I was among those critics lavishing praise on Pallbearer’s debut album Sorrow & Extinction in February 2012, marveling at its surprisingly graceful take on doom metal. However, as the year went on, I felt I had to pull back from the praise of the critical hive mind, because the more I let that record settle, the more convinced I became that as strong as it was there was still a lot to be improved upon. It felt unfair to readers and the band to hail it as something groundbreaking and even classic when deep down I could sense the Little Rock band was better than that. Seeing them perform live only solidified my opinion, as they started to show glimpses of a much richer sound than what was on that debut. I wasn’t surprised when the album topped many year-end lists, including Decibel’s, and it wasn’t a bad choice at all, but still I bristled a bit. Then again, I’m the sort of guy who’ll deduct a point off an album rating from a talented new band just to hint that I’m not quite ready to name them the second coming yet. Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore), much to my great pleasure, does exactly what I had hoped it would do, and more. Molded and shaped by the sure hands of Billy Anderson, arguably the best doom producer right now, the follow-up is bigger, more grandiose, and best of all, clears so much more space than the very dense Sorrow did. Consequently the music breathes a lot more, allowing for much more effective contemplative moments, whether it’s in an expressive guitar solo, some plaintive piano chords, or best of all, vocals. And for all the heaviness, it’s the vocals that are most crucial on this album. Guitarist Brett Campbell was still adjusting to his assumed role as singer on the debut, sounding tentative, intentionally buried in the mix. Confident in his ability after two years of touring, he’s so much stronger on the new album, and if that wasn’t enough, his bandmates come through with some startlingly good backing harmonies.
It’s in the singing, too, where you hear this album’s true genius. Because of the sheer length of the compositions, which often are in the ten to 11-minute range, the band is afforded the opportunity to play around with the vocal melodies. That, in turn, sees Pallbearer’s true influences come out. These guys are serious fans of progressive rock, and indeed those vocal melodies weave in, out, and around the arrangements in true prog fashion, almost feeling improvised at times, avoiding conventional patterns but always staying rooted to those riffs. As a result songs like “Worlds Apart” and “The Ghost I Used to Be” not only display staggering power, but show remarkable richness as well, imbuing the normally brutish music with moments of genuine soul. That’s not to say the guitar work isn’t central to this album’s appeal, either, in fact, the melodies and harmonies by Campbell and Devin Holt play a major role on the closing track “Vanished”, sounding typically melancholy but not without a faint glimmer of hope in the distance.
Accentuated by the three-minute ballad “Ashes”, which is sort of Pallbearer’s “Changes” to the rest of the album’s Vol. 4, Foundations of Burden carries itself with stately grace over the course of less than an hour, the work of a band that’s much surer of itself. I always say there’s nothing wrong with a little ignorance and arrogance from young bands, but although Sorrow & Extinction will go down as one of the more unique and surreal first albums in recent memory – bassist Joseph Rowland likened it to a 45 RPM record being played at 40 – there’s something to be said about musical growth and increased expertise. This album feels like a band just starting to come into its own. If I was apprehensive about placing Pallbearer on my year-end list three years ago, I sure as hell am ready to do so now.
It’s a gigantic week for the new metal, and although I can only make a dent in the 50-odd titles that have come out, here’s a good sampling of the most noteworthy ones:
Accept, Blind Rage (Nuclear Blast): Four years ago a reunited Accept returned with a new singer, completely unsure of how it would be received by the public. Three albums later, the guys have a very, very good thing going, a career reborn on the strength of new material that gets right back to the basics of what made the German band an upper-tier act 30 years ago. Blind Rage continues right where Blood of the Nations and Stalingrad left off, but ultimately feels like the strongest record of the three, a lean, menacing album full of piss and vinegar led by Wolf Hoffmann’s trademark sharp riffs and melodic solos, and accentuated well by singer Mark Tornillo, who has turned into a tremendous frontman for this band. “Dark Side of My Heart”, “Final Journey”, and “Trail of Tears” feel like they could have fit perfectly on Metal Heart, while “Dying Breed” is a cute, sincere tribute to metal’s most revered figures. Accept is on one hell of a roll these days, and this incarnation of the band has outdone itself
Ace Frehley, Space Invader (eOne): Ace Frehley was never an innovator, but he was always everyone’s favorite member of KISS because he brought grit and musical character to a band that was so preoccupied with presentation. From “Cold Gin” and “Parasite” to “Shock Me” and “Rocket Ride”, and that solo album that was light years better than the other three, he was always the band’s best songwriter when given the opportunity. Five years after his last solo album, Frehley went with the old “back to basics” tactic, intent on capturing the feel of that classic 1978 solo debut, and he does a rather good job of it. It’s simple, heavy rock ‘n’ roll, loaded with his Who-derived Les Paul riffs and alternating from his psychedelic shtick to more playful garage rock, and it suits the man perfectly. “What Every Girl Wants” is a blast, and even the cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” is fun. Longtime KISS fans will get a kick out of this.
American, Coping With Loss (Sentient Ruin): If you like your metal misanthropic, self-loathing, and just all-around miserable, you can’t go wrong with this release by the Virginia band. It’s raw, malevolent black metal, featuring the kind of tortured, incomprehensible screams the music requires, but it’s not a one-trick pony, serving up tracks that not only cut to the chase, but show exceptional dynamics as well, whether it’s tossing in the odd death metal passage, some loose, punk influences, or in the case of highlight “Lamb to Slaughter”, going full-on doom. Even the ambient 18-minute piece that comprises the last half of the album, something I have very little patience for, displays enough cinematic flair to stay interesting. It’s a promising debut well worth investigating. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Black Trip, Goin' Under (Prosthetic): Featuring former members of Entombed, Nifelheim, Corrupted, and leprosy, this Swedish collaboration is a quirky blend of Pentagram-derived doom (quelle surprise) and Thin Lizzy flash. Put those together, and yep, you’ve got pentatonic doom riffs accentuated by sharp hard rock passages and twin guitar harmonies. It’s nowhere near a trainwreck as, say, Chrome Division, and there are moments that work quite well, but this idea still feels like it’s nowhere near reaching its potential yet.
Botanist, VI: Flora (Flenser): The latest release from the prolific San Francisco project just might be its best to date, as I don’t think I’ve ever heard Botanist’s blend of black metal, post-rock, and shoegaze coalesce as beautifully as it does on Flora. Unlike other “metalgaze” efforts, Botanist keeps things a little left of center on this record, the bombast toned down and even muted in a way, always contrasting beauty and extremity, yet always mindful of not letting one side overwhelm the other. It’s a bit unsettling at times due to its unorthodox approach – take “Leucadendron Argenteum” for example – but as a whole it’s a wondrous, colorful piece of work. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.
Children Of Technology, Future Decay (Hells Headbangers): This Italian band fits right into Hells Headbangers’ wheelhouse, firmly rooted in straightforward d-beat punk rock, but with just enough of a metal influence to keep things filthy. Not to mention a singer a little obsessed with copping the mannerisms of Tom Warrior. It’s a fun enough little diversion, but in a week that sees the new Midnight album released, on the same label for that matter, why even bother?
Deadlock, The Re-Arrival (Lifeforce): Ah, Deadlock, a classic sufferer of Lacuna Coil disease: a band with an exceptional female lead singer but is perpetually deluded by the notion that it would be better off contrasting competent singing with tone-deaf screaming. But when these Germans are smart enough to let Sabine Scherer take the helm, their otherwise plain-Jane metalcore can often shimmer, which is a rare feat. This seventh album is more of the same, frustration one track, pop metal skill the next. For some, inconsistent is good enough for them, but smart metal fans should demand more than that.
Dictated, The Deceived (Metal Blade): It’s not every day you get a death metal band led by two women on lead guitar. Although these Dutch upstarts don’t do anything particularly new and creative on this second album – proving women can be just as middling songwriters as men! – it’s mildly engaging enough to scratch that Asphyx itch you might have. But why bother when there’s plenty of actual Asphyx to listen to?
DragonForce, Maximum Overload (Metal Blade): Album number six from the perpetually likeable Brits treads familiar territory, blending power metal with hyper-extremity as always, and although it doesn’t feel as rejuvenated as 2012’s The Power Within did, it still has enough memorable hooks to warrant a solid recommendation. Singer Marc Hudson has settled into his role nicely, leading the charge on such standouts as “The Game” and “Symphony of the Night”, while guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman continue their histrionic shredding, dazzling displays of dexterity, but done with a level of flash and ebullience that one rarely hears in metal anymore. The cover of “Ring of Fire” is wholly unnecessary, and actually terrible, but that doesn’t derail an album that careens wildly for 46 lively minutes, which is all anyone asks from these guys.
King 810, Memoirs of a Murderer (Roadrunner): It’s easy to dismiss King 810’s debut album as nothing but knuckledragger nu-metal shtick. Sure, the Flint, Michigan band’s sound is very much rooted in that sound, but there’s a lot more to this record than that. Constructed as an hour-long concept album about life in Nowheresville, the sense of anger and despair is palpable over the course of three acts as the band veers from cathartic, primal metal, to Nick Cave-derived introspection, to daring spoken word pieces. It’s contrived, no question, but all metal is contrived, but no matter how exaggerated it all is, these guys sell it alarmingly well. Nu-metal has been a self-parody for well over a decade now, and I’ve never hesitated to mock its many shortcomings, but this is an undeniably powerful piece of work, the most vivid and visceral such album since Slipknot’s Iowa.
Midnight, No Mercy For Mayhem (Hells Headbangers): It’s amazing how many d-beat metal/punk band replicate the formula faithfully enough yet are completely ignorant that the core of the sound isn’t crusty chords and that tempo, but that it’s simple rock ‘n’ roll at its core. A huge reason why Midnight stands out isn’t because it sounds like Venom meets Motörhead – although that unquestionably adds to its appeal – but rather because they rock. It’s as simple as that. The songs move and groove in sleazy fashion, lending the music a sultry steaminess that so many “extreme” bands don’t understand at all. On their latest, hotly anticipated album, there’s more groove than ever. It’s akin to Turbonegro’s Apocalypse Dudes, where a glammy Hanoi Rocks influence creep into the tunes, and you can hear it on this album, sleek lead fills adding welcome flash to the music, making it a lot more than dumb, primitive fist-bangers. Not that this album is without those tracks, but it’s no longer the complete focal point. Masked mastermind Jamie Walters has outdone himself with this record, continuing where 2011’s brilliant Satanic Royalty left off, yet at the same time adding much more richness to the music without compromising its underground credibility. As if that ever mattered. They are Midnight, and they play rock ‘n’ roll. Crank this sucker over at Bandcamp, and buy it now.