Pallbearer have been with us now for the entirety of our current decade, when a heralded 2010 demo led to the band quickly getting snatched up by Profound Lore, who went on to release their instant classic debut, Sorrow and Extinction, two years later. 2017, then, marks the group's half-decade mark in the public eye proper, but for a number of reasons the Arkansas quartet feel like veterans far beyond what that five years would imply. For their second album, Foundations of Burden, Pallbearer brought in Billy Anderson to accentuate their refined adjustment in songwriting, and suddenly this band sounded like a forward-thinking pacesetter rather than a promising group still struggling to find their sea legs.
In spite of their first two records already being considered genre classics of a sort, this year's self-produced Heartless nonetheless manages to have "third time's the charm" written all over it. For one thing, Brett Campbell has never sounded more at home on the mic, eschewing typical metal mannerisms in favor of strident swells of restrained emoting, a slow simmer that never quite gets close to a Geoff Tate wail but nonetheless displays a serious uptick in vocal chops over the last couple of efforts.
In my review of Foundations of Burden at the time, I noted the increasing dissimilarities between Pallbearer and another breakout Class of 2012 SXSW alumni, Deafheaven, who at the time were just beginning to piss fans off by marginalizing the heavier bedrock of their first album with a new dichotomy between the intensity of black metal paired with a crepuscular wistfulness of chiming chords that sent the shoegaze-averse heads aflutter. Well, while Pallbearer have hardly made that stunning an about face with Heartless, there's a tangential pattern recognition re-emerging between the two bands in the sense that Pallbearer have similarly begun to indulge in a certain sonic melancholia, albeit not in any recognizable shoegaze/dream pop sense, really.
It's about the melody, both in Campbell's melodic prog singing and his guitar interplay with co-guitarist Devin Holt. It's also about ambition, which is reflected nowhere better than on album centerpiece, "Dancing in Madness", a staggering 12-minute suite that will probably remain Pallbearer's magnum opus for some time to come. Beginning with a soulful, Santana-like blues riff over a choral backdrop, the song shifts into the kind of lurching, slow-doom miasma familiar from their first two records before morphing into a surprisingly jaunty cross between Fates Warning and King's X – it all defies easy comparison but, we're ball parking it here – then drop us an unexpected stoner doom interlude before finally bring it all home with another progged out coda. The whole enterprise is a phenomenal microcosm of Pallbearer to date, as well as offering a bewildering variety of pointers to the future.
The even lengthier album closer, "A Plea for Understanding", is more easily digested but not quite as ambitious. Though featuring some of Campbell's most impressive vocals yet, the 13-minute track is more of a melancholy slow burn than multi-faceted scene stealer. But for those fearing Heartless is all prog rock bloat, fret not: songs like opening duo "I Saw the End" and "Thorns" have plenty of perceptible ties to the Pallbearer of yore, with catchy riffs and succinct (if ardent) structure. The title track runs a good eight minutes, but that's allowing for a bit of atmospheric breathing room in the middle. That section is otherwise book-ended by a couple of musically congruent slug-out riff fests which account for much of the more imminent crowd pleasing elements of the disc.
Heartless offers a brilliant summation of an illustrious, though youthful, career. Its shift in tone and musical ambition may alienate some of the more stalwart fundamentalists out there, but that's the risk great artists take. There's frankly enough going on here to make Pallbearer's previous two albums sound almost boring (!) in comparison, though it takes a bit more effort to absorb. Pallbearer earn that effort.