Album Review: PALLBEARER Foundations of Burden
Pallbearer roared into 2012 with enormous expectations, being one of the most hyped new bands in years without an actual album under their belt. Sorrow and Extinction came out in February, and by the time the band had played a number of high profile showcases at SXSW three weeks later, they'd been anointed Band of the Year well before record release season was even fully in swing yet. Not bad for a band from the state that is otherwise known mostly for Bill Clinton and Rwake, eh? Ah, but you know who else played that same SXSW (same bill even, at one point)? Deafheaven, who have successfully filled the void while Pallbearer was home woodshedding by polarizing the fuck out of the metal world in 2013, hated by some but also loved with a diehard fervor by others. In fact, the two bands being arguably co-favored sons of the media and the academics, one might plausibly say that what Pallbearer are attempting to top with this year's Foundations of Burden is not so much their own last album but more like Deafheaven's vote-splitting Sunbather.
Well, except the bands have grown apart in such disparate directions that it no longer makes much sense to compare the two even in passing. Whereas Deafheaven are dressing for office job interviews and chasing that lucrative Mexican Summer cache (relax, I only kid the bands I love), Pallbearer are content with growing organically rather than reinventing the wheel. They could have done worse than bringing in Billy Anderson, that's for sure. The onetime Man of Porn turned Rick Rubin of the extreme metal set has been known for producing some serious genre-defining classics (I could list examples all day but… Dopesmoker. Ok?)
The odd thing is: whereas Sorrow and Extinction kind of resembled a take on Sleep with some of the hesher cobwebs shaken out, Anderson has really opened up the audio palette on Foundations of Burden. The closest example that springs to mind would be to compare the first and second Pilgrim records, although that probably comes from the doom connection rather than any apples-to-apples relationship between the production values of both bands.
But while the first album really seemed to revel in the atmosphere created by that claustrophobic mix, Foundations of Burden is far less reliant on atmosphere. Brett Campbell and Devin Holt have really upped their game in terms of riff-writing (showcased right off the bat with opening track "Worlds Apart"), and Campbell definitely comes off a lot more at home in his voice, expanding his range exponentially without ever really sounding like he's straining himself.
In spite of those changes, there is a lot to love here for those who thought Sorrow and Extinction was just fine and didn't really need to be "fixed". With the exception of "Ashes", the songs either near or exceed the ten-minute mark, which implies a retention of the previous album's strategy in creating a foreboding mood via trance-like repetition. "Watcher in the Dark" opens with over a minute of darkly snarling chords before the drums even kick in, the funereal tone maintaining for half again that duration before Campbell's comparatively bright vocals kick it up a notch.
Foundations of Burden is a better album than its predecessor, and it gets there through a stacking of tweaks and refinements rather than any kind of real overhaul. I can't really see this disappointing anyone who played Sorrow and Extinction to death, other than maybe those who insist that a band flip the script entirely on each and every album, or those who just like to bash any band that is universally regarded (often writing them off as "hipster metal", as if the word "hipster" has any meaning at all if it's intended to apply to everyone). Pallbearer have successfully laid down a versatile bit of bedrock here that should see them well into the next decade.