For any band, the stakes are rarely higher than when writing a second album. Writing a second album when one’s debut reaped a groundswell of attention and near-universal acclaim, then, is surely an even more daunting challenge. And yet, on their majestic second album Foundations of Burden, Pallbearer have not only proved that the magic of Sorrow & Extinction was far from a fluke, but they have surpassed themselves in every way imaginable. If Sorrow & Extinction was an album to fall in love with, then due to the depth of its compositions and the impeccable grace of its delivery, Foundations of Burden is an album to obsess over.
For anyone who fell under the spell of Sorrow & Extinction, the production on Foundations of Burden will almost certainly be an immediate shock. Whereas Sorrow & Extinction called out its laments across a vast, echoing distance, Foundations of Burden speaks to the listener like an old friend, plainly and directly. Working with legendary metal producer Billy Anderson (whose work with Sleep and Agalloch are the most salient references here) on Foundations of Burden has resulted in a sound that is warm, dense, inviting, and unavoidably immediate. The balance of the instrumentation is still conversational enough that the deep nuances of Pallbearer’s songwriting are easy to follow, but the overall effect of the combined sound is a tangible wall of humid summer air.
The differences between the two albums can’t be pinned entirely to their respective production schemes, however. On Foundations of Burden, the band sounds limber, looser, and more comfortable. Rest assured, these songs still plod and swing in the finest, most dejected caveman jazz tradition, but each composition displays an unshakable sense of movement. The endless bounty of titanic riffs and effortlessly powerful leads from guitarists Brett Campbell and Devin Holt dispense with some of Sorrow & Extinction‘s austere economy in favor of gently unspooling melodies that reach languidly across measures, beckoning the other players to join them in the dance. Joseph Rowland’s bass is a more forceful presence as well, filling out the sweet thickness of the sound but also more often than not leading the way when the band moves into its frequent exploratory jam sections.
From a macro perspective, however, little has changed in the Pallbearer camp. The band still plays its proudly unfashionable style of epic yet traditional-minded doom that calls to mind both the old guard of Black Sabbath, Trouble, and Candlemass, but also relative newcomers (at least on doom’s epochal timeline) like Reverend Bizarre, Warning, and Procession. But perhaps even more so than on Sorrow & Extinction, the breadth of the band’s other influences creeps more expansively and subtly into these songs. The most notable difference is the increased prominence of the early Peaceville doom/death sound. “Foundations” wields a cyclical clean guitar lead on top of the rounded crunch of heavy riffing, and the absolutely world-crushing riff that opens “Worlds Apart” sounds like the best riff Paradise Lost never wrote for Gothic. Pallbearer’s new drummer Mark Lierly also plays a crucial role, turning in a much more supple performance than on the band’s previous recordings. He never overplays, but his more active flourishes deftly coax the listener to notice the band’s compositional architecture.
Brett Campbell’s vocals, which were such a lightning rod for the band early on, are even stronger throughout Foundations of Burden. Whether due to the Billy Anderson production or the natural exploration of his strengths and limitations while touring on the last album and recording the new one, Campbell’s tone is fuller and richer, yet still possessed of the same beguiling combination of quavering vulnerability and absolute surety. His vocal melodies have developed with the same sense of motion that animates the rest of the instruments, forming ornate lattices that both support and depend on the song as a whole. There’s no better demonstration of this than on “Foundations,” where just as it feints like it’s winding down, its final two minutes burst like a rain-swollen cloud finally breaking, with a painstakingly choral vocal arrangement sounding that unlikeliest of notes: hope.
However, it’s really on “Watcher in the Dark” that Foundations of Burden makes its most ardent case for blowing the already absurdly strong debut out of the water. It is easily the best song of this young band’s career, with its patient, scene-setting opening that gives way to a reverent nod to early Anathema. The last four minutes or so of the song, however, are not only the finest demonstration of Pallbearer’s ability to both jam and devastate in equal measure, but also show the widest range of outre influence. As bassist Joseph Rowland’s piano accompaniment sketches out the chord progressions, the band trades off solo flourishes that eventually build, tangle, argue, and complement, until the whole web sounds like the most seamlessly crafted meeting point of Solstafir, The Cure, and Bruce Hornsby. That might sound like a mess, but it’s a glorious fusion and a perfect climax in an album that thrives on its mastery of dynamics.
It’s easy to focus on superlative moments in an album as littered with them as Foundations of Burden, but in truth the magic of Pallbearer’s second album arises not from any single phrase, riff, lyric, or crescendo; instead – and this is where the album is not so different from Sorrow & Extinction – the album’s greatest accomplishment is that it constructs a tactile world. It’s a house, or a cathedral, or any habitable space that invites you to feel the grain of its timber and the tilt of its earthen floor. And while Sorrow & Extinction built a home that was haunted by coming to grips with loss and ruin, Foundations of Burden takes the first tentative steps toward rebuilding.
And as a listener, you’re called to be a part of its crafting. Feel your fingers shake their creaking stiffness and grasp, again, the tools of creation. Fill your lungs for as long as you’re alive. Find what you love and hold it close. You were happy, once. You can be happy again.