With their 2012 debut, Sorrow and Extinction, released on Profound Lore Records, Arkansas-based metal quartet Pallbearer established their unique take on doom metal, focussing heavily on the place of melody in their long, ever-evolving, progressive rock-inspired pieces. The blueprint created on this record, stressing the importance of clear, expressive guitar leads, powerful hooks and epic song structures, carried onto the band’s sophomore album, Foundations of Burden, but to a heightened degree of realisation, being complemented by tighter performances and more fluid songwriting. Indeed, Pallbearer’s first two releases were undeniably strong and enshrined them as amongst the most inventive doom metal bands of the century, but personally, as much as I admired the group’s apparent vision for their style and enjoyed their work in small bursts, I often found it to lack a great deal of variety. Essentially, although I was impressed by the tricks Pallbearer had up their sleeve, I found these tricks to be quickly exhausted, making for an entire album’s worth of material lacking the full impact of individual songs from the band. Their latest album, Heartless, seemingly continues to build on the formula that was established on both Sorrow and Extinction and Foundations of Burden, particularly with regards to one crucial factor: variety. Indeed, the monolithic, progressive epics of their previous two records appear once again on Heartless, but with the stylistic and structural diversity that these records had lacked, in my opinion. This album, therefore, displays Pallbearer’s already mature sound, but applied in a much more effective manner, with the group employing the strengths of their previous material with more breadth and force than ever before. Ultimately, with greater sonic girth under their belts, Pallbearer pull through with their most impressive and boundary-breaking excursion into the world of doom metal thus far in their career.
For those already familiar with Pallbearer’s stylings, the album’s opener, I Saw the End, is arguably the most familiar song on Heartless, almost as if the band’s intention was to mark a departure from Foundations of Burden toward a slightly revised sound on this new album. Of course, whilst closely adherent to the group’s previous material, there are noticeable improvements across the board on this cut. Firstly, and most significantly, in my opinion, frontman Brett Campbell’s singing is much more pronounced and much clearer in the mix, which is a definite upgrade from Pallbearer’s previous two albums, which saw Campbell’s vocals often blend into the background whilst the guitars took the helm. Instead, what the singer delivers on I Saw the End, and, indeed, on all of Heartless, is performed with more confidence, is more prominent, rivalling the epic nature of the guitars, and is a lot more varied, with some of the most gorgeous vocal harmonies employed by the band to date. I Saw the End also signifies an evident improvement in the assembly of Pallbearer’s compositions, with the soaring guitar melodies being much more clearly refined and utilised with more restraint, as to not lose them in the long, sweeping passages of many of the group’s songs. What’s more, with the clearer production value of Heartless, the guitars remain beautifully crisp throughout the various movements of these compositions, with even their low-ends retaining a lovely blend of crunch and vibrancy that was sometimes lacking on the band’s previous material. Compositionally speaking, I Saw the End is the most typical of Pallbearer’s definitive style on Heartless, weaving through many different sections with different tempos, all of which are bound together by recurring musical themes, but the slight improvements in all the aforementioned areas come together to form a tasteful composition that oozes stunning melodies.
Past the opening track, much of Heartless exhibits Pallbearer’s progressive rock influence to a far greater degree than usual, evoking the stylings of many classic acts in the genre and often leaning closer to prog than doom. Rather appropriately, the two longest cuts on the record, Dancing in Madness and A Plea for Understanding, both of which are around 12 minutes in length, display these prog rock influences — particularly from Pink Floyd — like no other pieces in the band’s discography. The two-and-a-half-minute guitar solo that introduces Dancing in Madness, for instance, takes place atop a calm and collected rhythm section, as the lead guitar dances majestically around the fretboard, reaching genuine emotional peaks as the high notes are bent. Campbell’s vocals on this track, too, really step up to the plate, as the singer comes through with perhaps his most intense and impassioned performance to date, with the inflection of his voice aptly reflecting the climaxes in the instrumentation. The heartrending highs of Dancing in Madness are indeed met and debatably topped by the epic closing track, A Plea for Understanding, which is harrowingly emotional both sonically and lyrically, as Campbell mourns a love now lost, delivered with a booming intonation that mirrors the weight of his words. As the singer reaches into his upper register during the enormous chorus, his voice comes close to cracking with compassion, meanwhile the blaring guitars soar atop a trudging tempo that tugs at the heartstrings like no other doom metal song I have heard for quite some time. This song is also a grand testament to the dynamic range of Heartless, which employs such rich production that every detail in the intricate, intertwining guitar passages, each hit of the thunderous drums and every element of the gliding vocal harmonies are all vibrant and deep, crafting a listening experience that is stunningly sweet on the ears.
Ultimately, on Heartless, Pallbearer exhibit themselves at their most mature, their most polished and, most importantly, their most adventurous. It is certainly very easy to get swept up in the emotion and sheer beauty of this record, but as for nitpicks, a couple of tracks, namely Cruel Road and the title-track, don’t incorporate the band’s progressive tinge quite as effectively, but they nevertheless display the same quality as the rest of the record in terms of songwriting, production value and performances. All in all, this is essentially exactly the album I wanted from Pallbearer; one that sees the group marry their doom metal and progressive rock tendencies smoothly and without losing any of the elegance and refinement of their fluid and weaving compositions. Ever since the release of Sorrow and Extinction, Pallbearer were amongst the ringleaders of the changing face of doom metal, and they have unequivocally proven themselves as being beyond worthy of such a status with Heartless.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10