The sleeve art for the third studio album by Pallbearer, Heartless, suggests all that listeners need to know about the music it accompanies. On every one of its albums, Pallbearer makes music for the mountains. Plodding, tectonic plate-shifting guitar riffs, thunderous drums, and soaring Black Sabbath vocals are tools that have been used by many doom metal bands the world over, but in the hands of this Arkansas quartet, they hit with the sledgehammer punch that makes doom quite possibly the most cathartic of metal’s subgenres. The first two Pallbearer LPs, Sorrow and Extinction (2012) and Foundations of Burden (2014), meld together the requisite features of doom with the expansive, free-form song structures of progressive rock to form expansive sonic canvases. The best Pallbearer songs are as much explorations as they are compositions.
Pallbearer’s immense talent, evident right from the opening notes of Sorrow and Extinction, is a rarity in the metal world. It’s not common that a band arrives onto the scene with a clear vision that’s met by expert execution, and yet that’s what Pallbearer achieved with its first two outings. Now three albums into its career, Pallbearer is routinely getting coverage from major outlets like Rolling Stone, and the guys in the group were also the subject of a profile by the regrettably defunct sports and culture site Grantland. To make a splash in an area of metal so central to the genre’s classic style – see Sabbath, Saint Vitus, and Candlemass, among others – as a young band is no small feat, and Pallbearer’s music is never small.
A lesser band might buckle under the high expectations foisted upon Pallbearer, who despite being only three records into their career are already a darling of the metal world. But Heartless, apropos of its two predecessors, comes encumbered by nothing outside of its complex and at times serpentine composition. If Pallbearer feels the eyes of the metal world upon it, it does a damn good job not showing a lick of sweat. Heartless continues the successes of Sorrow and Extinction and Foundations of Burden, while also incorporating familiar but tasteful sonic flourishes from adjacent genres. The lonely, clean-toned guitar style of post-rock (especially Godspeed You! Black Emperor) crops up on the opening of “Dancing in Madness” and the midsection of “Thorns”. Psychedelic, almost Floydian guitar accents the mammoth closer “A Plea for Understanding”.
In this way, Heartless walks a tricky tightrope that can only be navigated by bands of a particularly high caliber. Neither reinventing itself nor playing its cards close to the vest, Pallbearer choose subtle and gradual change to their established formula, and the consistency remains admirable. Anyone who has tracked with the band up to Heartless will recognize the cavernous expanses of “Dancing in Madness” and “A Plea for Understanding”, but this is not to say that Pallbearer has lost its edge. Familiarity need not be the enemy of quality.
This holds especially true for “Lie of Survival”, one of Pallbearer’s finest compositions to date. Beginning with a melancholic guitar lead reminiscent of Russian Circles, the song then builds into a crescendo that’s capped off with a fine set of lyrics by bassist Joseph D. Rowland: “Last burning breath filled with death and desire/ Our boundless pride becomes a funeral pyre/ The end remains the only god we can’t deny/ And still believing the lie of survival.” This gusto in the face of death, bolstered by some of the strongest songwriting in this still-young group’s career, is an experience of sublimity that only heavy metal can afford. The crushing power of a down-tuned guitar strummed by an expert player, the slow but measured march of a stomped bass drum: these are effects that, when done right, have no substitute. As synecdoche for Heartless, “Lie of Survival” is a clear sign that Pallbearer hasn’t lost their ability to move mountains with music.
The staying power of Pallbearer’s sound will become more apparent in subsequent albums. The clear continuity between the band’s first three records has in no way prevented each one from having a unique voice, but diminishing returns are a risk that even a group as savvy as Pallbearer can fall prey to. For now, at least, Pallbearer is living proof of an old cliché: good things come in threes.
Essential Tracks: “Lie of Survival”, “Dancing in Madness”