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).
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.