Ever since the likes of Candlemass and Saint Vitus blew the dust off of Black Sabbath’s trudging early sound and formed a verifiable subgenre, doom metal has progressed at a pace well beyond its thick tempi. As much as black metal has become a fertile ground for avant-garde experimentation at breakneck speeds, so too has doom morphed into a game of experimental oneupmanship, to the extent that the genre is now perhaps most epitomized by its most out-there contingents such as Sunn O))). That made Arkansas quartet Pallbearer’s 2012 debut Sorrow and Extinction a paradoxical breath of fresh air by sounding as if it could have been cut in 1988. With plunging riffs expertly countered by Brett Campbell’s plaintive, clear moan, the album circumnavigating doom’s descent into hellish growls and splintered expressions of fury and nihilism with something closer to Black Sabbath’s foundational moods of fear and loneliness.

By the time one arrives at the band’s newly released third LP, Heartless, however, it is clear that Pallbearer are no less immune to change than their more progressive peers. Foundations of Burden experimented with synthesizers and more complex arrangements, but that record feels like preamble for the full-on blossoming of this record. “I Saw the End” opens with Campbell’s and Devin Holt’s guitars at opposite ends, one grinding away a riff as the other glides overhead. The two then snake in and out of each other, joining for added crunch before splitting off again. In the past, Campbell’s voice has been somewhat inaccurately described as “soaring” when it instead sounded closer to the mid-range wail of classic Ozzy. Here, however, that adjective fits as the singer passes down grim observations from on high, as if he were the withdrawn, mournful rock man who adorns Michael Lierly’s striking album cover (one of the best to grace a metal album in years, imparting colossal, morose weight without resorting to Grand Guignol theatrics or vague images of misty forests). Though not too great a deviation from the formula Pallbearer changed up on their previous record, the band sounds more confident with its exploration, to the extent that they tinge what might have been a blusteringly nasty lyric like “I saw the end/Of all tomorrows/From a place/Where the pigs wallow” with the melancholy that has helped to define them against more aggressive expressions.

From there, “Thorns” rumbles out with a riff that could have fit comfortably on the trad doom debut, only for Holt’s guitar to once again float above the fray. Campbell takes on more of his pleading quality, his voice trembling at times. The shortest track on the album by a full minute, “Thorns” nonetheless feels drawn out by its lugubrious tempo and the way that Campbell hangs onto nearly every syllable as if trying to stop the words from escaping and evaporating. A cavernously echoing acoustic guitar is met by distant cymbal wash on “Lie of Survival.” Composed by bassist Joseph Rowland, the track is cascading in a way different to the band’s usual rumble. It’s closer in spirit to the operatic ambitions of the likes of Solitude Aeternus, less classical than Candlemass but nonetheless rising out of the murk to at least stargaze. The parabolic structure rises to a huge swell before slowly letting the air out in the last few minutes until all that’s left are muted guitar and bass parts that manage to sound lonely and isolated even when playing in harmony. The aural image of two lost souls moving parallel to one another but not meeting is a simple but profound tweak on the band’s sound that comes across as mature and considered, an evocation of despair that most bands are too busy pursuing at extreme decibel levels to attempt.

The back half of the album only deepens the sense that Pallbearer continue to deepen as musicians. “Cruel Road” flirts with NWOBHM stylings, blending a stuttering riff with more than one arpeggiated solo that manages to sound both punkish and indulgent at the same time. It’s the first song on the album you could conceivably groove to with motion faster than a lurching, full-body headbang, and it should be a revved-up palate cleanser in the middle of sets for a long time to come. The song shows how the band flirts with more elaborate playing while remaining fundamentally straightforward and appealing, a trick epitomized by the amusing first few seconds of the title track, which starts with that most ominous of tidings, a jazzy bass solo, before immediately being swept into a huge riff as the guitars burst through the wall. But things do get downright trippy on side-enders “Dancing in Madness” and “A Plea for Understanding.” The latter is proper epic doom with proggy intros, a somber breakdown and clear, elegiac lines that cut through the churn. But it is the former that grabs most attention with a solo from Holt that crosses into blatantly Floydian territory, riding up from bleary eyed synths into the stratus with one of the finest David Gilmour impressions you’re likely to hear.

All of this elegance shines through on the strength of the album’s mastering. The band did an impressive job producing the album themselves, recording on analog tape, but the secret star of the entire record is Joe Barresi, who mixes the album so cleanly that every single instrument can be heard across its entire dynamic range. This is a staggering achievement in a genre that has grown so hyperbolically loud, detuned and compressed that many new doom acts increasingly see a bassist as an unnecessary expense. Rowland is never once lost in this morass, and neither are the small flourishes of Mark Lierly’s drumming, which is maybe the most reliant on cymbals and snares over toms and bass since any metal drummer since Brant Bjork. The mixing and production is as much a mission statement as the music: these men are not simply noisemakers but a true band, one that continues to move forward even as it consolidates and deepens its best attributes.

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