At long last, the Little Rock musicians return to ferry listeners to calmer shores.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
There are few legacies so grand in scope that to try and compress it simply to a single body of work is a disservice to their contributions to their realm of artistic mastery.
PALLBEARER, the four horsemen of the postmodern doom metal renaissance, sit comfortably on a throne of their own accomplishments. After successfully punching the restart button on the genre with their groundbreaking first album Sorrow & Extinction (2012), the Arkansas quartet followed it up twice more; their second offering a powerfully euphoric tome of duality known as Foundations of Burden (2014), and most recently with their reflective and hymnal-channeling titan known as Heartless (2017). These albums were a sequential jackpot in terms of both mastery and accessibility. With each new release, the bounds of their territory were pushed, and the landscape they commanded stretched progressively in every direction. With a new plateau of innovation and creativity unlocked, it seemed PALLBEARER had pushed their limits to the far reaches of what seemed possible.
Until now. These are Forgotten Days.
Groaning and churning, whirring and lurching, this titan crumbles from within in a burst of chaotic energy, a dark carnival of Piccadilly imagery that paints a panorama of confusion and distrust; the world of dementia and a failing cognitive dystopia be forged from the familiar. It's an all too effective musical description that outlines in horrific detail the first-person nightmare that is losing one's own identity in a haze of mental impairment. Paced much quicker than Heartless, the title-track of this album illustrates a significantly altered persona for the boys than anyone has known thus far. Leaning far and away from their previous tendency to build songs towards the lengthy end of the spectrum, Forgotten Days is a monster that sheds the preconceptions and steps boldly in a direction that is taboo and dirty in the world of Doom Metal: true accessibility.
Clocking two tracks at the four minute marker, it's painfully evident that PALLBEARER was never bound to creating glacially long-winded, eight minute and upwards tracks that process a whole slew of different atmospheres all in the same song. This new beast is all about variety in bursts, and there's just so much variety that to try and pinpoint one particular stamp of reference in their catalog just can not sum up even a single track's depth.
A compelling segue lies after the halfway point of the first track, a bridge from the second verse to the last; it's the kind of melodic oasis in the midst of the storm that is Forgotten Days that makes this album the one-of-a-kind hand in the deck.
Listeners who appreciated the more harmonious elements that lined the deepest pockets of Heartless will enjoy what this offering brings. While not dramatically hymnal, and overjoyed with a message of understanding and recognition, some of what casual listeners would find subtle, and what die-hards would classify as the hidden gem in a work come out to play copiously in this album, in ways that defy the expectation from 2017.
The hills and valleys of guitar duo of Brett Campbell and Devin Holt are on full display here; the dancing highs and lows that flow with divine liquidity from tracks like Cruel Road, and Dancing In Madness are embraced and nourished with a new sound balance from the studio that ushers forth the lowest end of the mids in a way that Heartless could be known to bury beneath a sea of bass and splash. It's the most welcome of changes to hear the stage figuratively rotate before listeners, a feature that is comes by way of producer Randall Dunn, the man behind the console this time around. Flat tone, true balance. Arguably favored more towards the low end of the spectrum from his previous efforts, it's to be expected with a doom band as notably proficient in filling out the deep end of the sound spectrum, a trait brought to life by Joe Rowland, and Mark Lierly.
There's a hell of an addictive property behind the tracks on this one. That's not to say that never existed for this group. It was much more partitioned, though. As far as the idea of ‘catchy’ goes, PALLBEARER's discography is incomparably riddled with passages that transcend even what would constitute an archetypical classic of memorable music. The same slow-burn elements that made their benchmark debut such a showstopper have endured a masterful compression that breaks up their usual three minute build-ups into half a minute — an invaluable tool unique to this album that makes recalling such passages easier to find, and more numerous in shifts per track.
It doesn't stop there. Previously locked behind several minutes of instrumental jamming, the pacing this time around is much more pleasing, in both composition and lyrical approach. Words, while still unsyncopated — have taken on a new life between the breaks that make patterning between each measure even, bringing a symmetry to each song that produces an appealing, and utterly cloying hook to each song that feels more like they're pushing out hit singles than just trying to aim high. It's a known fact that to see a PALLBEARER show live is to be forced to choose between a dozen favorites, many of which are well beyond the eight minute mark. This tends to limit sets to four or five songs per set, a wholly satisfying, if fleeting high that ends too soon for comfort. With this new musical direction, the boys will be able to fit some real killers in and extend that set just enough to squeeze in a couple more hits per each performance. It's a smart move.
There are a few new tricks aboard this one, as well. Silver Wings, the fourth stop on the tour, practices a well-disciplined portrayal of the band's early efforts, along with a new melancholic sound that fits almost like a glove into the sound-signature of groups such as THE FORESHADOWING, and the modern age of KATATONIA.
Taking generously from the progressive chalice that was their third track of 2017, Lie Of Survival, the group has managed to capture that melodious, multi-octave harmony and harness it as a clay that sculpts the new age of PALLBEARER. As if torn straight from the pages of a sacred text, and used to sing a siren song for those long past, Rite of Passage is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful tune written in memory of Joe Rowland's mother, describing his journey, coping with what he believes his mistakes were, and assessing his life retrospectively from that point many years ago 'til now. Vulnerable and humanizing, this dignified evaluation of one's accomplishments sets this album apart emotionally from the realm of heavy music. It's a theme that's well-imbued as the spine of the work, and for PALLBEARER to go from abstract worlds to a self-portrait of their own mortality in less than eight years speaks volumes about the professional depth these musicians display when approaching the studio.
Readers of this reviewer's work may have taken heed that this is noticeably the shortest review by this author to-date. Typically, a track-by-track review is what is called for as it dissects the work and lays an at least semi-objective outline of the body of work, and calls to light the highlight of the album, drawing a stark comparison to other dimensions that the artists themselves have touched upon or called back to. However, upon further review — this album made exactly seventy-seven full playthroughs across three devices before words formed to describe the experience.
Forgotten Days is a perfect album. Though it fails to chart the breadth of its domain — I will make the claim first that PALLBEARER have outdone themselves in a way that opens doors that few other metal groups of the past have even discovered. This album is an emotionally-hijacking adventure that takes all of the doom and gloom of their previous albums, and transposes it into a real life setting, where every life lost had a story, the choices people made mattered, the tears were real and dried only by the burdens of monotony and the passing of time, and the folk songs we revered were by artists who, in a year of hardship, were reduced to mortals. Forgotten Days is the Black Album of postmodern Doom Metal; it's a gateway that will convert so many people to fans, and introduce a world of possibility for music fans everywhere who believed this genre to be hopelessly inaccessible and sealed by a community of die-hards. This is an album for the ages — a cathartic beacon — one that will remind weary and weathered listeners everywhere of why they fell in love with the music in the first place.
If anyone could do it — it was Brett, Joe, Devin, and Mark. Musical innovation and creativity move forward one PALLBEARER album at a time.
Forgotten Days is out October 23rd, the privilege belonging to Nuclear Blast Records. Salvage what's left of 2020 and support the boys by snagging your own copy, HERE.