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Smoke Signals: Pallbearer — ‘Mind Burns Alive’ Review

Stationed in the real, the Little Rock four go for a straight flush.

pallbearer new album, pallbearer mind burns alive review.
Photograph by Dan Almasy

Words by Jake Sanders (@TheMetalScholar):

What more can this humble mag reveal to you, the listeners, about the fifth offering in the Pallbearer longplay catalogue, that the bards of Arkansas aren't laying out themselves?

Mind Burns Alive, on the surface, is a marginally quieter tangent upon which the group has held a microscope up to their struggles in becoming who they are in present day. The stakes, as they appear to the outside, are lessened, but what internal wars aren't so subtle that the eyes and ears of the world around them can't pick up a trace?

For so long, we've spent these watershed moments where they've emerged from their caverns charting their accomplishments, calculating their worth, tracing the geometry of their domain, proclaiming that Pallbearer have "redefined the sound of postmodern doom metal", and dozens of equally disingenuous notions that hoist banners high for them to return; for that is the windmill at which they now tilt — their audience has drawn battle-lines, their critics now toss words about like "unmetal" and "soft".

By deviating in the course of what was pre-destined and assumed, Brett, Devin, Joe, and Mark, have taken themselves out of the formulaic build of the genre, and become an entity that lives above the definitions.

With this album, they've taken a hard stance on being people who exist in spite of their successes, and the cost it carries to become meteoric in both fame, and growth. Having been stifled twice through the stagnation of the pandemic, the group has seemingly fixated on cultivating a sound that's born from the progressive influences that helped them grow as musicians, rather than simply churning out the next "slab" on the altar of doom metal.

With certainty, we can take from Mind Burns Alive that the hooks are solid. From the moment Where the Light Fades kicks off, we're treated to the most deliciously catchy two and a half seconds that set the album tone for the rest of the journey. They've said themselves that the common parallels can be drawn between groups such as Pink Floyd, Talk Talk, Rush, and King Crimson, but it's the small elements that dredge nostalgia out of the score.

Gone are the chugging riff trains that erupt in a warlike fever. The dizzying disharmony that Forgotten Days (2020) so masterfully capitalized on has been thoughtfully subdued by rich major chord harmonies that are the bread and butter of the composition. They come in waves, well syncopated, and overlapped with satisfying repose that showcases the discipline of the group to not repeat themselves as artists. It's surprising, and refreshing to hear so many variations on a theme packed into a single release, but there's a distinct signature to each that is recognizable without additional context to the passage. Even without words, a few seconds could tell you precisely where you were in the piece. It's that individuality that makes the quiet album louder than its predecessors in many ways.

Then, there's Endless Place. A fountain of inspiration, the track is a pillar of the album, stitching plasma-like dense chord progressions together behind a neat twinkling introduction that steadily builds until a breakpoint. It's the kind of quality we all knew would be here, climbing well past their 2017 hymnal-esque masterpiece Heartless, into a rooted, more cynical outlook that hammers home the frustration and helplessness of crafting an album that fate seems to keep willfully pushing back. Featuring a more orthodox style of lyrical work, vocals tend to dance up and down in ways that furiously nudge the goosebumps on the forearm, bringing a true chorus to Pallbearer work that has only seldom been utilized in years past. Seriously — listen and attempt to refrain from repeating its magnetic chorus — it is not an easy feat to accomplish.

Capped off by a climactic gasp that vignettes the omnipresence of the band, they are replaced on centerstage by a modal saxophone solo at the hands of Norman Williamson (Funkanites, Amasa Hines, OR, and others), making this the quintessential Little Rock musical merger. In a mix between primal ambiance, and noir jazz, this diversion is the kind of chaos the boys should be courting, as it adds an exciting strangeness, and unique sculpture to their sound that can't be easily replicated.

Brought out on all fours in a movement of headbanging glory, they bring it home in a way everyone should know and appreciate. It's hand-in-hand melody and rhythm, incomplete without the other, not quite whole without its experimental attributes, never compromising in its discovery of self.

Tracks like Daybreak are a much needed change of face for the group, taking an almost through-the-floor approach to their entrance. It's quiet, so quiet, and with Joe working as the mouth of the group for once, it brings a new appreciation for Pallbearer's rotating sense of priority. Though soft-spoken for the first two minutes, it's a side of the quartet that really hasn't been harvested thus far, and should prove to be a defining factor of their later releases, now that we've seen the fruits of their labor.

The culmination of these various maladies comes flooding out on With Disease, tackling the root of the issue with beauty, repose, and finally, an erosion of structure, and a descent into the depths of what it's all about. Channeling from their history of big finishes, the boys takes a few pages from the book of Vanished, and let their harmonizing carry us through to a gorgeous songbird solo that steadily loses its feathers in a haze of ash clouds. By the five and a half minute marker, the song has turned on its listeners, and leaves them with the question of how far down the spiral they've gone. It's an evil end, a corrosive closer that leaves a bittersweet aftertaste on the tongue. It feels more canonically like the group has always been, but there's something lingering in the back of this track that feels fetid, and unsettling.

To complete Mind Burns Alive, one must be prepared to face an unhappy ending. It feels like the most deliberately pointed coda to what is a cautiously optimistic medley of tracks, often speaking directly to the listeners in ways that draw boundaries, and humanize the individual members as people affected by their upbringing, and accolades.

What have we, the audience they craved, done to Pallbearer? It's not entirely clear, but what is, is that the pandemic hurt them just as much as the rest of us, and they're still looking for hints of closure that come with the end of an era. The themes that have kept this band intact over the years continue to prevail, but listeners would do well to compare the themes and discover for themselves how the band's mentality has evolved, for better or worse.

Themes of burning flame persist, and the constant war of light and dark have once again made an appearance, even manifesting within the realm of their music videos, where singular light sources pull attention to both the subjects, and their environment. If the wax of Pallbearer's candle has turned to pools around them, then their wick must burn everlasting, for the strength of their writing has continued to improve, long after the fleeting words of their meteoric status have faded into the recesses of critical memory.

Mind Burns Alive marks the start of a new Pallbearer chapter. Those among the metal scene who've written this album off due to its quieter nature have forgotten that the spirit of doom comes in many shapes; there will always be candidates who can fill the void of tightly packed down-tuned riffs spitting at them like the 2010's never ended, but the Little Rock four served their time as the standard-bearer for that sound, and have moved forward with their catalogue into territories unchallenged.

This album is for those who found a new meaning within the black sheep of the discography. Those who have been waiting for the guys to embrace the love for tracks like Lie of Survival, Vanished, A Plea For Understanding, and Silver Wings will be ecstatic to discover that they expounded upon those discussions of music theory. Personally, it's hard for me to not favor a group who will cradle the most progressive facets of their discography, and nourish it into full form. No doom without gloom.

Within the core of the greater sphere that comprises the genre as a whole, there resides a place unpenetrated by the commercial allure of changing nothing, and raking in praise for consistency. In there, far away from the warmth of summer, and the call to join the party, lies Pallbearer, holding a dying flame in their hands. In many ways, they represent the greater issues we took away from the pandemic; the loneliness of isolation, the fear of ascending chaos, the push and pull between physical, and mental health, and a need to not feel like the world was shrinking, were all at the forefront of our minds.

Five albums in, we can finally catch a glimpse inside of where they are internally, and it's difficult for us to blindly celebrate the results. They're back together in the same city, but they definitely aren't the same people they were when we met them. They've been showered with commendations for their efforts, and they're exhausted. People keep telling them they "miss their metal," when those were products of younger men, in a time more free than now. They've struggled along with the rest of us to stay afloat in an age of endless inflation, and taken personal hits that have left them feeling empty.

They have a public face that keeps them doing this job they've chosen, but it's clear to this reviewer that the callouses they've formed have eaten away at the freedom such a lifestyle courts. The expectation to be larger than life never lasts, and the need to outdo oneself is a hindrance to artists trying to build a library to feel proud of three decades later. Combine these tragic realities of the industry with the general outlook, and the results would shake anyone's confidence.

In an era in political upheaval, during times of escalating war, in a country divided, in a state of constant psychological distress, Brett Campbell, Devin Holt, Joseph Rowland, and Mark Lierly still managed to define themselves as groundbreaking musicians without the need for labels, and hyphenated tags, and they did it while being intellectually honest about their state of mind.

Can you tell how far they've gone astray?


Mind Burns Alive is available now, courtesy of Nuclear Blast Records. Snag a copy for yourself today, and catch the Temporary Spaces North American Tour this summer, featuring Inter Arma and The Keening.

pallbearer new album, pallbearer mind burns alive review.
Cover Photograph by Bill Armstrong

“Temporary Spaces” North American Tour Dates (Tickets):

June 6 Memphis, TN Growlers *

June 7 Murfreesboro, TN Hop Springs *

June 8 Birmingham, AL Zydeco *

June 9 Atlanta, GA The Masquerade *

June 11 Durham, NC The Fruit #

June 12 Asheville, NC Euology at Burial Beer Co. #

June 14 Baltimore, MD Metro Gallery #

June 15 Lancaster, PA Tellus360 #

June 16 Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts #

June 18 Hamden, CT Space Ballroom #

June 20 Brooklyn, NY Music Hall of Williamsburg #

June 21 Boston, MA The Sinclair #

June 22 Montreal, QC Theatre Fairmount #

June 23 Toronto, ON Velvet Underground #

June 25 Milwaukee, WI Vivarium #

June 26 Chicago, IL Thalia Hall #

June 27 St. Paul, MN Turf Club #

June 28 Lawrence, KS The Bottleneck #

June 29 Little Rock, AR The Hall &

July 11 St. Louis, MO Off Broadway ^

July 13 Denver, CO Gothic Theatre ^

July 15 Calgary, AB Dickens ^

July 16 Edmonton, AB The Starlite Room ^

July 18 Vancouver, BC Rickshaw Theatre ^

July 19 Seattle, WA Substation ^

July 20 Portland, OR Star Theater ^

July 23 Sacramento, CA The Starlet Room ^

July 24 San Francisco, CA Great American Music Hall ^

July 26 Santa Cruz, CA The Catalyst ^

July 27 San Diego, CA Brick By Brick ^

July 28 Los Angeles, CA Teragram Ballroom ^

July 29 Phoenix, AZ Crescent Ballroom ^

July 30 Albuquerque, NM Sister Bar ^

August 1 Dallas, TX Trees ^

August 2 Austin, TX Parish ^

August 3 Houston, TX White Oak Music Hall ^

*-w/Rwake & The Keening

# - w/REZN & The Keening

& - w/Rwake, REZN & The Keening

^ - w/Inter Arma & The Keening


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