In recent years YOB have become one of the most popular bands in the doom metal canon, taking the essence of the genre (ie. massive riffs) and mixing it up with a healthy dose of experimentalism by way of Neurosis. The man at the heart of the band, Mike Scheidt, has always seemed like a humble, honest and down-to-earth kind of guy – the kind of guy you could approach at a gig and just talk music with over a beer. If nothing else, Stay Awake, Scheidt’s first solo album, throws the singer out of what has presumably become his comfort zone and strips him of the bombast that he and his fellow Yobs create, leaving him, for the most part, with just his unique, high-pitched voice and an acoustic guitar for a collection of reflective, raga-like, hypnotic tunes.
Needless to say there has been a lot of anticipation about this album and the results are approximately what I had been expecting. That’s not to say that the album is predictable or disappointing – far from it – but it is Mike Scheidt with an acoustic guitar with very few embellishments. As you can probably imagine, this makes for a very pleasant album by a very gifted songwriter. As well as containing songs with the same grand, expansive feel of YOB, the tone of the album also shares a fair deal in common with John Frusciante’s solo albums, a kind of spiritual interaction between the classical guitar and that falsetto voice. Lyrically too, both songwriters confront the topics of spirituality, life and death, fear and hope with an equal measure of plain-speak and poetic turns of phrase.
As opening track “When Time Forgets Time” fades in you could be forgiven for assuming that the song had been waiting an eternity to start, the mantra-like, circular cycle of flowing chords coming across like a wash of light, fractured through a stained-glass window. “Until the End of Everything”, one of the few songs on the album to feature an electric guitar, also has a pleasing, cyclical melancholy refrain and a philosophical lyric that encompasses many of the prevalent themes on the album: “Leaves fall and grow again/ Forever, here/ Is the only real time/ Until the end of everything, you will be loved.” Structurally the song is relatively simple but all the more powerful for it. Similarly, “The Price” and “Breathe” both feature beautiful layers of overlapping classical guitars, with a distinctly Spanish folk influence. Closing the album on a tumultuous note is title track “Stay Awake” which contains the strongest vocal performance on the album from Scheidt who abandons the falsetto for a crooning growl which adds a layer of grit to the pensive yet hopeful track.
In the grand scheme of things, “In Your Light”, as the title would suggest, is the major-feel ray of light in a particularly minor-feel album. In contrast to the sombre songs that surround it on both sides, “In Your Light” sounds like it was plucked right out of the seventies, with the mellow piano in the backdrop, the soulful, breezy backing vocals and the naturalistic lyrics all adding to the ‘easy-like-sunday-morning’ vibe of the song. You can clearly hear the influence of songwriters like Neil Young (as well as his Crosby, Stills and Nash cohorts), Jackson Browne and a host of other songwriters who spent the seventies looking back on the sixties with a mixture of wide-eyed wonderment and blurry-eyed horror. But Scheidt simply uses this tender musical template to voice his own philosophical message.
The great thing about Stay Awake is that it never feels like a rehash of Scheidt’s previous work with YOB but by the same token, it also never deviates too far from that band’s core elements to alienate Scheidt’s many fans. The overriding feeling that the album evokes is one of benevolence, of inclusion and of a universal appreciation for life. The man himself has said that his lyrics on this album have focussed on “the present moment, hope, love and redemption.” Considering Scheidt’s body of work he’s not in need of redemption but as far as debut albums go, Stay Awake is as accomplished and fully-realised a work as he, or we, could have hoped for.
Scribed by: Tom McKibbin