[24 June 2012]
Nothing says meditative, deep, and spiritual like acoustic guitars. Or so seems to go the logic of YOB frontman Mike Scheidt’s unwieldy solo turn from the bludgeoning doom metal for which he’s best known. On Stay Awake, Scheidt loses the crushing dynamics and cuts his average song length down to a radio-friendly seven minutes from the usual 10 to 20, but his thematic bluntness plays better with foul weather moodiness than pensive enlightenment, and his vocal extremes sound far more natural on top of mountain-sized guitars than understated folk. Scheidt’s stylistic detour isn’t a complete bust; the album mostly sounds terrific. Producer Tad Doyle, whose own output with Tad is far closer to Scheidt’s usual gig than this excursion, has a surprisingly light touch when it comes to this primarily acoustic set. He captures with detail and clarity the 6/8 folk strum that drives most of these tunes and the fingerpicked leads Scheidt lays on top. Aside from a prominent electric guitar on “At the End of Everything” and spare piano notes on “In Your Light”, this is just Scheidt, his guitar, and his feelings.
Unfortunately, expression of said feelings isn’t Scheidt’s strong suit here. Although Stay Awake has moments that sound like solo versions of YOB’s sludgy, minor-key epics, the largely unplugged approach puts Scheidt’s lyrics and voice in sharp relief, and the effect isn’t flattering. One of doom metal’s more flexible vocalists, Scheidt used an eerie falsetto on YOB’s earliest releases, adding more typical metal growls and a vibrato-laden midrange to his toolbox over the course of the past decade. As you’d expect, Stay Awake is growl-free, but even free of that, his varied approach is awkwardly applied here. A quivering bellow on “The Price” puts a Tenacious D spin on the song’s overwrought, self-serious meditation on mortality (“To watch it die and not turn away / This is the price / To truly live”). More awkwardly, Scheidt goes Frankie Valli high on “Breathe”, a set of mantras (“Breeeeeeathe / Liiiiiiive / Feeeear / Liiiive / Faaaaith / Liiiiive”) that manage to pack fewer life lessons into 12 minutes than “Walk Like a Man” did in two.
The biggest misstep in delivery is on “At the End of Everything”, on which Scheidt previews the song proper with an excruciatingly portentous spoken word intro. Perhaps even this device would be bearable if it didn’t add to the feeling that these lyrics were written out as stream-of-consciousness poetry and tacked on to a perfectly good guitar track after the fact. The sung delivery is no better, with lines repeated illogically and in an odd cadence to fit the chord progressions (“Forever is the only real time / Until the end of everything / Of everything / Until the end of everything / You’ll be loved / You’ll be loved”).
The press materials for Stay Awake throw around terms like transcendence and hint at the album’s roots in Eastern philosophy (which, admittedly, are not foreign to the songwriter’s work with YOB), but the only tune Scheidt doesn’t pack with trite observations disguised as spiritual profundity is “In Your Light”. It’s substantially brighter-sounding than the rest of the album and plainly in the school of songs that cross romantic love with religious devotion. Like the best of these attempts (see also George Harrison’s “What Is Life”, Richard Thompson’s “A Heart Needs a Home”, etc.), it benefits from the double-meaning, the earthly love interpretation lending lightness and universality to the more didactic declaration of faith, even if Scheidt’s exact beliefs aren’t specified. The song also features his least affected vocal style, certainly a help. “In Your Light” aside, though, Stay Awake is an ungainly curiosity. Devoted YOB fans might be tempted by the possibility of hearing Scheidt in this new context, but I think they’ll probably come to the conclusion that most of the rest of us will: Scheidt’s solo effort would be good or maybe even great if it weren’t for him singing all over it.