The radical yet inevitable way Deafheaven’s sophomore album, Sunbather, has remade black metal into something richly emotive, melodic, and transcendent is one of the heavy metal’s big success stories of the past couple of years. But the Arkansas outfit Pallbearer has done something similarly profound with the subgenre of doom. The group’s 2012 debut, Sorrow And Extinction, topped many year-end lists, and it created much anticipation for its follow-up. That sophomore album is Foundations Of Burden, and it accomplishes the same thing that Sunbather did in relation to its predecessor, Roads To Judah: It takes a crack in the doorway and forces it wide open.
What made Sorrow And Extinction such a revelation was its humanity. Doom is known for its slow, sedative, depressive atmosphere, but Pallbearer seemed to be groping toward something with more dimension. That’s not to say Foundations Of Burden is anything less than pessimistic. “Worlds Apart” launches the album on a 10-minute, Viking funeral cruise that probes the schism between heart and mind, and between existence and decomposition. Death looms. But singer-guitarist Brett Campbell not only weds this morbid introspection to supple, serpentine riffs, he evokes an unearthly, utterly captivating melodiousness.
Campbell’s voice was one of the most immediately striking things about Sorrow And Extinction, and it’s only grown stronger on Foundations Of Burden. On “Watcher In The Dark” and “The Ghost I Used To Be,” he summons the crushed-beneath-the-heel-of-the-universe wail of Ozzy Osbourne circa early Black Sabbath. But unlike so many of doom’s slavish Ozzy-imitators, Campbell’s voice is peeled clean of ego or melodrama. It’s also downright beautiful, the sound of an angel fallen as far from heaven as he possibly could. Foundations is astoundingly heavy, but it often opens up into passages of shimmering, glassy delicacy. And on “Ashes,” guitars are pushed to some subliminal place while bassist Joseph D. Rowland moves over to organs and synthesizers; there’s an ethereal afterimage of ’70s progressive rock, but mostly it’s adrift in time and space, a paean to the loneliness of oblivion.
At first glance, Foundations Of Burden isn’t a marked departure from the well-established tropes of doom any more than Sorrow And Extinction is. Then again, doom has always been a more traditional form of metal than, say, black metal, which has relentlessly evolved during its far shorter lifespan. History all but demanded that Deafheaven eventually happen; doom, on the other hand, would have chugged along just fine without Pallbearer. That the band took it upon themselves to subtly yet profoundly revamp—and exquisitely humanize—doom is just part of the reason why Foundations Of Burden is such a brave record. The other is the fact that it’s quite simply moving, the sounds of dislocated souls finding a voice at last.