Pallbearer's Doom Metal Speaks to the Times
Little Rock, Ark.-based doom metal outfit Pallbearer found themselves playing a string of shows in Canada when events in Charlottesville, Va., pushed the American South back into the global spotlight. Acutely aware of the racism of the region, Pallbearer bassist Joseph D. Rowland found the distance between the chaos of this past weekend and his normal day-to-day life as “way unusual.”
“It feels strange to have this slight removal from reality” that being on tour brings, Rowland says. At the same time, Rowland had little interest in participating in any sort of political grandstanding. “We’re not going on stage with the intention of giving a speech,” or in letting emotions associated with recent events get the better of him. “We have a responsibility to our audience to deliver a certain experience, day in and day out,” Rowland explains. Yet the distance between Pallbearer’s latest album, this year’s Heartless, and current events may not be as far as one might think.
Over the course of seven songs, Heartless ruminates on ideas related to defeat, blame and loss while a general sense of things veering wildly off course hangs heavy over all tracks. “It’s not a concept album,” notes Rowland, “but there are running themes that are both personal and universal.” And perhaps even political. It’s hard to listen to album stand-out track “I Saw the End” without thinking about the climate that has allowed white supremacy to gain currency once again:
“The truth of light / reveals the hatred that has won / corrupt and bleeding rage / Can’t understand / we’re a sick and dying race.”
While Rowland will not admit that Heartless was written with an eye on the rise of such detestable ideologies, he doesn’t discourage such a reading, either. To Rowland, the beauty of Pallbearer’s best songs can be found in the ample room they provide for multiple interpretations. To Rowland, “the most important thing is for everyone to draw their own conclusions about the songs. The power of the songs comes from people interpreting them in their own lives.”
Helping to provide the space necessary for such open-ended readings of their material is the fact that the band does not sound tethered to any specific musical moment. Yes, it is clear that Pallbearer has been influenced by a number of acts from the ’70s, but Heartless sounds like anything but a tribute album to the likes of Black Sabbath. “We’ve made it a goal, from day one,” explains Rowland, “to remove ourselves from any certain musical time period.” Songs such as “Thorns” seem to draw from ’80s-era Metallica, while album closer “A Plea for Understanding” at times veers into ballad territory.
As such a description suggests, Heartless is not easy listening; those expecting another version of the band’s first two critically-acclaimed albums (2014’s Foundations of Burden and 2012’s Sorrow and Extinction) will be sorely disappointed. “Heartless,” concludes Rowland, “is kind of a difficult record. It’s not something you can just throw on and immediately enjoy.” Yet Rowland notes that the presentation of these new songs in a live setting has forced many hardcore Pallbearer fans to rethink their initial opinions on the band’s most recent release. “Seeing us play [Heartless] live,” notes Rowland, “changed the game” for those still on the fence regarding the band’s evolving sound.
If nothing else, Heartless suggests a band comfortable with pushing their sound beyond expectations, and Pallbearer remains committed to further growth with their next release which is now, according to Rowland, in “the dialogue phase.” While the band is unsure what this “dialogue” will lead to, there is little doubt that it will lead to another album that pushes heavy metal in new and exciting directions.
Pallbearer plays the Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave., with Kayo Dot and Bask on Sunday, Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m.