Pallbearer – Mind Burns Alive Review

It’s time to revisit a conversation that became necessary in 90s metal circles with the advantage of almost 30 years hindsight. How do we deal with beloved metal bands when they lose their interest in metal, either abruptly or over the course of several albums? Back then, it was complicated. When Paradise Lost decided they weren’t a death/doom metal band anymore, there was disappointment and confusion. Same when Ulver left black metal tied to a tree whimpering in the woods and never looked back. Some fans of their metal work remained open minded and found merit in the new directions. And the bands certainly found new fans who would never touch metal on principle. I’ve surveyed the general metal media consensus around Pallbearer’s output since 2017’s Heartless, and I’ve come to the conclusion that in the 2020s, things aren’t so complicated. Everyone’s a simp. They’ve fallen all over themselves praising first Forgotten Days and now Mind Burns Alive as the band’s best work to date respectively. In fact, this seems to extend to any metal artists who decide to change course. Are you a former grindcore band releasing a traditional Peking Opera score? So brave! You’ve tapped into the truest expression of everything you were trying to do before! Look, I’m not some metal lifer with a tattoo of the Obituary logo as a tramp stamp.1 I don’t even own a battle jacket. So why am I the only one willing to admit my disappointment in Pallbearer ever since they started displaying stadium rock aspirations?

Mind Burns Alive, the Arkansas doom(-ish) band’s fifth LP is a logical next step after 2020’s Forgotten Days. That one saw Pallbearer lean ever further into radio hard rock territory, losing much of both the heaviness of their classic first two albums and the prog metal complexity of Heartless. Mind Burns Alive has more clean passages than ever before. Most of the songs here follow the same pattern: clean, quiet first half building to at least some distortion and heaviness to end the song, usually in the simplified songwriting style they adopted four years ago. I noted in my review of Forgotten Days that songs did “…with lyrics and voice what used to be reserved for the band’s guitar harmonies,” and that remains largely true here. Brett Campbell has always been a “does what he can with what he has” singer, better when backed by distortion and layered effects, but he’s more front and center than ever, tasked with carrying the intros to songs like “Where the Light Fades” and “Daybreak.” That said, remnants of the guitar heroics the band was once known for remain, like the harmonized leads and big doom riffs in closer “With Disease.”

Before I give my ultimate verdict on Mind Burns Alive, I’m going to be tedious and belabor the point while you sit there holding questions or applause. I loved Pallbearer so much for two and a half albums that their turn to a lower common denominator sound left me seriously irked. I understand wanting to chase a larger audience and the money that could bring, but did they have to leave the best bits behind? The weeping, soaring, devastating guitars? The song structures that took you on a journey of grief while expanding your mind? Yes, they’re still sad. This record goes to some dark places lyrically, and that can be good, as when Campbell cries “I feel my head going under” in “Where the Light Fades,” but it also can fall flat, as in the much too 90s emo for my taste “Daybreak” with its rumination on callouses. This all isn’t just about how Pallbearer aren’t as heavy anymore. Neither is 40 Watt Sun, but Patrick Walker unplugged wound up almost as effective as he was down-tuned. I can’t say the same for Forgotten Days and now Mind Burns Alive.

Now that’s all off my chest, now that I’ve worked through the disappointment that one of my favorite bands had the temerity to change, I can admit that this is a good album. Not a great one, but a good one. It’s more consistent than Forgotten Days was and lacks that record’s dullest moments. Sure, two of my favorite tracks are the longest, most distorted, and most doom-ish. “Endless Place” is the album high point with its unintrusive prog touches and that lovely saxophone solo. Meanwhile, closer “With Disease” contains the heaviest material the band has released in quite some time. But I also enjoy “Where the Light Fades,” which is very much a proof of concept for “new” Pallbearer, thanks to the sharp songwriting and the emotional build and release. The band may rely on that particular trick a bit much on Mind Burns Alive, but when it works, it works.

There is residue of greatness on this record. The band is too talented for there not to be, but why it’s being universally praised is beyond me. I don’t think we need to be pissed whenever a metal band flirts with softer sounds, which was a more common reaction back in the day, but it seems the pendulum has swung too far the other way. I like metal. Pallbearer made some of the best metal out there, but now they make something different that’s just OK. Is anyone else able to admit this?

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Nuclear Blast
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: May 17th, 2024

Show 1 footnote
  1. Report to the Electric Needle Hut for Obituary tramping. – Steel
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