It goes without saying, but death is an anxious excruciating experience. There’s an intense amount of emotional stress placed on those on the verge of dying, their family and loved ones, etc. That’s saying nothing of the sheer pain of a fatal medical condition or physical trauma from an unexpected accident. All of this was certainly not lost on Mike Scheidt, the front-man of sludge/doom metal trio YOB, whose diagnosis of acute diverticulitis ultimately lead to several attacks of intestinal pain culminating in a major surgery early last year. Reading his description of the experience (and just reading up on the disease itself), it was nothing short of a nightmare for everyone involved.
This pain, this brush with death, is practically coated all over YOB’s latest album Our Raw Heart, their follow-up to 2014’s Clearing the Path to Ascend. From the opening moments of the album’s intro “Ablaze,” it paints a vivid picture of the experience, starting with the melancholic panic that sets in the moment you realize you can’t put a fatal disease out of mind any more. These thick, prolonged guitars drone on with shimmering melodic accentuations, eventually giving way to a driving tempo that amplifies the intensity of everything. As the song goes on, Mike’s vocal performance reinforces the mournful emotions driving the music, as they soar above everything while also diving into the sonic onslaught with some gnarly bellows here and there. It perfectly captures the anxiety-fueled sorrow of having to face these things head-on.
Immediately after, however, the album takes a hard left turn into the brutal reality of such things with “The Screen.” The first released track from the album, eschewing the layered melodies of the introduction, brings with it this cripplingly heavy chugged guitar rhythm paired against a rather bare-bones drum beat. The production on this song is, no pun intended, the rawest across the whole album, sapping much of the saturation from the riffs in the verses and leaving the drums sounding somewhat flat, but it all works when mixed together. All of these elements, combined with Mike’s concrete gravel wails, craft a song that sounds like death immediately taking hold on its subject, especially in the pre-choruses with massive echoing bellows exclaiming:
Until pain has bled out
Onto the screen
In this moment
The next pair of tracks, “In Reverie/Lungs Reach,” are more musically disorienting than the rest of the tracklist, delivering an experience more akin to past YOB albums with a pounding, droning rhythm in the guitars and drums which is given off-kilter accentuations that make you feel lost in the muddy sparseness. The song vamps on this for a lengthy period of time with reverb-heavy vocals coating everything, taking only a brief break for a clean guitar bridge before the crushing heaviness comes back into play.
As with all YOB albums, the album spends a pretty beefy length of time across a small number of tracks (approximately 75 minutes across 7 tracks), but as always, Our Raw Heart knows how to make every second of it count. This is most evident with the last 3 tracks on the record, which all drive home the final thoughts and experiences of dealing with potentially fatal illnesses. “Beauty In Fallen Leaves” sees the band, and Mike, at their most emotionally vulnerable, with layers of delicate guitar melodies and a stripped-down drum rhythm with soft clicks filling in the 6/8 rhythm, and the soft-spoken vocals that all burst into cries of desperation once the song picks up in volume. The lyrics on display are heartbreaking to read and hear delivered, meditating on the situation and trying to find hope in that which seems explicitly hopeless:
Been this way throughout time
Been this way throughout my life
Your heart brings me home
Been this way throughout time
From the tumult of the heave
Not born of belief
Your heart brings me home
The penultimate track “Original Face” is the most energetic on the record, as well as possibly the heaviest apart from “The Screen.” The musical saturation in display is quite intense, with an aggressive pounding drum beat and driving chord progression that rides a fine line between heavy and melancholic. Mike’s vocal delivery is once again full of gravelly tones, as he declares “I must see it through…There is nothing else, this is all there is.” It’s a musical confrontation with the source of your pain and suffering, and a song of survival in the face of death. The song’s menacing pace and moody melodic overtones all work together to convey the idea that while you might not be sure if you’ll survive the odds, it’s absolutely vital that you don’t go down without fighting all the way to the end.
The album closes with the title track, and it is a truly beautiful end to this musical odyssey. The introduction delivers layers of clean guitars playing an incredibly hopeful set of melodies, which continues through to when the full band joins in, the melodies accentuated further by layers of distortion. As the reverb-heavy instrumentation echoes outward, a sense of triumph overcomes the experience along with an appreciation for the beauty of every second of life given to us. This is especially true during the final moments of the song, which layers many more guitar melodies as the song fades out, even allowing for a closing guitar solo: a spirited jump back to life after a harrowing experience. And of course, some of the last lyrics are as emotionally honest as anything else on the album:
From holes in my gut
To love from miracles
Silver climbed the walls
Eyeless looking on
It’s looking still
Our Raw Heart is nothing less than an absolute musical triumph. Taking the best aspects of the band’s sound from their entire career, YOB have crafted a musical experience that is alternately brutal & nihilistic as well as haunting and occasionally inspirational. The album is a deeply impactful meditation on the nature of death and the value of life, and may very easily stand as the group’s best album to date. It is an experience that will stick with you for a while to come after your first listen, and for many other listens later.
Final Verdict: buy it. Our Raw Heart is a stunning masterpiece and easily one of the year’s best metal releases
Our Raw Heart is available from Relapse Records on CD, vinyl, digital download, and streaming services.
[Note: A copy of the album was provided by Relapse Records for the purpose of this review.]