Third albums: can’t live with them, can’t live without them (if you want to keep being a band, that is). The even more dangerous beast is the third album following on the heels of a wildly loved second, especially if that love comes from music journalists. While Foundations of Burden‘s merits vis a vis Sorrow and Extinction are up for debate, Pallbearer certainly owe much of their current place in the spotlight to the former. Perhaps indicative of latecomer syndrome, Foundations received a hefty amount of praise in the journalism community. While the love certainly isn’t out of place—we ourselves loved it—it left the band in a precarious position for their next release.
Pallbearer’s answer to this position could have already been ascertained with the tidbits we had received of the album well before its release. The cover, the name (much simpler and more concise than previous titles), the first single, all coalesced into a band preparing to not only equal their previous releases but go past them by going underneath, by reconnecting with their core and their passion. And so Pallbearer have done; Heartless is a distillation and a refinement (two processes that commonly take place side by side) of their sound and is all the powerful for it. Stripped of much of the grandeur which possessed the previous two releases, Heartless is, paradoxically, an album full of heart.
The basic movement of Pallbearer is backwards and inwards. It articulates the latter by using the former; it expresses the core of what Pallbearer are about by digging into the tones, ideas, expressions and modes of traditional doom metal and bringing forth a touching ode to personal journeys, suffering and passion. These classic sounds blend with the usual Pallbearer sense for the fantastic to “heal” the worst parts of each sound. The two influences, sometimes at odds but made here to be complementary, meld into one, stronger whole. Take “Lie of Survival” for example. It opens with a heart-wrenching guitar line whose tone has come to us straight from the 80’s, all expressiveness and clarity. It is emotional and overbearingly so, evocative almost to the degree of flagrant egotism.
But where classic tracks would further entangle themselves in the culmination of the lead, collapsing into schmaltz, Pallbearer bring in their trademark crashing chords and ponderous progression. The guitars following immediately on its heels are heavier and more in line with the band’s previous releases. The track’s opening lead, resplendent in evocative gestures, returns for the chorus, thus completing the structure. The verses, more modern and inherently Pallbearer, prevent the lead’s cheese from overflowing while the choruses provide much needed articulation and variation for the verses and their somewhat repetitive cadence.
The following two tracks (and especially “Cruel Road”) are more than enough to satiate the thirst created on the more restrained opening tracks. On these tracks and, to a certain extent, on the title track which follows them, Pallbearer return more to the root of what got them to where they are. The aggressive riffs of “Cruel Road”—the harsher vocals, the punchier drums and the meaty bass, the overall more direct and pointed structure of the track—are all there to remind us that Pallbearer are, after all, a modern band doing doom metal. This reminder strikes all the truer for having come after the more nostalgic opening tracks of the album. This mix, with the one part (that is, the nostalgic) laying the ground for the other to conquer and creating the thirst for the other to slake (that is, the more puissant doom) is the dynamo at the heart of Heartless.
This magical combination, present all over the album (like in the gut-wrenching middle segment of “Thorns” with its expressive guitar or the incredibly moving closer “A Plea For Understanding”), truly elevates Heartless above the previous two albums. Pallbearer have basically found the cure to the main, and sometimes only, point of contention their listeners and critiques had with their music. Their brand of grandiosity, massive sound and relentless execution had a hard yet vulnerable underbelly which plagues much of doom metal; variety and nuance of expression are often missing. By tapping into the nostalgic roots of their genre, Pallbearer have expertly found a way to maintain their unique identity while extrapolating on it in the best of ways, adorning and lining their ideas with much needed strength and listen-ability. Is there anything else we can ask of a great, third album?
Heartless is available March 24 via Profound Lore, and can be purchased here.