Dear reader, I am going to be straightforward and brutally honest with you: objectivity will fail you. There may be times when you feel as though you can truly step back and objectively appraise a work of art; there may be times where you are certain that your opinion on something is the best and most correct one. But there comes a time when you have to understand that you will fail at being objective. That critical faculty you’ve developed, that understanding of taste honed through a lifetime of experience and a depth of knowledge few can match, it will leave you in the face of some art. Objectivity will fail you.
At the tail end of 2016, Mike Scheidt, the guitarist/vocalist/band leader of Oregonian doom/sludge/stoner metal legends YOB, was rushed to the hospital for life-threatening health problems that developed as a result of acute diverticulitis, an inflammation in the large intestine. Intense surgery was required to remove the infected part of the intestinal tract. Although he made a pretty clean recovery and is, to my knowledge, completely healthy at this point, there is something distinctly life-threatening about acute diverticulitis and death was on the cards. It was not a likely outcome, to be sure, but it was certainly a possibility.
Objectivity absolutely fails me in the face of Our Raw Heart. More than being just an incredible musician and the leader of one of my favorite bands, Mike Scheidt is an inspiration to me and a significant influence on how I approach writing music. The world losing him was a possibility – not a large one, but a possibility nonetheless – and seeing this new album from YOB is nothing short of a miracle in not a small way. I truly feel as though any grade or criticism I write of this album has to be given the caveat that no matter how bad or disappointing this record is to other fans of the band, it will undoubtedly end up in my top five albums of 2018, if not being my absolute favorite release of the year.
Our Raw Heart is, if anything, the most divided record of YOB’s career. It lacks the monolithic singularity of sound that characterized releases like The Great Cessation, Atma, and The Unreal Never Lived, while also not partaking in the tasteful diversity and experimentation of The Illusion of Motion and Clearing the Path to Ascend. Essentially, Our Raw Heart is an album with two distinct themes at play: pain and beauty. The barbed, angular riffing of “The Screen” and the bellowing swells of “In Reverie/Lungs Reach” seek to inflict some form of deep, empathetic aural pain on the listener, while the heave-ho sway and meditative lushness of “Ablaze,” “Beauty in Falling Leaves,” “Original Face” and the album’s title track aim to instill a sense of sublime, almost celestial peace amidst their grandeur.
Billy Barnett’s production and Heba Kadry’s mastering certainly both aid in this task. The guitar and bass create tidal waves of sound, Scheidt’s throaty vocals sit perfectly amidst the towering walls of noise that YOB invoke, and the drums punctuate without being overly sharp or in-your-face. From a production standpoint, this might be their biggest accomplishment yet; Our Raw Heart has an unbelievably well-executed sense of self in its production and presentation.
To be frank for a moment, though: this is not YOB’s best album. I probably would not put Our Raw Heart in their top three, even. It lacks the brutally heavy inflection of their greatest work and its thematic duality can be lost to incoherence and create a record that feels both too scattered and too singular in purpose at the same time. Additionally, a 75-minute runtime makes Our Raw Heart an absolute chore to listen to all the way through outside of very specific moods. From a critical standpoint, cutting “The Screen” and “In Reverie/Lungs Reach” would have aided the album immensely, both in being a more purposeful creation and in not being overly self-indulgent.
At its core, though, Our Raw Heart needs to be what it is. It’s a contending with the contradiction of pain and beauty, but it’s not content at just seeing the opposed existence of the two and ruminating on their coexistence. Rather, to borrow a term from Hegelian dialectics, it’s a moment of Aufhebung, usually translated to English as “sublation.” This is the moment of transcendence beyond contradiction; it’s the point where one realizes that truth can’t lie in two opposing ideas but must go beyond them to find something greater, something closer to the actual reality we occupy. Our Raw Heart is this process of Aufhebung made real. Does it work? I’m not afraid to say that it might not, at least for some. But I also know a majority of fans of YOB are in the same category as I am, and for us, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Our Raw Heart is a return for Mike Scheidt from the edge of the cliff; Our Raw Heart is the moment of seeing beyond pain and beauty as contradiction to a reality that derives meaning from their shared space. It’s hopeful and resolute, compassionate and powerful, and even though it may stumble as an album from time to time, it’s such a powerful piece of art and such a beautiful celebration of humanity that it’s awfully easy to forgive any shortcomings it may have.
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Our Raw Heart is out now through Relapse Records. It’s available on all streaming services and you can find physical copies + merch on the Relapse website.