Here on Half-Life, we go through a band’s discography and see where they stand today compared to where they started. Pallbearer is one of metal’s rising stars and their progression has been so fun to watch. Every record has its own identity and set of surprises. To take on this project, I enlisted the assistance of my talented colleagues, Jordan Jerabek and Bill Fetty. We hope you enjoy!
Sorrow and Extinction (2012)
When Black Sabbath is evoked as a one of a band’s influences, metal anthems like “War Pigs”, “Black Sabbath”, and “Children of The Grave” are the first to come to mind. However, frontman Brett Campbell said in an interview that while Pallbearer is certainly all about trying to recreate those louder, more straight-forward metal tracks, they also aim to write songs like “Changes” or “Planet Caravan”, the deeper cuts of Sabbath that show a different side of the band. In other words, Pallbearer tries to include the tenderness and ambiance that many doom and stoner bands ignore.
In many ways, Sorrow and Extinction is the ultimate doom metal album. Doom is metal’s oldest institution and therefore spans many eras and smaller scenes. This album is able to hit all those different colors in just under 50 minutes. Sorrow pulls from 70s proto-doom bands like Sabbath but also clearly shares a love of old Rush, King Crimson, and early Pink Floyd albums. The guitar and bass tone is of the death-doom school sounding more like an earthquake than a stringed instrument. With that low rumble underneath, Campbell gives the record an ultimate tenderness with his signatures melodic vocals not unlike classic Candlemass and Solstice. Metal, a genre with a long lineage of amazing vocalists, has grown to mahe harsh vocals the standard. Today, it’s quite difficult to find a metal band with real, unabashedly emotional clean singing without venturing into the power metal or metalcore world. Campbell, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to go there. Funeral doom bands can evoke the deepest depth of depression and anger with low, uncanny death growls but it’s so hard to beat Campbell’s brazenly human wailing.
Melody is always a feature of Pallbearer’s sound that fans are quick to talk about but on Sorrow and Extinction, there’s nothing too catchy. There’s no “Ashes” or “I Saw The End” here. The album instead plays on like one of Wagner’s later operas: endless melody with no big, melodically-memorable numbers. Though the band does borrow from classic metal and progressive rock aesthetically, they don’t do so compositionally. This is a Pallbearer that has found the right well of emotion and energy to draw from but not the ability to write good hooks or complex songs yet. This is no critique because the result of this is a simple and meandering sound that genuinely evokes sadness. This album is like Fates Warning’s Awaken The Guardian, their last moment of development before No Exit, their first masterpiece. One can hear the band getting ready for something big.
On Sorrow and Extinction, Pallbearer captures those other sorts of feelings that Campbell was talking about in that interview. There’s the blatant anger and misery but there’s grace and hope too. The roaring guitars and uniquely beautiful vocals will lure you in and transfix you and the passionate directness will leave you wondering what’s next. Sorrow and Extinction is the history of doom metal in an album.
-Joe The Bear
Foundations of Burden (2014)
Foundations of Burden felt like it was destined to succumb to the pitfalls of a sophomore slump. The near-universal critical acclaim of Sorrow and Extinction made it unthinkable that the band could top the instant classic with across-the-board appeal, yet Foundations managed to magnify the reputation they’ve made for themselves as doom all-stars. With developed and frequently catchy songwriting, improved vocal performances, and a Billy Anderson mix that realized an oomph and power that nobody knew was missing, Foundations dwarfed their debut in just about every way imaginable.
Lead-off track “Worlds Apart” delivers an instant death-blow to those ears primed for disappointment. There’s an urgency to attack the Achilles’ heels of Sorrow and fortify the flaws found on the first record. “Worlds Apart” moves swift, charging headfirst with a riff that daunts with power and gleams with a brightness previously unapproached. The lead work, too, is less apprehensive, glazing their meatier tone and forming some thoughtful connective tissue in transitions.
The brawny mix enhances both their momentum and dynamism, a throatier, more trebly sound as opposed to their earlier, muddier bludgeon, lending the album’s mostly 10-plus minute compositions an ethereal and time-warping brevity, something that’s basically the blueprint of every wanderlusting doom upstart. Yet, this extra heft doesn’t weigh down the intricate atmospheres mastered on the debut. Tracks like “Worlds Apart”, “Ashes”, and “Vanished” give ample attention to the haunting and contemplative vibes without getting stuck in their own mires.
Gut-wrenching shifts and unexpected turns stave off doom-slumber while developing spaces for Campbell’s unbridled, passionate voice to flash like never before. “Foundations” and “The Ghost I Used to Be” add some variety with some comparatively swift giddyup to mingle with the more patient processions of riffs. There’s also special attention paid to the melodies (try to tell me you can’t hear George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” in the closing minutes of “Watcher In the Dark”) that just makes Foundations a more memorable record. It was revitalizing to hear that the band who earned so much praise on their debut wasn’t willing to rest on their laurels, but instead take their weaknesses head on and experiment a little.
Fear & Fury (2016)
This EP sits as a bit of a curiosity within the larger catalog of Pallbearer. That it contains one very short, for them, original and two covers; one each from Black Sabbath (“Over and Over”) and Type O Negative (“Love You to Death”). This doom-glazed appetizer shows that the band are indeed capable of producing tracks that aren’t gargantuan in length without sacrificing any of their power. The production here beckons the listener to turn it up due to the vocals being just shy of buried in the mix which winds up lending an ethereal quality to them. The bass tones are allowed to be fuzzed out almost completely and the cleans on the guitars particularly stand out.
That the band are able to make two iconic bands’ tracks their own shows a boldness that belied what they had in store for audiences on their next full-length. In fact, one could make a strong argument that Brett Campbell has hardly ever been in stronger voice than what he does with “Over and Over” which he needs to be in order to hold up to one Ronnie James Dio’s performance. It’s tempting to say what they do with the song is more remarkable than Sabbath’s original but we wouldn’t want to veer off into total hyperbole.
On “Love You to Death” Campbell wisely decides not to try on too much of Peter Steele’s trademark bass-baritone and the band takes this song in a decidedly Pink Floyd-esque direction. Finding echoes of “Comfortably Numb” aren’t hard considering Steele all but stole the famous line “your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying” but that’s not as troubling for the Pallbearer version. It’s a cover after all. At times the song almost feels like a doom-flecked version of something My Bloody Valentine might offer up. Regardless, this track is the most interesting choice here and is competently pulled off in a way that proves engaging and interesting while hinting at other, more melodic and ethereal elements that would show up in more depth on their follow-up.
Heartless is what a third album should be. Pallbearer established that they could imitate their influences well on their first album and showed off their progressive ideas on their sophomore album and following EP but now they had to remain interesting. After being signed to Nuclear Blast, how could they resist selling out too much? What could they do next to impress and surprise everyone? Heavier? More extreme?
No, Pallbearer needed to dial things back and make something accessible while not blatantly writing a pop-metal album. The album opener, “I Saw The End”, perfectly establishes the album’s main ideas. The song is catchy and accessible while still tapping into the original emotion found on Pallbearer’s earliest releases. They never betray their sound, they just add to it. Not unlike Rush’s Moving Pictures, Pallbearer finds a way to create progressive music within a mainstream context.
Pallbearer employs two main new tricks on Heartless to spice things up: big climaxes and more intricate guitar work. Tracks like “Dancing in Madness” and the closer, “A Plea For Understanding”, have especially epic endings. The band uses entire songs (usually over 10 minutes) to build into these endings and the results are absolutely cathartic. Sure, the band had big endings on other albums but the emotional heights they reach on Heartless are unparalleled by anything in their previous discography. It’s here where the band doesn’t sound like a doom metal band anymore. The intensity and beauty achieved by using these sorts of climaxes make the band wholly unique and singular. Like other young metal superstars like Vektor, Deafheaven or Nails, the band is synthesizing a handful of old ideas into something new.
The guitar work is also notably more experimental. At the risk of making an odd comparison, the guitar work on Heartless is not unlike Protest The Hero’s guitar work. The harmonic rhythm is slow and yet the guitars just shred along. Instead of just letting chords ring out or chugging on a few notes, the guitarist crawl up and down the chords creating a sort of prickly texture. This coupled with Brett’s best vocal performance to date adds a juxtaposition to the record between the busy guitars and flowing vocals. It seems like Brett and Devin were getting bored of playing their older, simpler songs.
Ultimately, Heartless is the perfect continuation of what Pallbearer stands for. It is a beautiful record full of organic emotion and demonstrates a sensitivity that most metal bands are afraid to venture into. There are few moments of aggression or brutality. Instead, the band unleashes and channels their negativity into complex misery. Unlike most critically-acclaimed metal records today that focus so much on being loud, gritty, edgy, or avant-garde, Heartless, ironically, is all heart. If Pallbearer can show us anything is that there is beauty in pain.
-Joe The Bear