2009’s The Great Cessation was a stern, angry album that signalled YOB’s tumultuous rebirth after a period of label-imposed strife for mainman Mike S. Although Atma is another forbidding record, the band sounds at relative peace. The songs don’t dip quite so deeply into the abyss and the riffs sing out a little more. While the “doom” tag fits, I think their music encompasses much more. To me, doom entails some connection to rock & roll and the blues—you know, Black Sabbath and stuff. YOB’s music doesn’t look backwards. It looks within. It’s grim and monolithic, residing closer to Neurosis than, say, Candlemass.
Mike S. is a one-man guitar army deploying an orchestrated barrage of tones. He’s one of the most accomplished and distinctive guitarists in metal. He can riff relentlessly, piling on variation after variation, as he does on the first seven minutes of “Before We Dreamed of Two” before a classic calm-before-the-storm section with guest Scott Kelly takes over. His guitar is also a punitive instrument, as on the title track, where imposing riffs lead to a long stretch of unaccompanied one-note palm muting from which the climactic riff erupts. The power coming off those tortured strings is intimidating.
There’s usually at least one song per YOB album that swings a bit, like “Quantum Mystic” from The Unreal Never Lived. It took a couple listens to pinpoint it on Atma. Opening track “Prepare the Ground” is the one, though. It swings inexorably; it's a testament to the band's discipline that they managed to hold back and avoid giving it more of a "boogie" feel. “Adrift in the Ocean”—my favourite song on the album—features the tranquil side of YOB, opening with two and a half minutes of atmospheric guitar picking before blasting off for 11 exhilarating minutes that blend crushing guitars and strong vocal melodies. Mike S. uses his upper register—a mutant Burke Shelley/Geddy Lee yowl that’s always been one of YOB’s most appealing elements to me—more than he has since Catharsis.
The production is hideous but effective. The guitars are smothered with pillows, while the drums are brittle and papery. It actually sounds better through earbuds than on my stereo at apartment volume. Cranking it to move some air would help, I’m sure. It’s got character though, and does not hinder the power of YOB one bit. As history has proved, nothing can stop this band. They possess enough inspiration and soul to prevail every time they head into the studio. The chorus of "Prepare the Ground" sums up their attitude (and it's a notion I need to apply to my own life): "Breathe in the power of no tomorrow."