Doom metal doesn't tend to be a particularly fashionable subgenre when it comes to critics who write year end lists, but Pallbearer were all over them in 2020 like a rash. They didn't just make six lists that I'm tracking, they made two top fives, including a #4 at Consequence of Sound, just above AC/DC. This is their fourth album and it initially took me aback because it didn't sound like how I expected it to.
I'm used to doom metal being slow, heavy and clean. From the opening title track, Pallbearer clearly have slow and heavy down, but Joseph D. Rowland plays a dirty bass and it all grows out of feedback. This is doom with nods to stoner rock and doom/death, genres that I've never seen mentioned in the vicinity of the Pallbearer name. Maybe that's because there's no attempt whatsoever to venture into the psychedelia that stoner rock so often flirts with and Brett Campbell's vocals remain stubbornly clean and plaintive and never attempt anything harsh.
The dirty sound persists though, so much so that a minute into Riverbed, when it vanishes for effect, Pallbearer sound like a completely different band, only Campbell's unchanged vocals linking us back to what came before. Initially, I thought he was being a little overwhelmed by the music, but the mix favours him more as the album runs on. Overall, he does a fantastic job at making his presence known and, in fact, his sustained notes are a major part of why this sounds epic. Maybe the title track is just that anomalous a Pallbearer song.
It took me a while to get into this album, perhaps because of how abrasive that first song is. I have no issue with abrasive, but being abrasive on an opener that also happens to be a title track sets a sort of expectation that simply isn't met by everything else here. Riverbed was more engaging, but Stasis is perhaps the weakest song here, so I wasn't impressed by the time I got to Silver Wings, the only track here to match an epic style with an epic length—it exceeds twelve minutes but the average otherwise is under half that.
Silver Wings made me pay attention, as it has a lot of time to breathe. The first minute and a half fare well enough but it really kicks in at that point, dropping into a minimalist section but transitioning back to heavy in a simply gorgeous manner. This is as slow as this album gets and the melancholy just drips off the amplifiers. There's doom/death here too, as there's an early Paradise Lost feel to some of the instrumental sections.
It's after that that I really found myself on board the Pallbearer train. The Quicksand of Existing has a real weight to it. It's not just heavy in the traditional sense of downtuned instruments and a crushing taste in riffs. It's heavy in the sense that the song feels like a leaden overcoat; I had to force myself to sit up straight while I was listening to this one! It's a bouncy sort of doom as well, Campbell refusing to be lost under the weight of the fuzzy backdrop. Vengeance & Ruination is bouncy doom too, again without ever losing its brutal weight. Can we call it doom 'n' roll? I'm sure I wouldn't be the first.
Those two songs, accessible but emphatically heavy, would be my favourites here if Pallbearer hadn't finished up with Caledonia, which is a lovely song. It starts out deceptively soft, with a bass shorn of its fuzz and infused with liquid, and some delightfully patient guitarwork from Devon Holt and Brett Campbell. Those guitars continue to delight throughout, highlighting how bluesy the band can get, not just how heavy. I'd say that this one walks a more conscious balancing beam between delicacy and doom. It's the highlight of the album for me.
So, yet again, I'm a little disappointed in an album that made multiple end of year lists, but I'm still happy that I've now heard this and I look forward to Pallbearer's fifth. It promises much.