Premature Evaluation: Pallbearer Heartless
Heartless landed in my inbox on the 16th of December, in the late afternoon. This was five days before the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year — and I was at my desk, in a silent room, in the dark and alone.
I’m not painting this sad, empty picture for dramatic effect; I’m just trying to provide some context, and these were the simple facts of my situation. Stereogum’s old offices — back when we were stationed in Manhattan’s Wholesale District, before we moved to Midtown this past January — had no lights for some reason, so as soon as the sun set, we were left with nothing but the glow of our monitors to illuminate the room. And the 16th of December fell on a Friday; Christmas was on the horizon and the rest of the music industry was already gone for the holiday, so all my co-workers had taken off early to get a head start on the weekend. But I was still there — in this lightless, lifeless space — waiting on one last email before I too could shut down and go home.
Before I got that email, though, I got another one, with a link to an advance stream of Pallbearer’s third LP, Heartless: an album I was excited to hear and which wouldn’t be released till the second-to-last week of March 2017. So, with time to kill and an office to myself, I threw it on the speakers, turned ‘em up good and loud, and I listened to the album straight through — no interruptions, no interactions, no light. Just me and the music.
Here’s the thing: The ostensible intent of these Premature Evaluations is for us to provide you with our first impressions of the music in question. They’re not supposed to be thorough critiques or long-gestating analyses. They’re supposed to be our immediate reactions, and we share them with you because we want you to share your immediate reactions. Because that’s how we — we as a culture and we as a community — talk about music: passionately, excitedly, urgently. But man, I’ve had Heartless now for three fucking months. I’ve listened to this album at least a hundred times, easy. The thing I’m writing today could not possibly be considered “premature,” because I know every last little note of all these songs by heart.
But here’s the other thing. I actually can provide you with my first impressions of the music in question, because I wrote them down that day — in that very moment, in fact. I wasn’t taking notes or anything; I was just listening to the album, and when it was over, I HAD TO TALK ABOUT IT WITH SOMEBODY. So I wrote an email to the only person in the world I knew who’d heard it: Chris Bruni, who runs Pallbearer’s label, Profound Lore Records. And here’s what I wrote:
From: Michael Nelson
To: Chris Bruni
Dude Stephanie sent this to me and I’m literally frozen from the chills. Holy shit. I’m on the last song and I’m speechless. I dunno if you consider it the best thing they’ve ever done but it’s my favorite. Amazing. I’m kinda speechless in all honesty. I’m listening to it and thinking, this record that no one has heard yet is going to go down in history as an actual classic. I’m not even exaggerating. I obviously have to spend more time with it, and you never know how other people will respond to music that you love, but I can’t remember the last time I heard an album that hit me like this.
Funny, right? I couldn’t wait to talk about this album — like, I remember this moment pretty clearly, and I was truly so excited that I actually could not contain myself — and the best I could manage was, “I’m speechless.” I said it TWICE. I couldn’t fucking speak.
Pallbearer come into LP3 facing some heavy expectations. The Little Rock, Arkansas band’s first album, Sorrow And Extinction, was a masterclass in traditional doom metal, full of mighty riffs and molasses tempos and ridiculously great melodies delivered with Herculean power and Orphic heartache by frontman Brett Campbell, whose timbre strongly recalled that of a young Ozzy Osbourne. It was Stereogum’s #1 metal album of 2012. They followed that two years later with Foundations Of Burden, which built on Sorrow’s Sabbathian base by adding a whole host of other elements: prog; emo; noise rock; slowcore; a song that sounded like Bon Iver. It was occasionally too jarring to completely hold together (for me, anyway), but it was a bold and deliberate step forward, putting additional distance between Pallbearer and a billion backward-looking doom merchants who were already eating Pallbearer’s dust. Foundations Of Burden was Decibel’s #1 album of 2014.
That’s a pretty terrific one-two punch. That’s more than most metal bands will achieve in a career. But it also means, for Pallbearer, the bar has been set pretty damn high.
The stakes are pretty damn high, too. Historically, LP3 has represented something of a proving ground for metal bands. It’s the point at which a band has established its sound, its identity, and its audience, and now the band has to do something with all that. It’s the point at which a band either makes a great leap or digs in on the ground it has already claimed. It’s the point at which once-exciting novelties grow tiresome, the point at which shtick grows stale — conversely, it’s the point at which novelty and schtick are often either abandoned or transcended. This can be an uncomfortable moment for metal bands in particular, because the genre tends to demand some degree of dogmatic conformity, often at the expense of experimentation.
This isn’t always the case, of course, but it is often the case. Look at some notable LP3s we’ve talked about a lot at Stereogum over the last few years: Yellow & Green was, sadly, the moment at which I realized Baroness’ best days were probably in the rearview. On the other hand, The Children Of The Night was the moment at which Tribulation went from being a pretty interesting Swedish death metal band to genre-defying world-beaters. Another one you might remember: New Bermuda was the moment at which Deafheaven went from being one of my very favorite bands to The Best Band In The World Today (In My Opinion).
This isn’t some old, tested truism or anything; it’s just a trend I’ve noticed. And in my experience, most metal bands fall into one of four groupings when they reach LP3:
Group 1. Is that all ya got?
Group 2. Is that even the same band?
Group 3. WTF is that?
Group 4. Holy shit.
The vast majority of metal bands who make it to LP3 fall into Group 1. Artistically speaking, this evolutionary track yields either cautiously incremental and largely indistinguishable advances — superficial tweaks; minor variations on a theme — or steadily diminishing returns. There are far too many instances of this to provide a representative cross-section, but for the sake of defining my terms, I’ll offer a couple examples that jump to mind: Deicide and Obituary. Now, I’m sure there are a number people whose very favorite respective Deicide and Obituary albums are Once Upon The Cross and The End Complete, but most rational consumers know that you don’t need anything beyond Deicide, Legion, Slowly We Rot, and Cause Of Death. That’s your canon; those are your essentials. Everything after that is retread, and it’s really not always pretty.
Bands that fall into Group 2 are much rarer. These are bands who use LP3 as an opportunity to do a total reboot — suddenly they’re making music that bares almost no significant similarities to the style(s) they established on LPs 1 and 2, and frequently, this represents an unexpected and exciting improvement. The central question — “Is that even the same band?” — is often not entirely rhetorical. Typically, these bands have added, subtracted, and/or replaced at least one prominent member. Some examples of this are Carcass’ Necroticism: Descanting The Insalubrious and Napalm Death’s Harmony Corruption.
In many ways, Group 3 is the inverse of Group 2; the flip side of the same coin, and perhaps just as rare. These are bands who realize, on some level, that they are approaching entropy, so they violently change lanes and hope for the best. The results, however, are typically so far off the mark that they are received by fans as a betrayal. Some examples of this are Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake* and Entombed’s Wolverine Blues. Artistically speaking, Group 3 bands are more interesting than Group 1 bands, but I can’t imagine many of them would make the same decisions if given a second chance to make a third impression.
Then there is Group 4. Holy shit. These are already great (or near-great) bands who level up, skipping Beast Mode and going straight to God Mode. In metal, this is when immortality is achieved, when bands become icons, legends, even genres unto themselves. You can go back through the decades and find examples of this so consistent that they almost singlehandedly prove my thesis. Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Slayer’s Reign In Blood. Faith No More’s Angel Dust** and At The Gates’ Terminal Spirit Disease. Converge’s Jane Doe*** and Cobalt’s Gin.
Pallbearer did that thing. That last thing. That’s what Heartless is. Holy shit.
In fairness to the rest of the genre, it’s probably not accurate to call Pallbearer a metal band anymore. The non-metal influences on Heartless are so prominent and pronounced that Pallbearer are pretty much speaking a different language at this point — several different languages at once, maybe. I hear David Sylvian on this thing, and a little David Bowie, too. I hear Ride and Rush and Low and Swans and the Cure and Alice In Chains and the motherfucking Mahavishnu Orchestra. I am 100% certain that every single person who listens to Heartless’ “Dancing In Madness” will compare that song’s opening section to Carlos Santana’s ’70s psychedelic material. I would bet a million dollars that Pallbearer were trying to replicate Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ guitar tone on the closing section of Heartless’ title track. I hear so much peak-era Pink Floyd on here that I think both David Gilmour and Roger Waters should probably get executive producer credits.
But even if Pallbearer are too multitudinous to be categorized under metal, they’re still way too metal to be anything else. Heartless is heavy as fuck, and it is full of metal. Not just the obvious stuff — Black Sabbath, Candlemass, Warning, whatever — but a wide and weird array, way up front in the arrangements: Metallica, Voivod, Sepultura, Mercyful Fate, Opeth, High On Fire … man, even some fuckin’ Queensrÿche, I dunno. There’s a lot of post-metal in the mix, too — Neurosis, Isis, Jesu — which makes that designation feel a little too small to contain this album.
Most vitally: No matter how much you can hear all that music in this music, Pallbearer don’t actually sound like any of their influences. You’ll compare that guitar line in “Dancing In Madness” to Carlos Santana, no question, but you won’t walk away from Heartless thinking that Pallbearer sound like Santana. Or Pink Floyd. Or Black Sabbath. Heartless sounds as big as any of its forebears and a hundred times bigger than Sorrow And Extinction and Foundations Of Burden combined. It contains Pallbearer’s heaviest, gnarliest material. It also contains their prettiest, most delicate material. And large chunks of it are someplace in-between those two extremes: massive, loud music that is also and beautiful, moving, crushing, and kinetic. (It’s also their fastest album, for what that’s worth, although we’re talking in relative terms here. This music still moves at fairly low BPMs, but it’s pretty spritely compared to the first two Pallbearer LPs.)
The album to which I most often find myself comparing Heartless, weirdly, is Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. This is, in part, because both albums operate in similar textures and hues: spacious, moody, atmospheric, dramatic, encompassing, shocking, strange, grand, sad. Both combine disparate, sometimes dissonant sounds to produce music of overwhelming power and beauty. Both feel gigantic, otherworldly, maybe even alien. Both feel out of time: somehow simultaneously of the future and the past, but entirely disconnected from the present. And both are singular, uncompromising works of art.
But there’s something else, too, that connects the two albums. Prior to Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk had been an artsy new-wave band dealing in songwriting structures that everybody uses. These structures have been with us since the birth of pop music and they will be with us for as long as music is conceived as “songs”: verse/pre-chorus/chorus/verse/pre-chorus/chorus/bridge/chorus/chorus/etc. (Not necessarily that exact structure, but some variation thereof.) But on Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk took an entirely new approach to writing, totally abandoning traditional forms, incorporating sounds and styles that seemed incongruous if not outright bizarre. These songs were amorphous and expansive, with no adherence to the basic rules of composition. They felt like ambient or psychedelic jazz or some kind of opiated art-rock noise.
The reason this is an admittedly weird comparison is because Spirit Of Eden sounds almost entirely improvised, while Heartless sounds like it was methodically and painstakingly constructed over months on the road and in the studio. But both share the exact same aversion to formula. Heartless comprises seven tracks and runs for about an hour, but over its entire span, almost no single section of any song is repeated even once — or if it is repeated, it’s almost unrecognizable. Minus one notable exception (we’ll get to that momentarily), there are virtually no verses or choruses; every segment of music is an outgrowth of the segment that preceded it, but not a recurrence. These songs are linear, not circular. They just move forward.
Now let me be crystal clear about this: That is a crazy approach to making music, and it absolutely should not work. It should be a goddamn disaster, and no other band should attempt anything like this (unless that band is, like, Krallice or Sunn O))) or something, but that’s an entirely different thing). But Pallbearer are on a whole other level right now, and they can do shit that no other band can even contemplate. These songs are so good — they’re so compelling and thrilling and almost unfairly catchy — that it might take you three or four listens before you even realize they don’t have choruses. And while its sheer mass might seem daunting from the outside, the whole thing actually speeds by, because you never know what’s going to happen next. By the time you’ve got it all memorized, you’re just waiting for these little details when you listen, and you need to have them in context for them to hit right (there’s this one chord change in “Lie Of Survival” that rips me in half, and it lasts literally two seconds). By then, you recognize how much every bit of music here matters; you understand how every tiny, seemingly insignificant piece is totally essential and equal, because no matter what it is, it’s only going to occur a single time. Alternately, if there’s a particular section that you don’t like, you can rest assured that not only will you not hear it again, but it’ll be followed by something ridiculously mind-blowing. (I promise, no matter where you are in the album, something ridiculously mind-blowing is about to happen.) Really, Heartless plays less like an album than it does a movie, with every new turn changing the scenery and building the mystery.
The real reason this gambit works, though, is that Pallbearer have the whole thing mapped out, and this breathtaking momentum is propelling you to an epic fucking conclusion. Heartless’ closing number, “A Plea For Understanding,” isn’t just a climax, it’s a destination. It’s a finale. It is THE END. It’s also the one song here that’s built like a song: verse/chorus/verse/etc. And what a goddamn song it is. “A Plea For Understanding” reminds me a little bit of Slowdive’s Pygmalion and a little bit of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer,” but what it really brings to mind for me are the ungodly destroyers on Red House Painters’ Songs For A Blue Guitar: “Make Like Paper” and “Silly Love Songs” — the songs whose endlessly spiraling razor-wire guitar solos led to RHP getting kicked off former label 4AD. It is a volcano, a white-out blizzard. “A Plea For Understanding” gets under your skin and inside your skull and just pushes outward on all your nerve endings till you can’t feel anything but that sound, till you can’t move because you’ve gone numb. (See above: “I’m literally frozen from the chills.”) If it ended after six songs, Heartless would still be a monumental album, but with those six songs leading you to “A Plea For Understanding,” Heartless becomes something else. A journey. A religious experience.
It seems really early to start using words like “pantheon” when talking about Pallbearer, but take a step back and it’s hard to imagine how they won’t apply. The list of metal bands whose first three albums stack up alongside Sorrow And Extinction, Foundations Of Burden, and Heartless is pretty short, and it gets shorter when you account for Pallbearer’s trajectory: Heartless is Pallbearer’s best album by an order of magnitude. It’s their most accomplished work, their most interesting work, and their most complicated work; it’s also their most intricate, innovative, and impressive in terms of both the writing and performances on display; and somehow, it’s also the flat-out best-sounding and most fun to listen to. (That last aspect will probably get downplayed in most reviews of this album, but it really can’t be overstated: Heartless is just a gluttonously pleasurable sensory experience. I’d call it “ear porn” but that’s actually inapt, because the production quality in porn is just so shitty. This thing is more like The Force Awakens.) Bands functioning at that capacity are pretty rare, and bands who do it at the level Pallbearer are at right now? It’s not a long list.
I don’t know if Heartless will “go down in history as an actual classic” — I’m not hedging, I’m just saying I have no way of knowing that — but my feelings about the album have only grown more assured since last December. And all these months and all these words later — so many fucking words, I know — and I’m not sure I’ve said anything better than, “I’m speechless.” Honestly, if that email I wrote to Chris Bruni had to stand as my final review of Heartless, I’d feel OK about it.
So yeah, I think Pallbearer are gonna be a band we’re talking about long after we’ve forgotten about a lot of these other bands. But all that’s a ways off. We’ll have that conversation some other day. For now, my advice is, forget talking, just listen. Sit in a room, dark and alone, just you and the music. Then turn up the speakers good and loud, and listen. Because you’re about to hear something special.
* Yes, Cold Lake is Celtic Frost’s third album, not their fourth. Morbid Tales was an EP that was repackaged as a full-length when released in the US.
** Yes, Angel Dust is Faith No More’s third album, not their fourth — We Care A Lot is basically a demo that was re-released years later as an LP, and even the band considers Introduce Yourself to be Faith No More’s official debut LP.
*** Yes, Jane Doe is Converge’s third album, not their fourth. Petitioning The Empty Sky is not an album; it is a compilation of stray tracks: “a collection of songs recorded at different times [and] three songs recorded live.” You people, I swear.