You know the saying about hindsight being 20/20, right? It’s easy to look back on instances in your life, and wonder what you could do to change things to make them better. To make them easier. To make them right. We reviewers go through this ourselves, looking back on prior reviews, and wondering if we overscored something that we haven’t touched since. Pallbearer‘s last album, the stellar Foundations of Burden, not only provided the soundtrack for the memories of broken promises and lost friendships, but also became my favorite album of this past decade. So needless to say, a lot is riding on Heartless, the third full-length from the Arkansas doom kings. With the same line-up intact, did Pallbearer build from their successful formula of “Funeral with a dash of hope”?
In many ways, the answer is a resounding yes. While still retaining their trademark airy doom riffs, Pallbearer incorporated some progressive rock influences into Heartless, giving their songs a nice, optimistic counterpoint to the heft and dirge. Opener “I Saw the End” beautifully exemplifies this, with the first half welcoming you back like an old friend. The guitar interplay of Brett Campbell and Devin Holt remains a pivotal focal point, drawing you in with thick riffs, and guiding you with beautiful harmonies. Halfway in, however, the song switches gears slightly, and prog rock influences emerge, giving the song an almost Mastodon feel, but still very much Pallbearer in sound and spirit. Truthfully, this change-up came unexpectedly, but still felt organic and unforced. By the end of the song, I was completely won over.
One of the other key ingredients of Pallbearer‘s entrancing sound is the voice of Brett Campbell. On their debut, Sorrow and Extinction, while his voice was shaky, it laid the groundwork to a more comfortable performance on Foundations. Here, Campbell’s voice expands and soars with absolute confidence. From 8:53-9:24 of the incredible “Dancing in Madness,” Campbell croons like a seasoned pro, sending an already beautiful song into orbit. The last couple of minutes of the Floyd-influenced heart-wrenching closer, “A Plea for Understanding” showcases his expanded range. Between the honest, heartbreaking lyrics detailing a break-up (“Behind the eyes lies a truth/So deeply concealed/Somewhere inside is a place/Where the weary rest and heal/Anger, fear, and regret keep the darkness at hand/But these feelings are real/All I ask, won’t you please understand?”), “A Plea for Understanding” tugs at your heartstrings like great doom should. The accompanying vocal harmonies by Holt and bassist Joseph D. Rowland also propel the sadness and hope forward a considerable amount, further cementing why Pallbearer lead the pack in American doom metal.
Thankfully, Heartless welcomes back the warm, organic production found on Sorrow and Extinction. Mark Lierly’s drumming sounds thunderous and clear, and Rowland’s bass presence is strongly felt and given a chance to shine. The songs breathe better, especially the airy “Lie of Survival,” giving the music color and depth. But not all of Heartless shines as brightly. “Cruel Road,” while not a bad song, has a hard rock groove in the first verse that feels largely out of place when compared to the rest of the song and album, and the title track also misses the mark a bit. But as with Foundations, they’re minor nitpicks in an otherwise stellar addition to an impeccable discography. Pallbearer incorporated some new sounds into their winning formula, and crafted a progressive doom metal masterpiece.
But how does this compare to Foundations, you may ask? Right now, I see them both as even on the battlefield, with both records edging each other out in certain areas. Foundations has the slight edge of being heavier and doomier, but Heartless has the more adventurous songwriting and the best vocals the band has recorded to date. One thing that is certain is that, once again, Pallbearer will be in my Top Ten by year’s end. And like its predecessor, I will probably regret not rating it higher. Only time will tell, but that means more time with Heartless, and I’m not complaining one bit. Neither should you.
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Profound Lore (North America) | Nuclear Blast (The Rest of the World)
Websites: pallbearer.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/pallbearerdoom
Releases Worldwide: March 24th, 2017