It’s a wonder Pallbearer vocalist Brett Campbell isn’t formally trained. On last year’s Fear & Fury EP, he expertly emulated both the anguished tone of Ozzy Osbourne on a cover of Black Sabbath’s Over & Over and the deep velvet majesty of Peter Steele with a pitch-perfect rendition of Type O Negative’s Love You to Death. On Heartless, Pallbearer’s third album, he cements himself as one of the most striking voices in contemporary metal.
Yet while Campbell’s voice is one of the most distinctive elements of Pallbearer’s sonic largesse, he’s rarely heard until a quarter-way through the songs on most of Heartless’ seven tracks. Those opening moments – the new wave guitar tone on opener I Saw The End; the gothic ambience of Dancing In Madness; the sombre reflectiveness of epic closer A Plea For Understanding – prove that Pallbearer aren’t interested in the rigid tenets of traditional doom or its purists. They’re not making music for funerals like many of their contemporaries. Rather, these are songs rooted in emotion and brilliant melody, owing as much to the largesse and ambition of mid-career King Crimson as they do to the melancholy dirge of early My Dying Bride.
Heartless opens with a familiar gambit: the swirling, reverb-soaked riffs of first track I Saw The End give way to a crashing two-guitar assault, not dissimilar to the first moment of Worlds Apart from 2014’s Foundations Of Burden. But by the halfway point, the track’s slow lament unfolds into a triumphant crescendo of synchronised guitar work and vibrant solo-ing between Campbell and fellow guitarist Devin Holt.
Thorns unfolds in a similar fashion, building in intensity with the weight of a buffalo stampede before hitting the breaks for an Adrian Belew-esque interlude. By the album’s mid-point, it’s clear Pallbearer aren’t interested in traditional song structures – there are few repeated motifs even fewer traditional choruses or verses, as each movement steadily transitions into the next, either building towards cacophonous crescendo or pulling back for a moment of respite, depending on the demands of the song.
It’s on A Plea For Understanding – the near-13 minute closing track, and Pallbearer’s longest song to date – that Heartless’ largesse is fully realised. A sepia-toned melody – sounding like something you might hear as the credits roll after the sombre ending to an indie flick – gives way to the cinematic grandeur Campbell & Holt’s sun-dappled doom riffing. Campbell intones earnest lyricism before erupting into a passionate expression of impossible love, made all the more by his vast vocal range. It’s a slow-build but well worth the wait, and one of the most powerful metal tracks you’re likely to hear this year.
With Heartless, Pallbearer present a record that defies its name and the expectation of its genre; a collection of songs brimming with emotional complexity and melodic depth that solidifies the band’s place at the apex of the modern metal canon.