Pallbearer seemed like they were destined for greatness right from the beginning. Even though they generated buzz with their demos, Sorrow and Extinction felt like it dropped out of the sky onto an unsuspecting scene. The album garnered critical acclaim across the board from both metal and non-metal publications, which is not an easy feat considering metal’s inherent outsider mentality and thirst for contention. Very few bands can reach anything that resembles positive consensus (there’s a whole lot of consensus about what sucks, though). That momentum carried on with 2014’s Foundations of Burden. A record that was named Decibel’s album of the year and was placed on Pitchfork’s year end list. That’s weird and it’s not supposed to happen.
Of course, Pallbearer, like anyone else, had their fair share of detractors. You can’t simply be a metal band, flirt with the mainstream press, and expect to get off scot-free. Fortunately for Pallbearer, they managed to stay firmly in metal territory so no one could question their credentials. Most of the critiques hurled at them followed along the lines of “boring” and “derivative.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but those complaints never seemed to hold much water. Even on Sorrow and Extinction they were pushing the doom boundary and moving far past the path laid out by the likes of Candlemass and Saint Vitus. A path that countless contemporary doom bands were and still are content on treading.
With Heartless, they push the envelope even further. Everything about this record is an improvement on what they had already been doing so well. Improvement doesn’t even feel like big enough of a word for what we have here. “Reinvention” seems right. That’s not to say this doesn’t sound like Pallbearer. It’s unmistakably Pallbearer. More so, the version of Pallbearer we’ve been expecting, but weren’t prepared for. Yes, Heartless is a step above everything the band has done up to this point, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a risky release. Pallbearer have now stepped further out of doom and into prog.
The ambition presented on their past records has always had some lineage in 70s prog rock. Pallbearer have always mentioned Rush as a main reference point, but it has always felt like more of a spiritual connection. Tracks like “The Ghost I Used to Be” and “The Foreigner” clearly take notes from Rush and King Crimson, but they typically dive back into cobweb-filled dungeons. There has always been a hint of grandeur, like maybe they had a 2112 somewhere. Now, those influences are placed firmly in the forefront. But what makes this album special is how the band takes the ideas concocted by their prog forebears and pushes them further than any of them could’ve dreamt.
70s prog tracks are sprawling and complex while sticking to a certain format. Usually there’s a melody, riff, or at least a chorus to return to after the exploration. Here, Pallbearer isn’t interested in retreading any ground. They’re much more concerned with stretching these songs as far as they can go and traveling on. It makes perfect sense that the artwork is a man carved into a mountain. Much like the topography of the Earth, these tracks are in constant flux. What’s in front of you isn’t going to stick around for long. Shaping, building, breaking down, evolving. Pallbearer can barely even stick to one melody for longer than a measure.
Cramming a song full of ideas until it is bursting at the seams is rarely a good idea. Most bands would get lost in the labyrinth. Even worse, they would probably come off as self-indulgent. Luckily, Pallbearer had the foresight to draw out a clear road map. The band never wanders around with ceaseless noodling or improvisation. I know this may sound like a daunting listen, but the album is absolute ear candy. Guitar harmonies are constantly twisting and slithering around each other without friction. “Cruel Road” is one long unending string of catchy vocal melodies coming in one after another. The Crosby, Stills, and Nash harmonies at work on “I Saw the End” or the classical guitar styling on “Thorns” can only be described as immaculate.
The strongest example of Heartless’ shifting musical ideas is the album centerpiece, “Dancing in Madness”. It opens with the psychedelic atmospheres of late 60s San Francisco, but the chops on display are far above the average Haight-Ashbury band. The playing itself has much more in common with post Syd Barrett Pink Floyd. Devin Holt leads the band through a winding space exploration of a solo that eventually feeds into the album’s most doomed song. What’s most intriguing is that psych rock atmosphere is never lost even as it settles into the crushing heft. “Dancing” continues to change as it lifts and soars without you even noticing the subtle shifts until they’ve hoisted you well into the stratosphere. Pallbearer have become such masters of their craft that none of these transitions ever feel jarring. They seamlessly fit together as if moving from Pink Floyd to Electric Wizard is the logical next step.
The album reaches its climax on the last stretch of the title track. The key and closing lyrics are: “This ruined heart has been disowned/ The pain is mine and mine alone/ Its grievances at last atoned.” Up until that point the lyrics primarily focused on typical doom content. Spells, blood, and death all make consistent appearances. But it’s that last bit of lyrics on “Heartless” that reveal what this whole album is really about. Pallbearer very subtly use the doom tropes and the constant end of the world prophesying as a metaphor for depression. “Heartless” is our hero coming to grips and learning to cope with his condition.
Both from a musical and lyrical perspective, “A Plea For Understanding” feels more like the conclusion to an epic than a closing track. As mentioned before, this is the song with the consistent song structure and chorus. Pallbearer make you work to get to the “pop” song and it’s absolutely worth it. “A Plea” feels like a doom power ballad thanks to the tone, chord progression, and Brett Campbell’s sky splitting vocal performance. You’ll have your zippo raised stiffly in the air by song’s end.
Even the lyrics of “Heartless” feel far removed from those of “A Plea For Understanding”. The lyrics have very little, if anything, in common with doom. They could easily fit inside any number of genres. Conceptually, Pallbearer use the track to shed light on the effects depression has on loved ones. Here our hero is trying his best to relate to those loved ones who have done all they can to support him. It’s effecting and quite possibly the most emotional doom song you’re going to hear. Ending a larger than life album on such a human note further asserts Pallbearer as visionaries in their field. Their playing and knack for composition is enough to make them a vital force in the metal world, but it’s their ability to ring emotional resonance out of doom’s heft and prog rock’s proficiency that makes them a vital force in music. Heartless is very much the sound of a leading band not just ascending toward the peak of the summit, but ending up in a different universe entirely.