I find doom to be one of metal’s most curious sub-genres, by which I mean the requisite characteristics for doom are so minimal that you can sort of do anything you want with the format, so long as it’s really slow and really heavy. Whit this in mind, it’s become one of the most diverse offshoots of metal in existence. There are so many flavors of doom, from psychedelic soundscapes, elements of folk instrumentation, industrial and ambient textures, drone influences, and even cross-pollination from other metal sub-genres in the case of death-doom. Like I said, all it really needs is to be slow and heavy. In this regard, it’s not so much a sub-genre as it is a bit of a catch-all umbrella term for a whole smattering of bands that don’t really fit anywhere else.
Despite generally being more tuneful than other extreme forms of metal, for the longest time, doom never really had a big breakout band that casual metalheads could name. Electric Wizard probably got the closest during the twenty-first century, but it seems in the past few years that Pallbearer has been chosen out of the hat as one of the genre’s most talked about names. I think this is mostly down to the Pitchfork crowd latching onto them in a similar way they did with Deafheaven.
Regardless, Pallbearer have returned with another “long playing record” as it says on the album cover, a dead giveaway to the time period the band are looking to for inspiration for this latest release. Pallbearer, as with almost every doom band, have always had a foot or two in the type of 70s Black Sabbath worship that skeptics of the sound have always leveled at these bands, but I feel with Heartless, the band have expanded their pool of influences to include the approach of classic progressive rock bands of the same time period.
This is still a metal record, but it’s very much a languid journey with peaks and valleys that dip in and out of the band’s traditionally sludgy sound. In fact, the most euphoric moments on this record are the ones that stray away from the massive riffs to dish out some of the most amazing “guitar wizard on a misty mountaintop” solo sections I’ve heard in years. This is an album for guitar players indeed. There are parts on this record that carry the same stately majesty of David Gilmour’s shining moments on Pink Floyd’s classic run of albums. In a day and age where most metal bands are content to just jam as many notes into as short a time as possible, it’s really refreshing to hear such confidently melodic guitar playing. Just listen to the section that opens up about four minutes into “Dancing In Madness”, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
In keeping with both prog and doom tradition, all the songs here are quite long, the shortest being five and a half minutes and the very longest being the final track “A Plea For Understanding” at just under thirteen minutes. The verse-chorus structure is thrown out almost entirely on Heartless, exchanged for a series of climactic rises and falls that can happen up to three or four times per track. That’s not to say that this is inaccessible, though. If you let yourself be drawn in, I think you’ll have no trouble getting wrapped up in the drama and atmosphere present in the music.
This is quite a standout among 2017 releases thus far. It seems that in this day and age, music with progressive leanings is simply being reduced to a bunch of complicated time signatures and technicality. With Heartless, Pallbearer are looking to the past, but only in an effort to regain something that’s been lost. Corny as it may sound, they want to take you on a sonic journey on this record, and as far as I’m concerned, they’ve passed with flying colors.