With each successive release, Pallbearer seems to get better at being Pallbearer. They’ve been remarkably consistent over the course of their three full-lengths, tweaking and refining their formula only slightly from one album to the next. After listening to Heartless, though, I find myself wishing they’d taken a few more chances, because there’s very little on this record that I haven’t heard from them before. For a good chunk of the album, Pallbearer sound like a band playing in their comfort zone. I can’t help being disappointed by that because when they do venture outside that zone, like on the superb closing track “A Plea For Understanding,” Pallbearer is one of the best bands on the fucking planet. For the most part, though, I think I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns with this band.
Heartless starts off promisingly enough with the one-two punch of “I Saw the End” and “Thorns.” The first track has a similar feel as Foundations of Burden opener “The Ghost I Used to Be,” but in a more concise package. The riffs are strong, especially twin guitar harmonies, and the vocal harmonies are a nice touch as well (in fact, vocalist Brett Campbell sounds great all throughout Heartless – his reedy voice has been a point of contention on past albums, but he’s clearly been working on improving it). “Thorns” is also a fairly by-the-numbers track, but there’s a clean guitar section about two-thirds of the way through the song that’s really one of the lovelier musical moments on the record. The first couple of minutes of “Lie of Survival” are also just gorgeous, with its clean guitar figure and what’s easily the most expressive, lyrical guitar solo of any Pallbearer song.
From there, however, things start to go downhill. The rest of “Lie” isn’t anywhere near as memorable as the intro, and the three songs that follow it are basically forgettable. “Dancing in Madness” is a total slog that sounds at times like a post-Waters Pink Floyd track (definitely not a good thing), and “Cruel Road” and “Heartless” both sound like songs they could have written in their sleep. Things definitely rebound on the expansive, proggy “A Plea For Understanding,” which really sounds like nothing else they’ve done before, but it’s not quite enough to redeem the album.
After reading some of the other reviews of Heartless, I realize I’m probably in the minority here in terms of being disappointed with this record, but I fell like this band is capable of so much more that an album that’s largely Sorrow & Extinction, Part III. Hopefully “A Plea For Understanding” is a sign of things to come, and they’ll keep pushing in a more progressive direction on their next record. In the meantime, I hope these songs work better live – based on the setlists I’ve seen online, they’re playing the entire album on their current run of dates.
Heartless is available now via Profound Lore Records.