Having never experienced the luxurious phenomenon that is “success with a band,” it’s difficult for me to gauge the significance of said success on the development of the music. Commercialization is a widely accepted conclusion, however, based purely on how often we’ve seen bands go from punk to pop, death to groove, sludge to alt-rock, and others ad infinitum. But let’s get something straight right from the gate: if you’ve ever been in a band that’s made a serious attempt to gain traction, giving the stink-eye to those who opt to soften the edges and widen the net becomes increasingly difficult the more mornings you spend burdened with the stress of wondering how far in advance you need to inform your smelly boss that you’ll need two weeks off in order to cruise around in a beater van to play a series of Midwest shows in front of 20 people in a shitfire dump and oh my LORD will someone please just buy a shirt without asking for a discount oh I guess the van was just stolen.
Pallbearer is unique in that they managed to slip right into that next level of success by playing metal’s most historically neglected offshoot: doom. Their ticket, whether it was intentional or not, was to mix the classic formula laid down by the masters with a strong serving of the vulnerability wielded by Watching from a Distance era Warning. That vulnerability – the willingness to expose 100% of the heart on the sleeve – didn’t just appeal to maudlin doomsters. Gaggles and legions and flocks of ghastly emo hipsters stormed in on their penny-farthings to witness a doom band that somehow managed to resonate with their syrupy spirits, and suddenly, Pallbearer crowds started looking suspiciously like ones you’d expect to see watching The Shins. How dare they.
Now, with a prosperous formula fortified through two successful and excellent records, Pallbearer has decided to futz with the recipe. Possible intentions: to bring even more armies in from an even wider swath; to give the greasy NWN legions incalculable fodder; to provide a transitional step before leaving heavy metal outright; or simply because, you know, the band felt like keeping things interesting. How dare they. And it is interesting, this Heartless endeavor. Heartless in both title and its cold-blooded attempts to drag listeners into a rockier, dare I say poppier, terrain.
Approaching the release from the standpoint of a person who’s been a fan since the 2010 demo, I am unashamed to admit that I still don’t quite know how to feel about Heartless, which is probably why this review is arriving a month after its release. The record boasts some of the most beautiful and awkward moments to date, creating a counterbalance that repels just as hard as it draws in. So, yeah, interesting is probably the most appropriate descriptor.
The psychedelic and progressive rock leanings work beautifully when they’re mellow and folded into doom’s naturally measured pace – the onset of “Lie of Survival,” for example, or the distinct ode to David Gilmour and crew that kicks off “Dancing in Madness.” But a notable portion of the record’s vocal methods convey a boldness to go where they haven’t gone before that isn’t always worth the risk. Brett Campbell has never had a terribly “metal sounding” voice, coming across more like an indie singer who decided to give metal a go, but he has an emotional delivery similar to Patrick Walker that has served their sound nicely over the years. And really, it’s not like they’ve suddenly gone to hell in 2017. Listen to the way he nails the hook of “I saw the end of all tomorrows” 1:50 into the album’s excellent lead track and you will hear a guy who is 100% capable of hitting the mark dead center. The wooziness in which that same song finds him flitting UP and down and UP and down again, however, sounds like a guitar-noodler’s habit to cover as much ground as possible. And the poppy way the vocals are layered and warbled 8:20 into “Dancing in Madness” – did we just walk into a Pallstreet Boys video shoot from 1997? Hmmmm.
There’s plenty of neutralizing good-to-greatness here, though, and I’m sure you’ve seen the positive press without limit already. Pallbearer is still clearly Pallbearer, and songs like the opening “I Saw the End,” “Cruel Road” (wow, that outset) and “A Plea for Understanding” flaunt some of the most heartbreaking riffs the band has ever penned. And even if the future of the band seems likely to head toward the more rock-oriented waters displayed on a track like “Heartless,” the savvy behind the respective members’ wares makes a strong case for the ship remaining upright no matter which direction they head. Hell, the lead guitar work and overall melody in these 60 minutes are worth the price of admission alone – all seven songs are proof of that bit of gravy. Whoever says “guitar solos are boring” should have a healthy sit-down with Heartless and prepare to wander the cosmos begging every living and fallen Axe-Lord From On High for clemency.
To summarize: I’m not really sure how to summarize Heartless. After sitting with it for a month, it remains as confounding to me as it is encouraging. The heaviness is still there, particularly in the middle of the record, as is the sense of pleasing misery many of us have come to expect. But the swing away from metal in favor of rock also seems to have blunted the vulnerable gloom’s overall impact, and that’s a bummer in and of itself. Yet I keep coming back. That’s when I realized that delivering an album that’s interesting can often be nearly as effective as dropping something that’s great, particularly concerning returnability and a willingness to keep a thumb on the pulse of a band. In that regard, Heartless is a win, and maybe I’m just not ready to deliver a final judgement yet.