From a very early point in their career it was evident that much lauded Arkansas doomers Pallbearer were something special. Debut LP Sorrow and Extinction brought doom to the masses with its spellbinding mix of traditional doom topped with powerful vocal melodies, an intense emotional pull and enough modern sensibilities to appeal to a broader audience. Pressure certainly built up as the band prepared to release their sophomore album. However, 2014’s Foundations of Burden stepped it up again, squashing the notion of the sophomore slump under an immense weight of doomy heft coupled with more adventurous and progressive songwriting. Now Pallbearer return with their third LP Heartless, so is the weight of unprecedented doom success and expectation finally set to halt the band’s hot streak? Absolutely not, as Heartless powerfully attests.
Heartless is yet another beguiling chapter in a career that is worthy of the excessive hype. Pallbearer refuse to be pigeon–holed by the doom genre, continuing their expansion in similar though perhaps slightly less dramatic ways than the shift from Sorrow to Foundations. The comforting heft and melancholic tone of their crushing brand of trad influenced modern doom remains at the core of the Pallbearer sound, but on Heartless they boldly continue pushing the boundaries and evolving their established sound in captivating and exciting ways. The progressive rock flourishes from Foundations are expanded upon, while the Floydian psychedelic passages that crop-up, especially during the gorgeous “Lie of Survival” and heartwrenching closer, “A Plea for Understanding,” smacks of a band more and more comfortable pushing themselves beyond the paradigms of doom and expanding their sonic palette. Pallbearer is a unique identity and Heartless further solidifies this fact.
Built upon its gorgeous and complex guitar harmonies and gloomy rock spirit, opener “I Saw the End” is an immediately hooky delight with Brett Campbell’s exceptional vocal melodies a highlight, soaring alongside the song’s intricate guitar interplay and strong progressive backbone. Pallbearer’s penchant for writing long, winding compositions of captivating beauty and depth remains in place, with the mammoth length of the longest songs on offer never dragging on or losing focus. “Dancing in Madness” and the aforementioned “A Plea for Understanding” flow smoothly from one dynamic and cohesive section to the next, craftily blending soulful jams and psych touches with heavier dirges of sorrowful doom. The latter is a heartbreaking epic and fabulous showcase of Campbell’s improved vocal range and the band’s superior ability to stir up emotion. “Cruel Road” adds a further burst of dynamics to the album with its invigorating and aggressive rock base, catchy chorus and sublime guitar work.
Throughout the album, Campbell and Devin Holt combine masterfully, with their consistently beautiful and emotive guitar harmonies, proggy injections and crushing doom riffs the lifeblood of the Pallbearer sound. While the softer and clean passages showcase the duo’s continued development and willingness to branch outside of their comfort zones. Meanwhile, the rich, weighty sound is further solidified and held together by the excellent rhythm section of Joseph D. Rowland and drummer Mark Lierly. However, it’s Campbell’s exceptional vocals, fleshed out by bandmate contributions and harmonies, that continue to stand tall, moving from strength to strength with each album. Although the shaky vulnerability that defined his voice on Sorrow was touching and hugely effective, now his vocals soar with a newfound confidence and ever expanding range while remaining as emotionally resonant as ever.
Heartless is incredibly light on flaws to the point where I’m struggling even to nit-pick. I guess the strongest songs slightly edge out their counterparts in quality and perhaps I would slightly tweak the track sequencing, otherwise Heartless delivers tenfold and is at the very least the equal of Foundations, if not the finest album they’ve released to date. Another glowing endorsement towards the success of Heartless relates to the outstanding production. Retaining the increased sonic punch and clarity of Foundations, Heartless pleasingly returns to the far more breathable dynamics of Sorrow, resulting in the strongest production of the band’s career.
Heartless exceeded my already inflated expectations of what Pallbearer could produce next. The band has delivered again in spades, retaining all the rich qualities that have catapulted them to doom stardom, while continuing to expand upon their unique progressive doom template in crafting an album of immense power, quality and deep rooted emotion.[Visit the band's website]