By: Tim LaVoie
With the spring release of their astounding third full-length, Heartless, Pallbearer have cemented themselves as the most accomplished metal band of the last decade. One spin through their catalogue and a quick review of their artistic and critical trajectory since the release of 2012’s genre-reviving Sorrow and Extinction, confirms that “most accomplished” title is neither hyperbole nor the rantings of a crazed super-fan. Pallbearer’s seamless blend of thunderous, Black Sabbath-worthy riffs, and soaring melodic vocals have placed them in the highest echelon not only of their sub-genre, but earned them sweeping praise across underground and mainstream critical boundaries.
Fresh from a European tour, the Little Rock, Arkansas, band played to a packed Rex Theater crowd on May 31. Bassist/vocalist Joe Rowland kindly spoke with BOLD before the show, and gave an inside look at the band’s development, the making of Heartless, and where Pallbearer’s ambitions lie moving forward.
While Heartless still possess all of the elements hardcore doom metal fans look for, it is also an audacious leap forward into the realms of prog and arena-rock. Though far from a true departure, these signs of sonic growth reveal a band not afraid to evolve its sounds despite the oftentimes strangling purity tests of metal fandom. Rowland noted that despite the shining professional reviews, “We’ve been pretty divisive amongst our fans that liked our previous records. Though I’m not exactly sure why. I feel like if they’ve been listening to us for a long time, this is the direction we’ve been heading in pretty much from the get-go. But you know music is objective and everyone has their own tastes, so I can’t blame anybody for not liking it.”
Even with the new elements like tasteful keyboards, shorter songs, and stadium-sized hooks, Pallbearer remain an unmercifully heavy band. They found that nearly impossibly elusive sweet spot between growth and not losing what made true scene devotees love the band in the first place. When asked if they foresaw being able to have real music videos, grace magazine covers, and tour professional venues all while maintaining their roots, Rowland was both frank and appreciative. “No, when we started this band we didn’t have any sort of machinations of being a professional band or anything like that. It was sort of this two- fold thing. One, Brett [Campbell, guitar/vocals] and I had already been playing music together for a few years at that point and we’d always had ideas of other projects we wanted to do. But also, it was one of the most collectively difficult periods in our lives. It was sort of this natural byproduct of going through this incredibly crushing period of life that just sort of really formed Pallbearer. It really formed our entire tragically melodic sound, because we were really struggling with a lot of things at the time. That it worked is still really surprising and kind of astounding too. So being where we are now, and being able to do something that we really truly love on the scale that we’re now able to do it is very gratifying, and something we’re extremely grateful to have the opportunity to do.”
Pallbearer’s Rex set was unique for the band and the audience. Nate Garrett from Spirit Adrift and opening act Gatecreeper filled in on lead vocals due to Brett losing his voice to illness the night before. With only a short rehearsal that afternoon, Garrett was an impressive replacement on the mic as Brett shredded by his side. The performance was a memorable one for more reasons than the rare five-man line-up. Pallbearer ripped through a searing set, showcasing both their power and nearly Iron Maiden-like gift for melody. Marked by Heartless standouts “Lie of Survival” and “Thorns”, as well as catalog deep cuts, the crowd remained transfixed through the final note.
Regarding touring in general and the benefits of larger venues, Rowland explained, “Our goal nowadays is just to try to present the best show that we can. We recently made a long overdue upgrade to using in-ear monitors because we sing so much. Obviously Brett sings quite a bit, but Devin [Holt, guitar/vocals] and I do a lot of backing vocals now. So we’ve been trying to up the game as much to 70s arena rock as we can in a way. The bigger venues and venues that have more state of the art sound systems help us put on, hopefully, a better show for people. That’s really then a huge part of our focus. Especially over the last couple of years, just trying to make all these upgrades. People put a lot of time and money and sacrifice into other things to see us play. So these sorts of venues that we can play now gives them a good return on what they are putting into it.”
Heartless was crafted with playing live in mind. It's jump in technicality and intricate layering of harmonies was not only part of Pallbearer’s natural evolution, but a purposeful move to challenge and push the band while on stage every night. “We’ve been playing together for so long at this point and we’ve really developed a much better understanding of how we play together and also hopefully we’ve gotten better as that’s happened. It’s not technical just for the sake of trying to play as many notes as possible in a certain amount of time. There are songs there.”
Rowland continued, “Part of it is we knew we were going to be touring a lot, so we wanted to write songs that every night would require a lot of focus and we’d have a lot of fun playing and especially when a touring cycle is three years, we don’t want to get a year into it and be tired of playing the songs because they’re easy. Not to say there’s anything wrong with playing an easy song, but to us the more challenging it is, and the harder it is to really nail it every night, it lends itself to being more fun in the long run. We can’t lose focus.”
Pallbearer’s set itself proved any Heartless doubters wrong, as the new material seamlessly wove between the more traditional doom of older tracks like “Devoid of Redemption” and “The Ghost that I Used to Be.” Seeing and hearing this band live solidified that their breakthrough success is no fluke, or “right place at the right time” stroke of luck. They have meticulously pieced together influences, both broad and Little Rock-doom scene specific, to craft an intoxicating, massive sound of their own.
That “Pallbearer sound” has always dispersed equal parts metal heft and symphonic beauty. Yet, a new gauntlet has been laid down as Heartless lifts the band up from the darkness in sound, theme, and imagery. “It’s yet another natural progression.” Rowland continued, “There's a wider breadth of emotion on this record. We touch on sorts of feelings that either weren’t obvious on the previous records or are venturing into themes we never had before. The visual aspect of it - we wanted something that was a little more expressive and less - I hate to use the word, but kitschy I guess. The old records artwork is really informed by old sci-fi artwork and stuff like that. We were just looking for a bit of a more mature type of expression. As we’ve grown as a band we all decided that those visuals fit with this record.”
Pallbearer treated the Pittsburgh crowd by closing their set with a monstrous version of Sorrow and Extinction closer, “Given to the Grave” - a song they had not played live for two years. It was a thrilling end to a show featuring a once-off Pallbearer line-up. Since the Rex show, Pallbearer wrapped their North American tour, are now overseas for an Australia/New Zealand tour, and await yet another full North American trek upon their return. The schedule and demands are grueling, but as with every other opportunity, Pallbearer are thrilled by the challenge and appreciative of how far they’ve come. Rowland closed our conversation by summing up where Pallbearer stand today - “We’re just about as full-time a band as it could be. I feel incredibly grateful that we get to spend so much time doing what we love doing. It’s a dream in a lot of ways.”