Pallbearer have been headed toward a major crossover breakthrough since debuting with 2012′s Sorrow and Extinction. That’s a complicated thing for a doom metal band with a catalog of eight-plus-minute dirges to do, particularly one whose roots reach down into the sprawling expanse of ’70s prog. Yet the increasing visibility of underground metal bands since the new millennium has been on a steady increase generally because many of those metal bands have taken the steps to meet listeners on their own terms. It happened when indie listeners first latched on to Mastodon (and later Red Fang and Baroness), who at this point have built their audience to the point of their proper mainstream band. The same goes for a the genre-bending Deafheaven or Swedish irreverents Ghost, whose aesthetic embraces the tongue-in-cheek as much as it does the two-horns-up. Pallbearer’s appeal isn’t to be found in the radio-friendliness of Mastodon or the kitsch of Ghost; theirs is a sound with no gimmicks and few peers. They have only their own finely honed craft for songwriting and a relentless touring schedule to thank for how far they’ve come.
Radio-friendliness isn’t exactly out of reach on their third album Heartless. It is, by a significant measure, the group’s most accessible album, having already yielded two tracks that read like proper singles: “I Saw the End” and “Thorns,” which are also the shortest album tracks in their catalog, outside of the brief interlude “Ashes” on 2014′s Foundations of Burden. Pallbearer prove on each track—the former a mournful melodic meditation on humanity’s inevitable end and the latter a riff-heavy bruiser—that their intricate style of intertwining guitar riffs and progressive songwriting can be more concise, more immediate. Pallbearer’s brand of doom metal, against convention or expectations, has gotten even catchier.
Heartless is not a pure exercise in genre, much in the same way that the band’s previous two albums weren’t either. It’s at the foundation of their sound, but it’s not the whole of it. On a slower, more atmospheric track like “Lie of Survival,” their progressive side takes over, circling in and out of elegantly woven networks of riffs until it becomes something more closely resembling a power ballad than a proper ripper. There’s a pull toward the opposite direction in “Cruel Road” (much as it is on the dynamic “Thorns”), wherein the band unleashes a shout-along ass-kicker chock full of sludge and crunch. “My sunken hopes/ Are buried deep/ A revelation/ Just beyond my reach” doesn’t look on paper like the kind of phrases you’d shout to the rafters, necessarily, but part of Pallbearer’s gift is in their ability the intricate and the ornate (and deeply melancholy) into something energizing.
Where many of Heartless‘ greatest moments are those in which Pallbearer see fit to simply rock, a handful of the best tracks are those in which they offer up their grandest statements. Eleven- and 12-minute songs aren’t breaking new ground for the Arkansas band, though the content of “Dancing in Madness” and “A Plea for Understanding” certainly is. Each one is Pallbearer pushed to a limit of some sort—their most dynamic, most climactic and, most importantly, their prettiest. The band’s uncanny knack for transforming heaviness into breathtaking beauty reaches a new level here. “Plea,” in particular, is a work of dreamy ethereality, letting off the gas in its most sublime moments to let the lightness and delicateness speak for itself. It’s an easy thing for a band whose specialty is volume and intensity to ruin. Pallbearer pull it off immaculately.
Pallbearer’s progression has been a transparent one to date. They started out strong and simply added to a sound that essentially needed no improving—just refining. Heartless, as such, is a career highlight that existing listeners should have seen coming after the sophomore triumph of Foundations of Burden. By adding more hooks and immediacy to an already strong and getting stronger approach to songwriting, they’re likely to open themselves up to an even warmer and broader reception. Five years after their debut album, this moment isn’t necessarily long overdue, but it is well earned.