Pallbearer’s third album, Heartless, is an epic and urgent meditation on our current moment. Its lyrics point toward the inward struggle of living a life encumbered by the weight of the past, but grounds this contemplation with gestures that point to greater problems in the world. On Heartless, the past is not only personal but, also, cultural — something shared and something that we are all complicit in. From the stunning opener, “I Saw the End”, we understand clearly that Pallbearer is contemplating something bigger than one’s personal actions. But this apocalypse music is stripped of fire-and-brimstone histrionics; it’s uniquely measured and pristine. The surrender evinced in the calmer and more melodic parts of the album is not so much a whimper, but an exhalation of acceptance and an understanding that the course of time is unchanging and that the only fate we share is death.
It’s easy to discount musicians for making epic work that attempts to reckon with the grand existential problems that we face. After all, we’ve seen artists time and again fall flat on their faces attempting to do just this. But Pallbearer is an exception to this because there is a rare focus as to the content and execution of their work. Across Heartless, there is not a misplaced note. The songs move with a symphonic approach to structure and arrangement, surging and receding like ocean waves. The album moves at a slow, mid-tempo pace with a gentle control of dynamics throughout, which creates a space for contemplation for listener which the lyrics add to. This is rare for metal, which, as a genre, exists more as a vessel for unbridled expression than something that inspires critical thought (at least while actively listening, that is).
This music feels like it’s actively on a search for something and in this way, Pallbearer reaches universality previously hit by artists like the Beatles on Abbey Road or Pink Floyd at their most explorative. And yet these more balanced moments are still wholly epic: you can imagine these songs filling the air in stadiums, making it humid all the way into the nosebleeds. Then there are moments when the band goes into full-on attack mode, becoming powerful like a locomotive, like on the standout, “Cruel Road” which features hardcore-inflected group vocals that feel dangerous.
Pallbearer’s doom metal roots inform their layered attack and use of space. There is never really a moment of spareness in the production — the instruments are never really separate, but they don’t run into each other either, always remaining distinctive if you choose to concentrate on one specifically. Heartless is, at its center, a guitar album, with anthemic three-part harmonies and gorgeous solos that alternately lilt and shred. Often mournful, the guitars still have a quiet sense of power that feel like the only real hope that Pallbearer can muster. The opening to “Dancing in Madness” is a great example of this: augmented with stately synthesizer, the guitars create a bed on which a soaring solo foreshadows the dense existentialism of the lyrics that follow. Stylistically, the guitars feel classicist in regards to rock and metal, alternately calling to mind the oppressive power of Neurosis, the wrenching catharsis of David Gilmour’s solos with Pink Floyd, and the lilting grandeur of Billy Corgan’s most layered and impassioned work. But the band’s distinct and idiosyncratic sense of instrumental melody is all their own, providing a marriage to the vocals that feels like an ongoing conversation, rather than an end unto itself.
The singing on Heartless, by Brett Campbell and secondary vocalist Joseph D. Rowland, is just as beautifully layered as the guitar work. The vocals often ring out in lengthy notes, hanging just above the instrumentation in rich counterpoint. The mixing mirrors this, giving the vocals enough space to be distinct but not to reduce the music to simply being a delivery system for them. Like the guitars, there are unexpected melodic runs that underscore the strength of Campbell’s singing and writing ability — in its most anthemic and powerful moments, his singing rings out like prime-era Chris Cornell.
The vocals give the album its true heart. From the opener, “I Saw the End” to the closer “A Plea for Understanding”, the vocals allow the lyrics to transcend simple rumination and, instead, make them feel like they’re satellite signals sent into a difficult and unyielding universe in search of some meaning. And despite the the pessimism that runs throughout the lyric sheet, there is an overwhelming sense of generosity in their delivery. (The chorus of “A Plea for Understanding” starts with: “I just wanted to give to you/All that you’ve given me.”) Pallbearer creates a shared experience here: if we’re all complicit in the fate of the world, we’re also here together in the pain that it causes.
Heartless will kick your ass during its entire running time. It’s a product of a rare band that, through dint of hard work and sincerity, will certainly be a huge crossover success. Their music touches on elemental pain and beauty that is constant in all life. For this, Pallbearer will certainly go down as one of the greatest metal acts this decade and maybe of all time. Let’s all count ourselves lucky that we’re here to witness it.