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How Pallbearer reinvented doom in 2020

Pallbearer
(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

After relentlessly touring their third record, Heartless, Pallbearer felt burned out. Released in 2017, it broadened the band’s commercial appeal, breaking into the Billboard Top 200 chart and earning them a Metal Hammer Golden God for Best Underground Band. Even the New York Times got in on the act, describing the album as coming very close to “capturing the uncanny allure of pop music at 16 r.p.m”. But the Heartless cycle took its toll. When the band arrived back in Little Rock, Arkansas, they had little left in their creative tanks.

“I didn’t pick up a guitar for two months when I got home,” singer Brett Campbell laughs today, speaking to us on the phone. “I didn’t feel like playing music; I didn’t feel like doing anything. I hung around, went on walks, watched TV and spent time with my girlfriend. But after that passed, this huge creative floodgate just kind of burst, and all this material came out organically.”

The material he’s referring to formed the basis of Pallbearer’s new album, Forgotten Days. By taking time off, Brett and his bandmates – bassist/co-vocalist Joseph D. Rowland, drummer Mark Lierly and guitarist/backing vocalist Devin Holt – were able to reflect on the last 10 years, coming up with their most personal music yet. Dialling down their proggier elements and turning up their Sabbathian heft, it finds Pallbearer exploring themes of family and loss.

“I think that period came with the benefit of having the time for all of us to reflect on our lives at this point,” says Brett. “That is apparent in Joe’s songs particularly, as some are uncomfortably personal, but it creates some of the most beautiful subject matter.”

Joe was in his mid-20s when Pallbearer formed. A year into the band, when they were busy writing debut album Sorrow And Extinction, his mother passed away. Instead of processing his feelings about her death, Joe threw himself into a decade of touring, partying and drinking. Several songs examine that part of himself, who he has become, and what he would say to his mother if he was able to speak to her in person.

“He never looked at how that event, that trauma, had altered the trajectory of his life,” says Brett. “Aside from being a major life event that for anyone would be traumatic, he was 25 or 26 when that happened, so he was very young, and I think he has some unfinished business with his mom that he had never fully worked out.”

Pallbearer

(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

The four songs written by Brett, meanwhile, include what he describes as “philosophical musings on the passage of time and your perspective changes, and how they look different to you as you get older”. But it’s the title track that’s the most hard-hitting, detailing his grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Starting with a squall of feedback, it lurches into a mammoth groove, as he sings: ‘Dark clouds move closer / at the edges of my mind / obscuring, consuming, my perception of time.’

“I watched her memories, her history and her identity change,” he recalls. “What are you but a collection of memories and history? So, if you lose those things… it’s a gradual death. You lose your life before your body dies. It’s pretty horrifying and an awful thing to watch someone you love go through, and part of it is that I feel that it might be part of my future, as well. It’s an interesting subject to explore.”

Despite the difficult subject matter, Forgotten Days came together at speed. Over the last decade, and thanks to that endless touring, Pallbearer’s chemistry has developed to a point where they can easily pick up on each other’s cues. “In the past when we were trying to convey music material [to each other] it’d take some time for us to get there, but now we can do it almost instantaneously, or very quickly,” he explains. “Sometimes it even surprises us. For example, I can bring a song to rehearsal, and within two hours we have the song learned, and we can laugh about it, because in the past, it would have taken hours and hours, or even days. From all this time playing together we are really in sync with each other.”

The recording process was fast, too. In November 2019, Pallbearer went into Sonic Ranch studios, just outside El Paso, Texas. They normally produce their records themselves, but this time they brought in Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Wolves In The Throne Room). He had worked with the band on a week’s worth of live shows during their Heartless tour, and they’d spent many hours in the van chatting about their shared approach to recording. The band hoped he’d bring some more expertise, and with him on board they recorded in two weeks. Before that, the quickest turnaround they’d managed was five.

“We started talking about his method, and it really synced up to what we had already done, or at least attempted to!” says Brett. “We thought, ‘This guy is way better at this than we are.’ He already understands us, so we thought it would be best to work with him and get better results with less work. We could just tell him what we were looking for and he was able to find the right sound instead of fucking around with amps and pedals. He’s also a funny guy, so that really helped!”t

It’s a testament to their talent and Randall’s production that they’re able to bring different strands of heaviness together. Crushing opener Forgotten Days shows they’re still firmly positioned in the doom metal genre, as the crashing cymbals and down- tuned riffs are even more pronounced than on 2012’s emotionally and sonically bruising Sorrow And Extinction. Meanwhile, Riverbed showcases a rockier sound, Brett’s plaintive voice conveying pain. The intro to Silver Wings is reminiscent of 70s progressive rock, while closer Caledonia is a multi-layered, deeply rich composition.

“When I’m writing by myself, just playing my guitar at home, never once do I think, ‘Should I not do this because it doesn’t sound metal enough?’ I don’t really care,” he says. “Maybe it should be more of a concern because it is easier to sell records, so as in conceptually someone can say, ‘Check out this death metal band’ to their friend, so they have an idea of what they will be listening to, but we don’t have that luxury because we are not really in any genre.”

Forgotten Days packs a wallop while also being introspective, embracing lightness, forgiveness and understanding over darkness. For Brett and co, the experience has allowed them to freely explore some of the deepest parts of themselves without judgement.

“Macho, hyper-masculine stuff has always seemed a bit gross to me,” Brett says. “The idea that being sensitive or thoughtful or fragile – that all human beings really are – is something to be laughed at or sneered at. If you are afraid to look at yourself in a realistic way, accepting things or feelings the way they are, you are going to end up being fucked up, depressed, angry, whatever, emotionally underdeveloped and stuff. You see that in so many older men, especially because they were never allowed to show feelings for fear of being called a pussy. I’m a pussy and its fine!” 

Published in Metal Hammer #342