Pallbearer’s third album, Heartless, is an inspired collection of monumental rock music. The band offers a complex sonic architecture that weaves together the spacious exploratory elements of classic prog, the raw anthemics of 90’s alt-rock, and stretches of black-lit proto-metal. Lyrics about mortality, life, and love are set to sharp melodies and pristine three-part harmonies. Vocalist and guitarist Brett Campbell has always been a strong, assured singer, and on Heartless, his work’s especially stunning. This may in part be due to the immediacy of the lyrics. Written by Campbell and bassist/secondary vocalist Joseph D Rowland, the words have moved from the metaphysical to something more grounded. As the group explains: “Instead of staring into to the void—both above and within—Heartless concentrates its power on a grim reality. Our lives, our homes and our world are all plumbing the depths of utter darkness, as we seek to find any shred of hope we can." Pallbearer emerged from Little Rock, Arkansas in 2012 with a stunning debut full-length, Sorrow and Extinction. The record, which played like a seamless 49-minute doom movement, melded pitch-perfect vintage sounds with a triumphant modern sensibility that made songs about death and loss feel joyfully ecstatic. Pallbearer possessed what many other newer metal groups didn't: perfect guitar tone, classic hooks, and a singer who could actually sing. For their 2014 followup, Foundations of Burden, the band worked with legendary Bay Area producer Billy Anderson (Sleep, Swans, Neurosis) for an expansive album that was musically tighter and especially adventurous. Armed with a more technical drummer, Mark Lierly, Foundations feels like it was built for larger shared spaces—you could imagine these songs ringing off the walls of a stadium. It was a hint of things to come. While the debut earned the band a Best New Music nod from Pitchfork and rightly landed the band on year-end lists at places like SPIN and NPR, along with the usual metal publications, Foundations of Burden charted on the Billboard Top 100 and earned the band album of the year from Decibel and spots on year-end lists for NPR and Rolling Stone. Returning to where it all began, the quartet recorded their third full-length, Heartless on their own in Arkansas, and it’s grander in scope, showcasing a natural progression that melds higher technicality and more ambitious structures with their most immediate hooks to date. The collection, which follows the 3-song Fear & Fury EP from earlier this year, was captured entirely on analog tape at Fellowship Hall Sound in Little Rock this past summer and then mixed by Joe Barresi (Queens of the Stone Age, Tool, Melvins, Soundgarden). From the gloriously complex, sky-lit opener “I Saw the End” to the earth-shaking (and heartbreaking) 13-minute closer “A Plea for Understanding,” the entire group puts forth the full realization of their vision: More than a doom band, Pallbearer is a rock group with a singular songwriting talent and emotional capacity. Heartless finds the group putting forth their strongest individual efforts to date: Campbell and Rowland, along with guitarist/vocalist Devin Holt and drummer Mark Lierly, turn in peak marathon performances. Both Campbell and Rowland also handle synthesizers alongside their normal duties, and there are plenty of gently strummed acoustic guitars amid the crunchy electric ones, adding a moody, ethereal spareness to the towering metal. The almost 12-minute “Dancing in Madness” opens with dark post-rock
ambience and moves toward emotional blues before exploding into a sludgy psychedelic anthem. A number of the seven songs feature a humid rock swagger. By fusing their widest musical palette to date, Pallbearer make the kind of heavy rock (the heavy moments are *heavy*) that will appeal to diehards, but could also find the group crossing over into newer territories and fanbases. After having helped revitalize doom metal, it almost feels like they’ve gone and set their sights on rock and roll itself. Which doesn’t seem at all impossible on the back of a record like Heartless.
Countless bands have gotten the trajectory wrong. Too many haven’t figured out the musical calculus. More than is fair have veered off the proverbial map never to be heard of again. And they’ve all suffered greatly from it. Not Tribulation. From 2009’s The Horror to 2013’s The Formulas of Death, the Swedes secretly figured out how to refactor death metal’s tenets to their favor. No more were Tribulation merely the product of their influences but rather something more, a step beyond wanton barbarity and the unharnessed fire of youth. Likewise, the venture between 2015’s The Children of the Night—a breakout moment for the Stockholmites—and new album Down Below is a yet another step into the unknown, where shadowy creatures glare with eyes ablaze and howl with white fangs bared. The years between and miles traveled could’ve forced the Swedes off their fiendish path, but they stayed true. From its obsidian core to its fluttering expanses, Down Below is a triumph of darkness and death. Or, very much Tribulation. “I wouldn’t say that evolution is as dramatic this time around,” says guitarist Adam Zaars. “There are elements from both The Formulas of Death and The Children of the Night (and The Horrorfor that matter) on the new album, but with a new flavor. Down Below is heavier and a bit rawer than Children and it wanders in similar territories when it gets more expansive, but it’s surely on different paths. It’s a very peculiar process when making music because you hear quite instantly whether something works if you try something ‘bold.’ And often you feel it even before you try it out and you have to tell everyone else to bear with you until you reach the point (whatever and where ever that is) where your idea has manifested in the way that you first saw or heard it. I think it’s the same for all of us. It’s all very Tribulation at least!” Indeed, Down Below has the hallmarks of Tribulation’s previous oeuvre. Frontman Johannes Andersson is as reptilian as ever, hissing and croaking poetic threads of necro-romance, while the guitars of Zaars and Jonathan Hultén seduce the dead and spellbind the living, and drummer—in his first appearance for Tribulation—Oscar Leander swings through Andersson’s bass playing with star-quality confidence. But there’s more to Down Below than Tribulation let on. There’s creepy pipe organs, John Carpenter-esque slasher movements, ominous church bells, and monk calls woven through and into the Swedes’ Jugendstil-inspired death. While most are conspicuous in their new travails, the Swedes hide their moody innovations on Down Below. “You can fit a lot into the space that we’re creating, but it’s always got to be of the right substance,” Zaars says. “It’s all a matter of balancing on the edge and not falling. I think that’s often what we do, actually. We push it all quite hard in many different directions and try not to fall over, be it cheesiness, pretentiousness or whatever. As an example, we have been writing about the vampire theme for a while now, a theme that is very, very cheesy if you do it in the wrong way (which to me is pretty much every way). Vampires and folk influences, it sounds like a pretty horrible mix, but it’s all very dear to us and so we treat it with respect. We try the same approach in the music. We take it all very seriously, and hopefully that works.” Written by Zaars and Hultén under the spell of countless blood moons, Down Below is the result of Tribulation exploring the painstaking process of songwriting from new vantage points. While Hultén wrote predominantly on his own, Zaars teamed up with Andersson and Leander. They acted not only as bandmates—musicians able to play out Zaars’ maniacal pieces—but also as a feedback loop. Together, they put the sinful skeletons of Down Below to digital tape. The two methodologies worked well between Tribulation’s touring schedule—the Swedes played over 170 shows in support of The Children of the Night—and other band-related commitments. “I worked more closely with Johannes and Oscar,” says Zaars. “I had them on hand throughout the process to help me see if certain ideas worked or not, as well as being open to whatever ideas they had. Very valuable! Oscar also helped me a lot in that he has more skills than I when it comes to music software (and hardware for that matter) so we could record demos of my songs more easily which is something I have never done before. I usually come with the songs to the rehearsal room to try it out there for the first time and then record the demos with the entire band. This saved us a lot of time that we didn’t have in the first place. It was difficult as well. Maybe more difficult than ever. But the result is absolutely worth all the hard work that we’ve all had to put in to this!”
Down Below was recorded at Soundtrade Studios and Studio Cobra, respectively. Soundtrade, renowned for hosting Swedish music legends ABBA, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Europe, is where Leander tracked the drums with Martin Ehrencrona (Vampire, The Oath) at the helm and Linus Björklund at his side. After the Soundtrade sessions were over—about a week, according to Zaars—Tribulation cut over to Studio Cobra, with Ehrencrona in tow, to record the bass, guitar, vocals, and other instruments. For three months the Swedes toiled into the dead of countless nights—where songs like ‘The Lament,’ ‘Lady Death,’ ‘Lacrimosa,’ and ‘Here Be Dragons’ invoked the vaults of heaven to remarkable effect—to realize Down Below. Harvest, however unpleasant, was positively plentiful. “We chose Cobra because we recorded some stuff there for Children and really enjoyed the time there,” Zaars says. “Both the time in Soundtrade and Cobra were very enjoyable. Cobra and Martin gave us the opportunity to be creative. It was a new experience for us to work with a producer as we have this time, and I think we all really enjoyed it. I left a few things unfinished in some of my songs so that we could have his input and he’s been giving input and ideas wherever and whenever he’s had some. You give and you take and you kill a lot of your darlings, but in the end that’s almost always a good thing, and this time it really elevated the songs.” Certainly, Tribulation have come away with an album full of gems. From the death-rock shake of ‘The Lament’ and the windy Carpathian haunts of ‘Subterranea’ to the gloomy post-punk of ‘Nightbound’ and the infectious refrains of ‘Here Be Dragons,’ Down Below is unbelievably great. But it doesn’t stop there. Inside the songs, Tribulation parlay awe and shock into something more impressive. Some of Zaars and Hultén’s best solo work can be heard on ‘Lady Death,’ ‘Cries from the Underworld,’ and ‘The World.’ Time-keeper Leander has also proven himself worthy of his newly appointed position. His ability to play simple yet clever continuously gets better as Down Below progresses. Check out ‘Here Be Dragons’! And Andersson’s vocals—even in their sublime decay—emote heavy sheaves of hate, mourning, loss, and fear. If The Formulas of Death was arboreal and The Children of the Night urban, then Down Below must be nestled in between. “A bit of both for sure,” says Zaars. “We were aiming in one direction that was a bit more foresty and that direction kind of made its own twists and turns, as it always is when we do something. We let it happen, we let it guide us. When we speak in terms like this I would say that it’s still somewhat in the city, but that city is much older, or in a different era, than the city that Childrenresided in. And it’s a lot closer to the forest, and even ventures quite deep into it.” Changes are inevitable. The force of momentum powerful. As with The Children of the Night, so too with Down Below. Tribulation has succumbed to change and momentum, but the Swedes didn’t let it become them. They’ve evolved (or are evolving) on Down Below. To wit, the evocative vibe of places frightful and things malign remains strong, as does Tribulation’s roots as an inspired death metal act. What’s changed is the approach and the inspirations affecting the approach. Down Below isn’t just Album of the Year material, it’s the type of effort that will be remembered for decades. Music from the other, indeed!