Thursday, August 28, 2014

Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden

It's been two years since Pallbearer unleashed their towering debut Sorrow and Extinction on the world, although it seems like much, much longer.  Sorrow and Extinction was a stunning achievement in doom; it didn't reinvent the wheel, but it re-crafted the wheel into the band's own image, an image drenched in mournful melodies and staggering under the weight of sublime riffs.  Doom metal bands live and die on the strength of their moods and riffs, and Pallbearer managed to be simultaneously despondent and invigorating over six odes to gloom.  Album closer "Given to the Grave" is one of the best doom songs I've ever heard, with only six (powerful) lines of lyrics amidst its eleven minutes of steadily building and finally erupting lamentations.  Sorrow and Extinction marked Pallbearer as a band to watch, and after an eternally long two years, the band has returned with its sophomore effort, Foundations of Burden.  After such a stellar debut, can Pallbearer possibly top themselves?

Well... no.  But that sounds negative, and Foundations of Burden is an absolutely magnificent album in nearly every way.  Think about it like this: If Sorrow and Extinction was Mike Trout's 2012 rookie season when he hit .326 with 30 home runs, 83 RBIs, and 49 stolen bases, then Foundations of Burden is his 2013 season where he hit .323 with 27 home runs, 97 RBIs, 33 steals, and a ludicrous .432 on base percentage.  Neither season is really better than the other, because both are so ridiculously good, better than nearly everyone else in baseball - especially when you consider that Trout was 20 his rookie year and 21 his second year.  So to it is with Pallbearer; Foundations of Burden isn't better than Sorrow and Extinction, but it reaches the same pinnacle of exception.  There's a lesson here about always wanting to be able to rank a band's discography in a critical sense, instead of just enjoying the music for what it is, but that's a topic for a different post.

Foundations of Burden opens with a bang, as "Worlds Apart" jumps straight into a tempest of riffs and groove.  The change in production is immediately noticeable, as the guitar tone is clearer and less buried in the mix; this change is amplified when vocalist Brett Campbell comes in to the song.  While vocals weren't a weakness on Sorrow and Extinction, on Foundations of Burden Campbell has emerged as one of the band's many strengths.  The delicate, keyboard-driven "Ashes" finds him having to sing in a style more like a croon than a howl, and he manages to knock it out of the park without losing any of the intensity that he brings to Pallbearer's often heavier style of doom.

Speaking of "Ashes," it's definitely the outlier on the album; at a sparse three minutes, it's the shortest track Pallbearer has ever recorded, and sylistically it's a wholly different take on doom.  It's as though the band made a song out of one of their more minimalist sections, such as the section of "Foundations" in which everything cuts out except an undistorted guitar.  Guitarists Brett Campbell and Devin Holt have concocted a truly staggering amount of riffs, and the force with which they're applied is nothing short of spectacular, but the band's ability to pull back and embrace quieter moments is what makes Pallbearer so good.  They could easily get away with just turning the amps up to 11, unleashing copious amounts of killer riffs for ten minutes at a time, and then calling it a day, but instead the band embraces a dynamic flow within songs that manages to convey a palpable sense of emotion to the listener.

"Ashes" notwithstanding, the other songs on Foundation of Burden clock in between eight and twelve minutes, though even with their oft-plodding tempo, they breeze by.  So to does the album as a whole; it's a 45 minute affair that seems over far too quickly.  There is no filler on the album, no parts that seem gratuitous.  Tonally, the melodies of both the guitars and vocals weave their way through distorted riffs like skiers weaving through an avalanche.  What's so amazing is how well these two seemingly discordant ideas of beauty and brawn manage to come together and blend into a cohesive unit.  There's no "pretty part/heavy part" schism; Pallbearer simultaneously makes your heart ache while bludgeoning your skull.

Two albums in, the members of Pallbearer find themselves at the pinnacle of doom metal, and among the upper echelon of all bands currently making music.  Foundations of Burden joins Roads to the North and Clearing the Path to Ascend on my Album of the Year short list, and slides in right beside its predecessor as a classic album.  Believe the hype; you owe it to yourself to go listen to Foundations of Burden.

- Durf

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