Aside from Gojira, Pallbearer are the band rock and metal critics pin their hopes on to push heavy music forward. The plaudits are impressive – Best New Music award from Pitchfork in 2012; Decibel’s album of the year for 2014’s Foundation of Burden; and Metal Hammer’s Best Underground Band of 2017. For a doom metal band this is as perplexing as it is impressive. After all, how much more can you add to the Black Sabbath template without reverting to imitation?
Those that bought 2017’s Heartless will already know the answer to the question above. Pallbearer will always be a doom band at heart, but their sound now incorporates Smashing Pumpkins and Pink Floyd and relies on vocal melody as the dominant feature of their compositions. On the evidence of their latest record, they still know how to craft a savage doom song with bass heavy fuzz and dark chord passages. Look no further than the opening title-track for the band’s origins in the grimy metal of Warning and Electric Wizard. Any song that starts with a smoke-filled dirge of feedback gets the thumbs up from the staff at Scream Blast Repeat. But this is all about the voice of Brett Campbell. The perspicuous power of his words makes a lyric sheet obsolete. You can hear every vowel and consonant among the layers of guitar distortion and still screw up your face in empathy with the raw emotion. Ironically, the band transcended the Black Sabbath framework three years ago but retain the influence of Ozzy Osbourne’s unique octave range. Traces of Michael Stipe are also detectable in ‘Forgotten Days’.
Kurt Cobain once described Nirvana’s sound as a cross between The Beatles and Black Sabbath, but this never stood up. The Seattle trio had too much punk rock in their sound. Pallbearer show what this concoction can achieve on ‘Riverbed’ with its emotive pitch bends and dreamy melodies. Paul McCartney and Tony Iommi might be an unusual combination, but the band make it work as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. On closing track, ‘Caledonia’, they give you the chance to close your eyes and sit back in your armchair. Do you want that burden to go away? Well, give in to the sorrow and let it cleanse you of your anxiety. It’s like listening to Paradise Lose at their most introspective. Once again you ask: what is it about Pallbearer that elevates them above their doom metal peers and into the pages of the culture section of the New York Times ?
But if too much of the lighter side can endanger the band’s appeal, worry not on ‘The Quicksand of Existing’. This is a sludgy take on Ozzy Osbourne with fuzzy guitar distortion and palm-muted gallops. The staccato chord at the end is savage. It’s a welcome reminder that Pallbearer’s origins are in extreme metal and sets them up for the album’s seminal song, ‘Rite of Passage’. This composition invokes Alice In Chains at their most haunting, but Brett Campbell captures the emotion of Tatiana Shmailyuk of Jinjer in the way he holds his notes with a sombre lament. A duet between these two would be ground-breaking. (Let’s start a petition to make this a reality!)
Like Paradise Lost in the early 1990s, Pallbearer continue to ease away from their origins but have at least one more album in them where they can continue to push boundaries at no damage to their credibility or fanbase. There is little to criticise here. The twelve-minute ‘Silver Wings’ includes subtle laser synths and gothic keyboard atmospherics among the pentatonic fretwork. With their guitars drop-tuned to A, Pallbearer execute riffs with one eye on the chest rather than the heart. The fuzz and grime of the distortion is strong enough to shake the pyramids. There’s no need to worry about them transitioning into a dark rock act like Anathema or Katatonia just yet, but you can’t help but think the Arkansas quartet will move away from metal once this record achieves the predictable unanimous praise. Then it might not be as easy for them to keep up the special momentum.
For now, we should be grateful that Pallbearer are up to the challenge of innovating the tired genre of doom metal. But they are far more than a doom band. If Unleash the Archers are opening up power metal to a new audience, Pallbearer must take credit for doing the same with in their scene. Right now, in 2020, this looks like the future. Let’s hope we’re right.
Release Date: 23/10/2020
Record Label: Nuclear Blast
Standout tracks: Forgotten Days, Riverbed, Rite of Passage
Suggested Further Listening: Paradise Lost – The Plague Within (2015), Ozzy Osbourne – No More Tears (1991), Electric Wizard – Dopethrone (2000)