The Path To Oblivion: Ten Years of Pallbearer's ‘Sorrow and Extinction’

Devin Holt brings a retrospective mind to the legacy, the legend, and the path from 2012.

Photograph by Ebru Yildiz

Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):


We gather here today to celebrate the life of one Sorrow and Extinction (2012) (Profound Lore Records), an ageless being of love and loss. Its gift of a new future can be heard in the inspirational notes that creep into fresh doom metal groups who want to make a name for themselves, and in the minds of those fortunate enough to know that Little Rock's greatest export is filthy riffs, and an artistic watershed of imagery and sound that are forever bound to one another as their own brand of extreme music. Waxing poetic is something saved for the end of this piece, though.


This week, I was lucky enough to catch a few precious moments with Devin Holt where they talked about the scene, the stage, and S&E's nearly mythical release: an event that prompted a transformation of their own environment:

 

Jake: You boys wrote the album that managed to right the course of the ship that was doom metal, let alone push the boundaries of what postmodern doom metal could be considered. S&E is unchallenged in its own domain (save for its successors, also by you), and it has served as the inspiration for countless bands over the past decade who felt the formula had stagnated.


You've been on the largest stages, been sponsored by the biggest names, have toured the globe, have fans who have wept at your stage presence, and have a pilsner named after one of your songs. Little Rock's musical direction might have started in the hands of others — but it's you at the wheel, now. Without being too broad: Can you feel that gravity? Can you see the edges of your artistic legacy? Do you... know what you did?


Image courtesy of Lost Forty Brewing

Devin: Lately, I've been so laser focused on moving forward beyond this whole Covid mess, that it feels kind of strange to look back and reflect at all. I'm incredibly proud of what we have achieved as a band so far, but at the same time, 100% of my concentration is, and has been, focused on our next chapter. The happiness that I get from being able to play in Pallbearer almost always comes from a kinetic perspective; where this all might be going, what a song could turn into next, etc.
The concept of our current legacy as a whole just doesn't take up a whole lot of mental real estate for me. Never has. I feel like I'm still right in the thick of it, actively participating in some of the most important aspects of the legacy forming process, so I'm just trying to embrace that enthusiastically and authentically, without too much concern about a general consensus outside of our camp. We've always written what we wanted to write, without concerns about torch passing, genre preservation, anything like that. That being said, I'm thrilled that Sorrow and Extinction helped highlight a style of music that had gone somewhat out of favor at the time. That style of music was still very much loved in Little Rock back in 2008, however.
Slow, heavy shit ruled everything back then, and we were doing exactly what a local band does. I do think that we went at it with a particular sense of fearlessness and sincerity, because we were young and doing it mostly for ourselves. Being from Arkansas, of course we didn't anticipate that a bunch of people would be hearing this self-funded material, so we just went at it head on, and made the record we wanted.
We've essentially stuck with that outlook since the beginning; Make exactly what we want, be sincere about it, and ideally, the good songs will follow. So to peck at your question, I'm aware that we have established somewhat of a legacy already, but in keeping with the course so far, it doesn't really concern me all that much.

One of the aspects I've always admired about you guys is how little you've consumed the ether of stardom that so often turns underground bands into rock-stars. There are dozens of bands you'll never catch a glimpse of outside the green rooms, or VIP tents. They show up, play the set, wave goodbye, and disappear again. You've never been like that.


I can personally attest to the fact that you're in the crowd, or at the bar, watching other bands who go up first. Every single time I've seen your live set, you guys are shoulder to shoulder with all the other metalheads, enjoying what they're putting out. You climb up on stage, destroy everything in sight, and then disembark that same stage, and rejoin the crowd.


Photograph by Jake Sanders (Captured September 10th, 2021, in Little Rock)

First time I saw it, it deeply amused me. Within moments, it was like you had forgotten you just played a hell of a set, and were just settling back in to continue conversations with all the people you had put on pause. How do you remain zen after this long in the scene?


Simple; I truly love meeting new, interesting people, and they pop up at shows all the time; throw some beer in the mix, anything new or interesting to talk about, and we're cooking. Chances are, at a metal show especially, the people that you randomly meet are likely just as maladjusted towards random conversation as you might think that you are, so what do you have to fear, ya know?
I definitely empathize with the sheer exhaustion that can come from touring, people understandably needing rest/space/quiet sometimes, but I never really enjoyed hiding away from everyone backstage or on the bus. And the truth is, there are still going to be people backstage that you can't avoid, too. Some of my closest friends have entered my life via random conversations at shows, and I definitely would never have met some of them backstage.
The idea of having missed out on some of them entirely, just so I could play it cool and lurk backstage with the warm beer and XLR cables, is almost tragic to me. I'm not sure if that's some kind of zen or ultimately just ‘midwesterner reasoning’. Either way, I think all of that really revolves around being thankful for what you have, being confident in what you are doing/who you are, and practicing empathy to your best ability whenever you can.

It's been fun as hell so far watching you go from scaling an abstract reality, transforming the somber into the sublime, and lately, bringing real problems into a familiar light. Thematically, it's not farfetched to say that Pallbearer has crossed a vast landscape of ideas and imagery from when you began, til now. It's even harder to believe that's only really been a little over thirteen years.


I know you're a man of philosophy, which is why you're the perfect candidate to ask: how has your philosophy on music changed from ten years ago, and are there any idealistic constants that has stuck with you? What thoughts have followed you from the page, to the stage?


It was during my final semester of college when I dropped out to play in Pallbearer full time. We'd been offered an extensive tour that we truly couldn't pass up.
I'd worked incredibly hard to get into a decent honors program, and I would have also been the first person in my immediate family to earn a college degree, so it was a serious decision for me at the time. There had been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears shed on both sides of the track, and they essentially offered two completely different lifestyle paths, both of which seemed great to me for different reasons. I had roughly 2-3 weeks to evaluate how music was going to fit into the rest of my life. The practical decision was obvious, but I went with music, instead.
In a strange turn of events, I'd stopped my actual, formal study of philosophy based on my personal philosophy of music. I believed that the world needed musicians more than it needed academic philosophers, and I still think that's true today.
For all that I love that lives in debate, the power of music to simply bring all kinds of people together is so much more appealing to me. I still believe that it's a sacred thing, even as a deeply non-religious person. I stopped attending church at a young age, but having been to many a Baptist revival, I can 100% testify to how much going to a Rwake show early on felt like a surreal, backwoods religious experience. It felt like being swept away by a rapturious river of Robitussin, weed, and PBR.
Those experiences imprinted upon me just how transformative music could be, and ultimately elevated it to a level rivaling religious importance, in my own mind at least. It's something that I am prepared to die for, to die doing, to this day. That sounds hyperbolic until you've lived through the close calls. You drive enough miles, and the concept of probability eventually starts creeping into the back of the mind. There have been so many sketchy, icy drives through mountainous regions in a $1400 van just to make it to the next show. A couple of those seemed like suicide missions, and they very nearly were.
That's something that's definitely shifted philosophically as I've gotten older. Back then, I thought in more "all or nothing" terms about canceling shows. Playing the gig was so important that we couldn't cancel, even if we were taking enormous, disproportionate risks to perform for like 20 sleepy people. Nowadays, especially after some close calls on ice, I'm not nearly as fixated. Covid has kind of destigmatized canceling unsafe shows a bit, which outside of shitty artists that might abuse the trust of their fanbase, I think is generally a positive thing overall.
If Zeppelin had died trying to make it to a snowy show before Zeppelin II was ever recorded, look at all that we would have lost, all over a 90 min set or something. Just not worth it.

Pythagoras is famously cited as saying "There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres."


In your group, it has seemed for as long as I'm aware, there's a harmony in who you are when you write, and perform together. I can now tell a Devin Holt riff, or solo, apart from a Brett Campbell one. You all become kinetically engulfed by the sound you're laying down, and it's easy to see the enjoyment in your exaggerated movements, and the language of your face, on-stage.


It's actually fascinating to try and discover which seconds of which songs are some of your favorites. It's like a calligraphy of sorts — the ebb and flow of the four of you colliding with your instruments to emphasize with your hands where you're at, both emotionally, and atmospherically. You can tell where people precisely where people drown in the sound of your music, and I couldn't be happier to know the four of you do, as well. It makes you true believers.


What I want to know is, where and when do you feel it, for the people reading at home? What songs (Your favorite artists', or even YOURS) re-align you in moments of uncertainty, and grief? What passages spark joy on even the gloomiest of Sundays? When, and where, do you find a common orbit with the music around you?


Playing live has always been kind of an out of body experience for me. I remember playing my first show at a bar when I was 14. Because of my age, at least one of my parents had to be there. They both came, as they've always been incredibly supportive, but I remember feeling kind of weird about it.
What was it gonna be like to play a bunch of heavy music in front of my parents at a crowded metal bar, when it's my first show and all my other band-mates are in their mid 20's? I had more questions than answers at the time, but once I hit the stage and the muscle memory did its job, I remember disappearing almost, but in a beautiful way. I'd forgotten about my parents even being there. For 25 minutes, I felt like I was being swept up in something much greater than myself.
To this day, the crowd is very much there in front of me when we play, but I also feel like I'm outside of myself at many points. It's the purest form of escapism that exists in my life, I think but it's at these times when I can be most present, as well. Based on how the sound is on stage, how well we're playing together, all of those things directly influence which particular parts of songs I'm feeling on any given night.
Sometimes it feels really good to sing a big 3 part harmony on stage one night, say in Worlds Apart, but the stage mix might be shit the next night, and it's hard/unenjoyable to sing that very same section. It's really just about what's feeling natural at the moment, I guess.
To tie back in with your question, when I'm met with moments of uncertainty or grief, I go for something easy. Comfort food music; something I know that's digestible.
Some people wanna dig in, listen to emotionally complex music that potentially parallels their troubles, but that's not me. Oftentimes I'll put on something like George Jones. Maybe Hank Williams. Something that's so incredibly simple and honest that you can build a house on it.
Some people might reach for Mournful Congregation or SWANS in moments like that. I totally get it, and that's what tons of my friends do. For me, however, in moments of actual uncertainty or hardships, when life's shitting upon me from high above, I'd honestly prefer to listen to something like Sade, if I'm being completely honest with you.

I'm one of the lucky few who've heard the Patreon-gifted redux edition of "Given to the Grave," an electronically reimagined rendition of your famous closer track off S&E.


It's probably one of my most (digitally) spun songs of the past couple years. It stands on its own, maybe even shoulder-to-shoulder with the original. Any chance of one day seeing more reimagined versions of the Pallbearer catalog? And as a bonus here — any chance that reimagined album covers of the first two albums may make an appearance, brought to life with Michael Lierly's artwork to christen the partnership?


Patreon has been a really interesting experiment so far, and it allows the perfect space for things like a reimagined ‘Given to the Grave’ to exist.
All of us have been really digging into home recording lately, which makes these endeavors way more approachable since we don't have to book studio time, so you can almost certainly expect more of the reimaginings, covers of other artists, improvised sessions in our space/studio... all of that stuff.
We improvise for a while nearly every time we practice, and for the last year or so, I tend to record every time we get together, so we're slowly accumulating stuff, and getting better at capturing those intimate recordings, so I'm incredibly excited at what that level of freedom will present us in the future. As far as the artwork reimaginings, I truly would love to see Michael's interpretation of the first two records.
Might have to pass that idea along...

* * *

Without further ado, Heaviest of Art presents a track-by-track retelling of the tale of Sorrow and Extinction; the irreplaceable doom metal epoch of 2012.

 

By all external accounts of creativity, the parabola of Heavy Metal's conceptual renaissance rose and fell decades ago, brought to life on the backs of blues-inspired Englishmen determined to bring teeth into the scene of peace, and weight to the sound of a genre defined by distortion, feedback, and execution over composition. In a sound sphere that prides itself on the showmanship teetering on a divine lack of control, the serpent has eaten its tail enough times through the idea of ‘worshipping at the altar of Sabbath’ so long, that it can be difficult to discern where that line stops following a formula, and begins to forge a new path.

Every once in a while, though, a spiritual child is birthed through the essence of its intentions, as pure and patricidal as the day they were first imagined. That child, in this case, is none other than the forty-nine minute opus, entitled Sorrow and Extinction, a masterwork etched, cut, and cast out into the aether, by Pallbearer, of Little Rock, Arkansas.


Four men clutched to the casket — their names — Brett Campbell, Joseph Rowland, Devin Holt, and Zach Stine. Through slews of alcohol-saturated evenings, and detail-obsessive days; it's a towering testament to the force of anti-traditional Arkansawyer musicianship, coupled neatly within the domain of heavy music in a way that calls nostalgically backwards to the younger days of the sound's season of juvenile growth and alleged moral decay. It's not secret that when people think Pallbearer, they think of the greatest among us, Black Sabbath, themselves. While many believe it's because of their sound similarities, this reviewer knows the truth; we only jump to compare others to Sabbath's signature sound, strictly because of how they make metalheads feel in their heart-of-hearts: truly young once more, with virgin ears, and a fluttering of the pulse that excites one to feel like it's the last new wondrous sound that will ever bind the senses.


Stumbling on a new sound is much like falling in love, in the respect that it always blindsides you with intensity, emotional confusion, and synesthetic conjunction. When I first purchased Sorrow and Extinction, it came to me by fate, forcefully. A record shop in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, had just received in the mail, and had inserted the CD on a trial basis for store patrons. They never made it through the entire album, because I bought the disc straight out of their player and rushed out to finish it myself. It was something new, and dangerous, and made me feel like I wasn't grown enough to feel the gravity of what it was. My story is not unlike many others.

Gatefold Artwork by Sean Williams

We all fall for the same creature. A faceless, seemingly formless, alabaster reaper stands tall over a spectral sea, lost in a cosmic cluster of an abstract reality. In one arm, a crooked scepter that acts as a beacon. In the other, the cloak opens to reveal a door to beyond, a gateway to a foreign land. The wreckage of a schooner lies divided and lopsided on both ends, its crow's nest frozen in lavender ice, a sole survivor taking their only exit in sight. Trimmed by gold border, and made as a timeless stamp upon a royal indigo backdrop, Sorrow and Extinction draws listeners in by their eyes first, its design and setting as powerful as a carnivorous plant.


But then it speaks to you, and leads you down five massive steps to a final resting place of sludgy enlightenment.

FOREIGNER. It whispers in gentle strings, and calls from a black abyss. Its approach is cautious, and slow, appearing like a buck in a clearing. Calm and mellow, the song only appears in fragments at first, a trick that's not unlike Stravinsky's ‘The Rite of Spring’, in both pacing, and discipline. Not only does Foreigner not rush to create an impression on listeners, it takes two and a half minutes to hear anything that remotely sounds like the world of extreme music.


When it does, it's chaos like a bull in a china shop. A screeching entrance falls away into a majestic chorus of deeply harmonic minor chords, that are so heavy they consume the mind with their depth. Layered with such precision that its overwhelming, one who actively listens can't help but clutch onto certain tones as their own through selective hearing upon each spin. The chords are the bedrock to its repetition, but with a high siren song that wails as its own melody, let alone the three measure construct of Brett Campbell's sustained vocals, that this track could easily be separated individually and still feel whole; it's proportionally a four-prong symphony that flaunts its longform unity in the face of metal's less patient brethren.

DEVOID OF REDEMPTION. At this point, it would be nearly impossible for most to attempt to touch the gas pedal after such a glacially slow start to this movement. Listeners have spent over twelve minutes in real-time coming face to face with the nuclear threat of entrances, in an opener so strong — your own expectations arrive at this next track before you. In a form that's virtually antithetical to its initial appearance, this tune takes a chugging, pendulous pace at drumhead cracking, and riff-stacking right on top of one another. They're two sides of the same band, and it shouldn't be ignored that the chaotic solo, followed by its outward spiraling conclusion, an easy eight minutes to get lost in. There's a hypnotic quality to each passage, every repeated mantra, every beat per minute lost as it crawls inevitably towards its reverberating, fuzzy end.


THE LEGEND. An ambient, over-saturated tone wiggles its way into the ear just before Joe drops the a bass intro so strong, you don't really even hear it; you just feel it. Perhaps one of the catchiest hooks in the album, let alone the genre, this song thrusts open the doors to the melodic anthem game, leaving in its wake two perilously different sound schemes. By this point, audiences are now fully aware that the complexity of the composition is much deeper than they anticipated, and there's a diverse sound signature imbued within that isn't bound to an environmental constant. It's an ever-shifting spotlight that has full-range in the mids and lows, but saves the occasional high as background noise for a refrain, rather than a jam session solo that just refuses to quit. Taking vocals as their own melodic vessel in-stride, it allows The Legend a personified voice from up on high, in a tower, awaiting the end of all things.

AN OFFERING OF GRIEF. With almost no pomp and circumstance to its delivery, a single measure of bass bursts into the most technically distinct track in the entire set. Without simply coasting through on its already excited pace built from the third tune, this song uses a heavy-handed appreciation for classical melodies for two and a half minutes, the hard-earned proof that these aren't shredders looking for a test drive in their own kingdom. It's a euphoric passage that drifts in, and out of itself, the lingering essence of a trill captured straight off the page of a Chopin nocturne, or perhaps Debussey's Clair de Lune. What's most sacred about this song is its ability to be transposed out of its own genre, and maintain both its impact, and authenticity. By the time it creeps up to its destination, a quick to step riff that is peppered with the light trot of frets every other measure. All of this preparation is to build up one of the finest B-side climaxes to an album in the twenty-first century. The sound of wasps come trilling — courtesy of Devin Holt — by the trembling strings, as an uneasy hand takes listeners by the ears, guiding them up perilous stairs, away from the comfort of this piece, and into fever dreams of fractals, tossed like a ship in a maelstrom until its climactic summit.


Just over six minutes in, the storm clouds clear, a calming pause to breathe in a composition that up until this point, has left no chance to exhale. Having seen this track live more than once, this reviewer can't help but be floored by its stage poignance, regardless of setting or time. At this break, crowds erupt into applause and tears, the anticipation and burdens of the outside world temporarily suspended by this musical lapse in life's endless stream of nonsense. This is the marrow of Pallbearer's sound. The bridging of the classical divide sets this band apart from many, but their ability to have their own ambient silence completely upended by an uncontrollable audience begging for its dramatic conclusion is unmatched. Even as they fiddle with the pedals at their feet, and make last minute adjustments, the cries of audience members are a provoking jab that have on more than one occasion drawn a sly grin from the four guys on the podium. Only one thing left to do: bring it home.


They do just that. With a shockwave of chords that progress triumphantly to the end meet head-to-head with a solo that surfaces like dolphins against the waves, leaping across the piece in joyous strides that bring the nirvana of symmetry to a movement that begs to move one to the verge of emotional catharsis. A better song from this year may not exist; the bar was placed out of the reach of most.


GIVEN TO THE GRAVE. Perhaps because it was the only way to possibly usurp themselves from the throne of their accomplishments, the boys let the last echoes of the fourth song bleed with feedback into this final stop, the literal death march of the journey. Once again claimed by the vibratory clutches of Joe Rowland, a single finger pace tiptoes in like an undertaker, the lights off, and the morning fog at its most dense.


An atmospheric medley sings operatically in the back, guiding audiences to this grand finish — an explosive bouquet of sound that hits cymbals like waves crashing against the jetties, and riffs rolling on like thunder in the skies. Still in step with its sister solo that sings the gloomy blues, one can imagine the pace of a coffin being shuffled step by arduous step to its final resting point, where the hands of many take hold of the departed, ferrying them calmly, gracefully to a distant site, far and away from all that is known. This interlude comes to fruition at three minutes, when a screeching tone lingers in the background of a sympathetic string set, its melancholy weight more than many were prepared for. In humble paces, it lurches towards the final page of this epoch.


Carry me to my grave
When at long last my journey has ended
On the path that leads from here into oblivion
And no more sorrow can weigh me down

Unbelievably dense in sound, and structurally composed to derail any audiences who have yet to hear the heaviest thing on the menu, this song takes the long road of five and a half minutes to arrive at this album's eulogy, a four sentence of complete, and total domination that is so utterly grim, it topples more than a decade of albums that attempted to reach for this precipice on the mountain of doom. Without even stopping to glance back, Given to the Grave takes more than its fair share of artistic chaos in order to set up a jam-session closer that fades out slowly into a starless abyss with no dawn on the horizon.


It's a reflective ending — one that doesn't disappear once its media vessel stops. This album selfishly consumed months of this critic's life in the blink of an eye, and there are still discoveries yet to be made. The bedrock of its production and performance is solid; its only crime is confronting listeners with its inevitable demise, a time that always comes too soon. Much like a life well-lived, death comes for this album when one isn't looking, leaving its audience hollow in a place where a fleeting joy could once be harnessed.

The halls of Doom Metal's annals are rife with groups whose uncontained youth spread like a wildfire. The crafting of heavy riffs is a tried and true formula for success that has been sharpened over the years in many forms, taking the core of an original ideal of sound, and whittling it away into a shape that suits what already existed. Paranoid, Master of Reality, Dopesmoker, Bloody Kisses, Nightfall, Day of Reckoning, Turn Loose the Swans, Gothic, Brave Murder Day, Born Too Late, Dopethrone, and Age of Winters. All of these albums stand as ebony pillars in the Pantheon of the genre, and there are few who don't understand the vital importance of their significance to the scene's progression. Whether it was their intention or not, they came for glory, and now exist as timeless examples of a sound that may never emerge the same way again.


Sorrow and Extinction is a perfect album.


It wastes nothing, and gives so much back in such a humble format. This one LP saddled four guys with the word ‘meteoric’ for only two years — not because the victory became too much to bear — but because it only took them that long to get back to a studio and do it again in 2014. It's a benchmark so solid that it's now the unofficial mascot of postmodern sound in the genre, a testament to the American idea of Doom Metal, and has lost none of its potency in the years that have passed since its delivery. The ingenuity, and innovation of these four guys from Little Rock does not meet a definable standard that is demonstrable on a scale anyone could compare to. In a world of hyphenated, algorithmic tastes that don't surprise anyone, Pallbearer thrives by taking the elements of sound they find most captivating, and surgically excising it to fit within the body of their own work.


Through sacrifice and surrender, Brett, Devin, Joe, and Zach single-handedly brought about the second Doom Metal renaissance. Even today, hearing Mark Lierly add his technical proficiency to the mix brings about another dimension to this composition that feels as if it's still somehow not quite finished. Instantly recognizable, not derivative in the slightest, ultimately accomplishing a mission that was never in the cards prior to its creation. To even discuss this album in academic prospects, is to welcome feelings of euphoria and anguish that are closely associated to life-altering experiences.


If one finds themselves wandering the halls of Heavy Metal, perusing endless aisles of their heroes of the axe, and the kit, one need only look up when they reach 2012, and look upon the support pillar paid for by the blood, sweat, and tears, of the men of Pallbearer. They've earned their place among ancients.


On behalf of Heaviest of Art, we'd like to thank Devin Holt for joining us to chat about one of our favorite subjects. Happy anniversary to the boys from Little Rock, and if you'd like to own your slice of history, they've just acquired some more CDs to mark the occasion.


You can get yours over at their BANDCAMP. Support the legends today.

Cover Artwork by Sean Williams