Out of the silence lurches a melancholy chord. Then suddenly another. Their is a sense of sorrow communicated in just those few notes that has you wondering what this band is on about anyway. Suddenly a pedal is pressed, the distortion roars and you find yourself lost in crushing melodies, soaring vocals and triumphant riffs that Iommi himself would be proud of. Rolling Stone‘s favorite metal band of 2012 also boasts Pitchfork’s highly coveted and quasi legendary “Best New Music” tag. Suffice to say Pallbearer burst onto the scene rather unexpectedly. Now we sit here three years later, the band has just wrapped up their last tour before writing their third record and we have to wonder – what the hell is going on? What are these dudes like? And perhaps most importantly – why are they the most talked about band in doom?
Part of the struggle Pallbearer face is that there records tend to be, in their words “Grower’s” This is not a band that most people are going to get on first listen, and as I recall that it took me about 5 spins of 2012’s stunning Sorrow And Extinction before I fully ‘got it’. That being said – Pallbearer is wholly worth the climb. The sense of power and struggle behind the music is almost Wagnerian in scope and speaks to a much more profound reality that few of their peers would even dare to touch.
In fact – a large part of Pallbearer’s appeal comes from the fact that they have a distinct tie to classical music. Frontman Brett Campbell was raised in a church going family and learned how to write harmonies fairly early on, and he’s used this skill to enhance Pallbearer’s work. Furthermore – a lot of the bass lines used in their music employ ground bass techniques, adding a distinctly baroque vibe to a band that is known for being grandiose.
The lyrics in and of themselves are stunning and provide a glimpse into what makes Pallbearer’s music so god damn enjoyable. Even in the first song off 2012’s Sorrow And Extinction, the instant classic, Foreigner features lines carrying you off to lands “Under swirling moons and galaxies” The bands stellar 2014 follow up, Foundations of Burden follows this path posing questions like “What can dreams be if nothing ever lasts/In a future where everything’s made of glass?” And yet, rather than coming off as over the top or even silly these lyrics actually seem to hold a certain poignant realism to them. If Pallbearer were any less epic in sound then it might not work, but these Southern boys have been able to find their way by taking it all to the next level.
So what are the dudes in this band like? Clearly they must be esoteric, ethereal and have a hard time connecting to modern life right? Well let’s just say a recent interview I conducted with them featured the quote “I was chronically masturbating” The point being – Pallbearer understand the separation between art and reality, and though the art may guide them through the daily pain of this reality, they’re not above making a joke at another band members expense or even elucidating on how Brett thinks guitarist Devin Holt has a hot mom. (In Devin’s words “She’s more attractive than the rest of my family. I don’t know how the rest of the dudes came from my mom. We’re a family of ugly fucks except for my mom.”) Another favorite joke of Devin’s is his nickname Captain D, a stupid nickname to be sure, but also a part of what makes tour life worth it. Above all else – Pallbearer are just a bunch of dudes.
That doesn’t mean the traditional artist fare of alcoholism and depression aren’t present though. Pallbearer are known partiers, and I’ve seen these guys accomplish feats of drinking that would vanquish many a lesser man, stuff that’s even impressive by metal musicians standards. Once after enjoying an extremely hungover breakfast with the dudes during Psycho California I was shocked to see them back in line to get more drinks early in the afternoon. My surprised reaction was fended off with a quip from Devin: “Such is the nature of alcoholism dude!”
As for depression – though none of the band members have been clinically diagnosed these dudes have been struggling with it for years. And while suicide doesn’t seem to be an issue at present… the band (Or at least Devin and Brett) seem to understand the logic behind it. Brett once said “If you get to the point that you’re not experiencing joy at all then I can’t really fault you for (killing yourself) but you should at least fucking try.”
And this is where we get at the most important aspect of Pallbearer’s music – the triumph. As Devin said “The value in life is pushing through. Everyone has bad shit and I’m not against killing yourself at all… It’s worth the fight if you have something to fight for.” Brett echoed these sentiments saying “”It’s about the struggle. We’re just surviving.” and furthermore “The world is too fascinating to give up on completely.” and perhaps that’s part of what makes Pallbearer great. Despite the darkest moments that can plague the listener and infect them with an all encompassing sadness, there is also a sense of hope that will carry on through the fire and the flames.
Now this is where things start to get interesting. Pallbearer allows us to extrapolate and get a better understanding of the doom scene as a whole. Sure – Pallbearer are one of the best known, most iconoclastic, and most well read bands, but they reflect a greater entity in their work. Behind the oceans of sound that dominate these songs you can glimpse into something profoundly beautiful, something reflected by a whole scene.
The thing is, even though they haven’t been around that long Pallbearer have become fairly influential with lots of younger bands trying to take up the mantle and be lords of all that is melodic, heavy and grandiose. And let’s be real, Pallbearer do it really fucking well – it’s a hard sound to emulate. That being said, they have also given a voice to a generation of lost metalheads who know they can’t push the extremes laid down by their musical forefathers. Pallbearer teaches us that we can still put out some of the best metal of all time and still have it mean something to disenchanted youth without coming across as trendy or meant for a mass market.
As you hear the crash of the guitars, the splash of the drums and the soaring might of the vocals that define this band you also see yourself looking into elements that help define thousands of other heavy acts. It gives you a chance to pick apart this incredibly diverse style of music and realize that at its basis there are a few core concepts that these groups need to rely upon, and if any band get’s that, it’s Pallbearer. In a world where bands try to go faster heavier or more fucked up Pallbearer remind us of the essential elements that make heavy metal, and music in general so valuable. More than just a doom band, Pallbearer is a reflection of our humanity and shows us what it truly means to look out and face tomorrow with a sense of hope, despite the sentiment that no matter what we do we will be weighed down by the struggle of this world.
Perhaps I’ve waxed poetic long enough, but I just can’t emphasize enough the significance of this band. These dudes are smart (Devin often cites Beat writers in conversation) and extremely self aware and beyond that, they don’t even try to market themselves as a metal act at this point. In one interview Brett said: “We consider ourselves a prog band and a metal band and whatever we feel like doing. We have a certain vision of the band but we don’t limit ourselves.” And their Facebook page simply lists them as “Heavy” (As for what is heaviness… that’s a whole different story!)
And so we close this particular chapter. It’s impossible to deny that Pallbearer have become perhaps the defining heavy act of their generation, one dominated by slow and powerful bands. Despite the thousands of competitors Pallbearer manage to outdo almost all of them. As they look ahead to their new material we’re promised work that’s more oriented around soundscapes and tracks that will leave the band exploring new sonic territory. Perhaps their latest travails are best summed up in a quote from Devin: “We want to grow and hope people grow with us.”
We’ll try Devin… We’ll try.