleep, too). Yob are a traditional power trio, giving equal weight to each instrument, although only one member of the band is a constant presence: guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt, a student of Eastern Mysticism, an almost universally beloved and revered presence on the metal landscape, and a guitarist, singer, and songwriter possessed of superhuman-seeming gifts in each of those departments.
Scheidt formed Yob in 1996 (coincidentally Rivera’s first full season as a Major Leaguer), although they didn’t deliver their first album till 2002. Over the last 12 years, Yob have released six albums, defining their sound right away and refining it, slightly, with each subsequent release. Scheidt temporarily retired the Yob name in 2006, after four albums (the last of which, The Unreal Never Lived, is considered by roughly half the band’s fans to be Yob’s very best album). But he resurrected Yob in 2008, setting the stage for a triumphant comeback in 2009: Scheidt signed with the influential Canadian label Profound Lore Records and released The Great Cessation (considered by roughly the other half of the band’s fans to be Yob’s very best album). That was followed, though, by 2011′s Atma: almost universally considered to be Yob’s worst album. That’s not to say it was bad — it received near-unanimous praise, and even its detractors are more likely to point out its virtues than its flaws, but for the first time, Yob weren’t … dominant. It wasn’t that they couldn’t throw the cutter anymore, but the pitch had lost some zip, it was shattering fewer bats; it was still great, but it wasn’t blowing people away the way it had in the past.
After Atma, Scheidt went on something of an artistic voyage of the soul, releasing a folksy solo album in 2012, and returning the following the year as part of the Cascadian supergroup VHOL, alongside 2/5 of the late, lamented Ludicra — drummer Aesop Dekker, now of Agalloch, and guitarist John Cobbett, now of Hammers Of Misfortune — plus bassist Sigrid Sheie, also of Hammers Of Misfortune. VHOL were a band that treated genre with a postmodernist’s ambivalence: They blended black metal, death metal, NWOBHM, crust, thrash, and post-metal with maniacal glee. Scheidt then signed Yob with Neurot Recordings, the label run by spiritual brethren Neurosis. It’s impossible to say how those experiences shaped Scheidt’s approach as a songwriter, but as he prepares for the release of Yob’s seventh album, Clearing The Path To Ascend, it’s apparent something has changed. It’s still Mariano Rivera on the mound, but that old arsenal-of-one has been expanded — this is not the same Sandman.
It’s fitting, then, that the first words you hear when you hit play on Clearing The Path To Ascend are: “Time to wake up.” Those words are spoken by a disembodied guru; beneath them are flanged, aquatic guitars that will be familiar to any fan of Yob — soon, those waters rise to tsunami levels, and when they break, they’re powerful enough to wipe out entire cities. Scheidt’s guitar bends like steel in a forge, and it bounces like hard rubber. None of this is new. Yob are starting you off with the cutter — but it’s the best one they’ve thrown in five years. Clearing The Path To Ascend clocks in at four songs and just about one hour — a pretty standard album structure for the band — but each song displays a different pitch in Yob’s arsenal. After showing you the moneymaker, they spend the remaining 45 or so minutes mowing you down with every new tool in their expanded repertoire.
“Nothing To Win” is the four-seam fastball: high heat touching triple digits. It’s a war-charger from the Neurosis/High On Fire/Tombs school of apocalyptic earth-scorching. Travis Foster delivers the most impressive drum performance you’ll hear this year on any record, in the service of one of the fastest songs in Yob’s catalog. “Unmask The Spectre” is the two-seam fastball, the sinker, tailing away from the lefthanded batter’s box. It’s an exercise in dynamics, starting at a literal whisper and instantly leaping to illegal levels of jackhammer-on-pavement noise, and from there, it constructs a bridge between those extremes. When the connection is fused, the song achieves something that feels like levitation and maybe even transcendence. The album’s closer — and its best song — “Marrow” is a knee-buckling curve, the most beautiful pitch in baseball, dropping in front of the batter as if falling off a table. “Marrow” is doom by way of post-rock by way of power ballad. It starts with a hard undertow, and when you’re dragged out far enough, it drowns you in chiming guitars and naked emotions, which build and amplify and start to sound like something else altogether: Neil Young fronting Jesu backed by a gospel choir; Spiritualized jamming with Tony Iommi on some 4AD-era Red House Painters songs.
I mentioned Travis Foster above, and I’ll shout out bassist Aaron Rieseberg here, both of whose superlative work provides an anchor for this battleship, but it’s hard to single out the rhythm section, partly because Yob, the unit, function as a pure rhythm section: There are moments on Clearing The Path To Ascend when all three instruments come down on the same beat that make me feel like I just got hit by a car. It’s also hard to shift focus away from Scheidt, who is exerting a gravitational pull all his own. He makes one guitar sound like a fleet of F-14s; his voice ranges from Leonard Cohen lows to Ozzy Osbourne highs to Matt Pike roars, and he somehow manages to shift between those extremes with the ease of Tony Bennett practicing scales. It’s hard to tell where his body ends and the music begins.
2014 has been a good year for doom — you’ve got new music from Pallbearer, Triptykon, Electric Wizard, Earth, Sleep, and Witch Mountain, among others, serving as evidence of that. But Yob are the best doom band in the world today, and Clearing The Path To Ascend is the best doom album you’ll hear this year. It is, quite possibly, the best metal album you’ll hear this year, maybe the best album of the year, period. The timing is apt: Mariano Rivera retired from baseball after the 2013 season, leaving behind the cutter and the game to build churches. Yob have been building churches all along, but with Clearing The Path To Ascend, they’ll renew the faith of those who’ve lost their way and find legions of new worshippers. Exit Sandman. Time to wake up.
Clearing The Path To Ascend is out 9/2 via Neurot.