Album Title: Heartless
Label: Profound Lore Records (North America) / Nuclear Blast Records (Rest of the World)
Date Of Release: 24 March 2017
My introduction to Pallbearer came via their sophomore release, ‘Foundations of Burden’, released in 2014 whilst I was still writing for Powerplay magazine. And it was an enlightening introduction for someone not that overly enamoured with the doom metal genre in general. To quote my review of that album:
“…[Pallbearer] blend the ubiquitous mid-to-slow paced churning riffs with a melodic grace and elegance which is staggering and which creates a raw and brutal beauty from start to finish.”
You get the idea; I liked it. I still do actually, as ‘Foundations of Burden’ remains a regular guest to my stereo and to my playlists. In fact, I still regard it as one of the best doom metal albums that I have heard. No pressure then on the Little Rock, Arkansas-based quartet for their third full-length album, their first for over three years.
As with any highly anticipated release, there was much talk on the Internet about how this record might sound. The group went on record quite early to describe it, suggesting that the new material ‘weaves together the spacious exploratory elements of classic prog, the raw anthemics of 90’s alt-rock, and stretches of black-lit proto-metal’. I’m not sure I knew quite what this meant in the context of a doom metal band but I didn’t have to wait long until the airing of ‘Thorns’ to understand a little more about the direction of ‘Heartless’.
I was more than a little excited by what I heard. However, having since had the opportunity to listen to this album at length, I am going to stick my neck out and say that right here, right now, ‘Heartless’ is the best doom metal record that I have ever heard. Yes it incorporates a number of different influences to create a rich tapestry of sounds, textures and moods. However, at its core, ‘Heartless’ is pure doom metal, born and bred.
Strong words, I’m sure you’ll agree, particularly given that I’ve only had ‘Heartless’ in my life for a matter of weeks. However, the comment is richly deserved for a multitude of reaons.
Firstly, there is the production which perfectly walks the fine line of clarity and power whilst not sounding over-produced and sterile. The album comes across as welcoming and warm and there is a definite organic feel to the way in which the music on this record has been captured. But more than that, there is also a hint of rawness around the edges which imbues the music with a gritty honesty and the sense that the compositions are alive and breathing.
The performances from each member of the band comes across as being confident, professional and self-assured, as if they all believe 100% in what they are playing and contributing to this record. Drummer Mark Lierly gets the balance just right between all-out power and subtle finesse, whilst the bass of Joseph D. Rowland provides the earth-shattering rumble as well as something altogether more playful and dexterous when required. It goes without saying that the guitar duo of Brett Campbell and Devin Holt deliver some of the most crushing and monolithic riffs but what’s so wonderful on this record is that they are more than willing to mix things up a bit. As such, you get expansive and well-crafted lead solos, plenty of acoustic embellishments and some truly poignant and soulful lead melodies and harnonies where the guitars almost act as a second vocalist, so eloquent are they at expressing emotions.
Speaking of vocals, Campbell once again takes the lead in this department and although he accepts help from elsewhere in the band to enhance his performance, I’m left hugely impressed by his improvement as a front man. It helps that he is blessed with a super tone but he couples this with a delivery that fits the music like a glove, aided by what I can only assume is a huge increase in self-confidence. One thing I have always enjoyed about Pallbearer is their use of melodious and clean vocals instead of deeper growls; I personally believe that it accentuates the melodies at play and actually allows the heavy, extreme sections to make a bigger impact.
Then there are the seven tracks themselves that over the course of an hour beguile, delight, challenge and move me in equal measure. With a Katatonia or Anathema album, I expect to be emotionally effected but when it comes from a source as unexpected as this, the result is far more draining and ultimately very satisfying.
On the subject of Katatonia, there’s a faint vibe of the melancholy Swedes, as well as the likes of Paradise Lost within the opening track of ‘Heartless’, particularly in terms of the lead guitar harmonies that usher the track into being and which overlay forceful riffs that unfold at a positively speedy mid-tempo. However, the feather in the crown here is the chorus of sorts that emerges as the song develops. It is positively catchy, enhanced by the superb vocal delivery from Campbell and helps to close out the composition in exuberant fashion.
If anything, those Katatonia overtones are evident even more starkly at the beginning of the aforementioned ‘Thorns’. A thick, claustrophobic and churning riff is then built upon by lead guitar harmonies that are full of emotion. I adore the chugging riffs at the centre of the song as well as the flamboyant lead guitar solo that segues smoothly into a minimalist abyss from which the track eventually rebuilds to full power via some 70s-inspired prog guitar work.
The sensational ‘Lie Of Survival’ is a masterclass in creating atmospheric music with beauty and elegance. Clean, poignant guitars commence proceedings and joined by some subtle synths, create a light and airy framework upon which to build. The monstrous guitars enter the fray almost without warning but they manage to retain the melodic purpose of what went before ably assisted by some of the best vocals from Campbell anywhere on the album. This is a gorgeous anthem of huge proportions.
The more overt progressive tendencies of Pallbearer on ‘Heartless’ can be heard most clearly within ‘Dancing In Madness’, but not just because of its double-figure life span. The first three minutes or so are given over initially to quiet, soothing ambience and then to something more akin to neo-prog to these ears. The guitar solo is emotionally charged and delivered exquisitely, inviting the obvious Pink Floyd et al. comparisons. From there, the glutinous riffs take control bulldozing everything in their path whilst the effect-laden voice of Campbell adds a note of urgency and frustration. The shifts in direction are both smooth and deliberately pronounced, as if to draw extra attention to them. Sludgy death metal minus the growled vocals can be heard in some of the more intense moments, whilst later in the piece we’re treated to an epic-sounding, melodically-driven section that eventually leads to the conclusion via further excellent lead guitar work.
‘Cruel Road’ offers something a little different again thanks to a shouted thrash/hardcore vocal section which I’m not so fond of but, given its impressive immediate surroundings can be instantly forgiven. The rhythm section pushes the track on with vim and vigour right up until its inexorable demise around the seven-minute mark complete with stomping, head banging riff.
The title track contains some of the most challenging material on the record as it threatens to unravel amidst a tumult of strange noises and textures atop odd-sounding structures. And then, after all that, it opens up into something much more uplifting and immediately appealing, driving the track to a memorable conclusion.
The opening to the final track, ‘A Plea For Understanding’ comes straight from the ambient/post-rock rule book. It is a quiet, introspective and solemn-sounding introduction that is replaced like a fist to the gut by a thunderous riff that is glacial in pace and hugely emotive. I adore the way in which the song then spends its 12 minute length ebbing and flowing between all out dirge and bittersweet melancholic ambient, atmospheric beauty. I use the word ‘bittersweet’ because as sombre as the song gets in places, it also ends the album on a note or two of hope and positivity, enhancing the epic nature of the music.
There isn’t much more to say that hasn’t already been said. The injection of more overt progressive tendencies alongside some sumptuous melodies and assured, ambitious song writing means that with ‘Heartless’, Pallbearer have created what I think might very well be my favourite doom metal album ever. Meaningless hyperbole this is not, because ‘Heartless’ delivers in every facet. This is a doom metal masterpiece and my life is richer for hearing it.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.8
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day