Little Rock, accurate though it may be geographically, does nothing to convey the huge tonality at work on Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction full-length debut. The album, released by Profound Lore is comprised of five extended cuts of sorrowful plodding, emotionally visceral and traditional doom that immerses the listener right from the quiet acoustic beginnings of opener “Foreigner.” But for those tones – the guitars of Brett Campbell and Devin Holt remind of earlier YOB in the depths to which their distortion plummets – Pallbearer would be almost entirely familiar stylistically, harkening on a mournfulness long since established as a defining element of this kind of doom with a melodic skillfulness that seems to be on the rise within the style as proffered by acts like The Gates of Slumber on their latest album or 40 Watt Sun, whose own debut was so impeccably received last year. Pallbearer have a similar resonance, but the balance is different than either of those two acts in that Sorrow and Extinction is less directly pointed in its mission and seemingly more concerned with the songs than the overall impression. For example, where The Gates of Slumber’s last album, The Wretch, was an excellent turn to a more doomed atmosphere than on their several prior releases, and where 40 Watt Sun’s The Inside Room gave so much to the interplay of melody and heaviness and smoothly broke between acoustics and massive riffing, Pallbearer, while still in the same league as either of the others, keep their focus on the tidal sway within the songs and have the melody – whether it’s in Campbell’s vocals or the instruments themselves – feed into that.
The result is massive, and at loud volumes especially, overwhelming. Given added rumble by the bass of Joseph D. Rowland’s bass, “Foreigner” loses nothing of its heft as the guitars move farther up the neck for drawn-out woe-laden leads in the track’s second half. There’s a build at work, but it’s subtle and more keyed on the emotional element than on loud/quiet interchanges. Campbell proves immediately capable of conveying the lyrics believably and sincerely, and the drumming of Zach Stone – replaced as drummer after the album was recorded by Chuck Schaaf (Deadbird), who engineered and mixed Sorrow and Extinction – is suited both to the more active cymbal work at the beginning of “Devoid of Redemption” and to backing the echoing swirl of Dave Chandler-style noise soloing that arrives later into the song’s low-end barrage. “Devoid of Redemption” is the first of three songs – the other two being “The Legend” and “An Offering of Grief” – that all hover around eight and a half minutes long, and speak to the CD-minded linear structure of the track listing. Pallbearer have the songs arranged so that the record opens with its longest cut (immediate points), “Foreigner” (12:21), plays out three songs of similar mass, and closes with another longer piece, “Given to the Grave,” which clocks in at 10:56. Because the tones are so rich, and because “Devoid of Redemption,” “The Legend” and “An Offering of Grief” have a varied feel mood-wise and elements that make each stand out for different reasons, Sorrow and Extinction avoids feeling formulaic, but there’s clearly some mindfulness of structure at work in more than just the songwriting. As the overall flow of the album feels well served by the songs being positioned as they are, the structure proves effective as more than just nuance.
As the centerpiece, “The Legend” opens with almost an interlude of backwards guitar that leads to Rowlands’ bass intro to the song proper. Developing from this moment of relative stillness, “The Legend” feels epic enough by the time Campbell’s vocal starts but, like the rest of the album, is never grandiose in a musical sense. The singing is layered most effectively of all here, but Campbell is never really at the fore in front of the guitars, giving the songs an even more engrossing feel. Schaaf, as the engineer and co-mixer with the band, hit on just the right balance, pushing the low end forward to maximize sonic largess while still keeping enough of Campbell’s singing prevalent to give the listener something to hook onto. It’s one of Sorrow and Extinction’s greatest accomplishments, and although it has less to do with the band itself in terms of the songwriting or performance (though now that Schaaf is in the band, you could classify it as a performance element going forward), it’s a tremendous boon to their overall sound. “The Legend,” underscored by a cutting snare march from Stone, plods its finish topped by a guitar solo that seems on an eternal fade, eventually feeding back into silence and “An Offering of Grief,” which is also introduced, albeit briefly, by Rowlands. I hesitate to call it a highlight of the album, if only because of the quality that remains consistent as Sorrow and Extinction runs its course, but after five minutes in, a malevolent storm of guitar leads builds and is complemented by swirling, desperate vocals, making for one of the most immediate impressions Pallbearer have on offer. All the while, Rowlands and Stone keep the rhythm consistent, so the band is never out of control, never making a misstep, and instead masterfully boosting the atmospherics and giving the album a formidable apex that’s soon cut to lone acoustic guitar. That in turn gives way to a lumbering riff – while still staying discernible in the mix – that ends “An Offering of Grief”’s last two minutes as some of Sorrow and Extinction’s most striking.
Synth orchestration – is that a choir? strings? – fills out the ambience behind and then alongside the guitar at the beginning of closer “Given to the Grave,” which has a challenge ahead of it in appearing as anything more than an afterthought in the wake of “An Offering of Grief.” It does this (mostly in its later minutes) by toying with the album’s established sense of structure; a long instrumental passage in the first half leads away from “An Offering of Grief” without really giving “Given to the Grave” a character of its own until almost three minutes in, when the heavy part of the intro gives way to more subdued, more atmospheric guitar lines and sweetly-hued underlying feedback echoes. That build plays up gradually until the song’s halfway point, when the full weight of Pallbearer is brought into play and Campbell begins the song’s only verse, which doesn’t last but transitions with almost unnerving smoothness into the song and the album’s final instrumental section, typified by the steady ping of Stone’s ride cymbal, layered fast and slow guitar leads, Rowlands’ maintenance of course, and gradually rising synth that’s a coherent return to the song’s introduction and a final reminder of the skill with which the whole of Sorrow and Extinction has been crafted. Pallbearer’s 2010 demo first gained them notoriety upon its release, but I’ve no doubt that Sorrow and Extinction will bring that reception to a different level entirely, and though part of me feels lazy for having made them, it should say something that a band like this, on their first album, can earn even superficial comparisons to the likes of The Gates of Slumber, who’ve been around more than a decade, and 40 Watt Sun, founded by members of Warning. Either way, these songs impress unilaterally, in both construction and tonal expanse. If the underground hype tsunami does carry Pallbearer’s debut to the front of 2012’s doom releases, then at least they earned it.Arkansas, Little Rock, Pallbearer, Profound Lore