On the strength of a three-song demo from 2010, Little Rock, Arkansas’s Pallbearer quickly became one of the most talked-about names in metal’s catty, cantankerous underground. Fast-forward a year and a half or so, and Pallbearer’s debut full-length Sorrow and Extinction on new label home Profound Lore offers marble-chiseled proof that the demo was no mere fluke; these four men have conjured something elemental.
Pallbearer feels at times like the apotheosis of a particular vision of traditional doom, a needle’s eye through which has been threaded the mournful but destructive stomp of Reverend Bizarre, the emotional rawness of Warning/40 Watt Sun, and the hazy, psychedelic blossoms of The Wounded Kings. Much has (rightly) been made of guitarist Brett Campbell’s reedy, expressive vocals, which easily invite comparison to Ozzy, Robert Lowe (of Solitude Aeternus/Candlemass), and Patrick Walker (of Warning/40 Watt Sun). Throughout the album, the echoing bounce-back on Campbell’s vocals is so huge you might need a few extra vowels – call it reeeeeeverb.
Still, as important as Campbell’s vocals are, perhaps the finest thing about Sorrow and Extinction is its production. In fact, if you’re tuning in to this full-length based primarily on the stirring vocal performance from the demo, a brief caveat is in order – the vocals are mixed significantly lower. The guitars are also not quite as buzzingly thick as on the demo; here they give off an icy-blue glow, a slight gauzy dissipation. As a recent point of reference, where 40 Watt Sun’s magisterial The Inside Room brought waves of impossibly warm fuzz crashing down on the listener’s head, Sorrow and Extinction works at a studied distance. This means that the songs are less immediate, but only because it sounds like they are being played louder and more passionately from farther away. Rafts on a river; theirs pulls ahead as we strain harder to follow with ears and hearts and hands shot and calloused from rowing.
If the production is the most important gestalt of the record, the most singly important instrument (tone, really) is the center of drummer Zach Stine’s ride cymbal. (Note: Stine played drums on the album, but has since left the band and been replaced by Chuck Schaaf.) It serves as a crucial anchor for the rest of the band, ensuring that the trudging never gets sluggish, that the occasional psychedelic flourishes in the guitar leads never get too fanciful, that the entire band never strays too far from the task of tirelessly building a particular world for the listener to inhabit. And sure, it’s a world of heaving emotional density and vulnerability, but there is hope. Fickle, fleeting, sure. But it’s there, in the space around the music, in the breathing after the hurting.
Oh, and there are songs, too, each one a carefully plotted map that charts surprising paths over familiar terrain. At several points throughout “Devoid of Redemption,” both the leads and vocals trail a beat or a half-beat behind the rhythm tracks, creating a nice staggered, layered effect, while the song’s midsection finds the band at its most head-down, thick riffingest chug. Stine keeps the same patient, ride cymbal-heavy patter going as the whole band slows en masse, and the fizzling effects on the guitar solo near the song’s end sound like Jimi Hendrix trapped beneath a boulder.
Joseph Rowland’s bass opens “The Legend” with a ropey, exploratory introduction of the song’s principal riff. Campbell’s vocals are in top form here, demonstrating that it’s not just their tone that’s important, but, probably even more so, their pacing – Campbell uses the rhythmic bed of the music to shape a dramatic delivery, sometimes dropping words in line with the rhythm guitar, sometimes holding a note just a little over the beat, delaying the melodic resolution in a way that creates little frissons of tension.
“An Offering of Grief” lopes along like an animal whose patient pacing could just as easily indicate either the pulse-racing but deadly calm stalking of prey or the adrenaline-laced search for a quiet glen in which to collapse, finally, and be still. Just after the five-minute mark the twin guitars of Campbell and Devin Holt break out into a nervous, twitchy oscillation. Following a brief acoustic respite, the whole band kicks back in with a crushing dirge of an outro, smashing fingers on strings to rain down chords that actually seem to cry out some rather triumphant tones.
Even though the syllables of Pallbearer’s songs are almost uniformly dejected, the sentences they form are somehow inflected with hope, or at least the shadow of its possibility. Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in closing track “Given to the Grave.” The song opens with a ceremony of opposites, pairing celestial synth and choral tones with Rowland’s cellar-deep bass. As the song ends, though, once the thunder-riffs and cymbal-rain have gone on to dapple more distant fields, those same delicate synth tones return, but this time untethered from the earthward-lingering bass; now upward they float, or heavenward, or to whatever unknown future.
The English poet Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain” seems most apt. Each of the poem’s four stanzas begins with imagery of joyful domesticity (“They sing their dearest songs – / He, she, all of them – yea” or “They are blithely breakfasting all – / Men and maidens – yea”), but each trails off and is rent by an existential lament (“Ah, no; the years O!”). The final stanza works an even sharper contrast, describing a house filled with worldly goods: “Clocks and carpets and chairs / On the lawn all day, / And brightest things that are theirs… / Ah, no; the years, the years; / Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.” Those last words fall with a savage honesty made all the more unbearable by its lightness of touch. When this band is at its best, which is most of the time on Sorrow and Extinction, its sounds are like these words. It’s the sort of thing you can feel in your bones, tired though they may be. Tired though they are.