Rating:Of all the endless, rigidly bordered subgenres of heavy metal, doom may be at one the most intractable and yet the one most capable of diversity. Thank God that Black Sabbath was more varied than its rep would suggest; Master of Reality alone helped cement doom (“Solitude”), stoner metal (“Sweet Leaf”) and sludge (“Children of the Grave,” “Lord of This World”). More recently, Sunn O))) has pushed the grinding riffs of the genre to such punishingly slow tempos that they passed through parody to reach avant-garde drone. And these are just two bands; hordes of joint-smoking and epically minded riffmongers have pulled doom every which way but fast for decades.
Pallbearer belongs more with the likes of Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus than the lads from Birmingham. Singer/guitarist Brett Campbell has a melodic, mid-range voice redolent of Fates’ Warning’s Ray Alder, his singing occasionally pinched when he rises to hit a stress note but mostly notable for ducking the diva demonstrations that make metal singers often as insufferably showy as the guitarists. Riffs are similarly nasty but disciplined, raw enough to be played at the dives where most of the band’s touring will take place but primed to fill space for any metal festival to which they might be invited. Foundations of Burden follows their acclaimed debut Sorrow and Extinction with more of the same, which in metal is usually a fan-pleasing endeavor, and besides, when you’ve already got the formula down pat, why go messing with it?
Opener “Worlds Apart” is the band’s strength in miniature, though perhaps that’s the wrong term for a 10-minute opening salvo of key changes and extended instrumental passages filled with grinding chords and enough noise to make this quartet sound like a demon’s chorus. Unlike the often unbearable epics that typify metal, Pallbearer’s doom bona fides keep them safely secreted away from wheedling, arpeggio-laden solos that characterize the most parodic metal excesses, splitting their two guitarists between cascading melodies soaring over the leviathan lurching off the riffs. It’s at once bruising and elegant, pleasing to metalheads’ not-exactly-open-minded tastes while inviting in listeners who might be finding themselves following indie noise back to one of its tangential antecedents.
This dichotomy of light and dark casts everything in pallid gray, and Pallbearer continue to live up to the morbidity of their name by addressing concerns of death and despair. Misery has always been a staple of heavy metal, ever since Sabbath recounted acid nightmares, and certainly doom stakes out melancholy among the various insecurities and furies of metal. But Pallbearer’s commitment to melody lifts them somewhat out of total nihilistic abandon. Indeed, closing track “Vanished” seems to repurpose the caterwauling riff from Black Sabbath’s namesake song, replacing its three-chord leap from the pit to a scream and back down again with a four step pattern that adds an extra note on the way back down. “Vanished,” like “Black Sabbath,” is a trip to hell, but it nonetheless takes the stairs down there instead of being shoved into the abyss.
Generally speaking, for all the constant modulations within each composition, Foundations of Burden still puts forward a unified sound. But that doesn’t preclude more variation here than you tend to get on, say, a Saint Vitus record. The briefest song, “Ashes,” is a gorgeous breather, still shot through with noise but rendering it as dreamy, almost shoegaze-like trance. “The Ghost I Used to Be” eventually settles into the album’s most punishingly heavy number, but its opening blast of whining guitar suggests in seconds why the band recently toured with indie black-metallers Deafheaven, who make such moments of lilting grace amongst the pummeling their stock and trade. With Campbell’s voice slicing through the sound like a razor, Foundations of Burden positions itself as not merely the best metal record of the year so far, but one of the rare LPs from the genre to not just purge its emotions, but address them with care.