Pallbearer w/Kayo Dot + Bask
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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).
From the gloriously complex, sky-lit opener “I Saw the End” to the earth-shaking (and heartbreaking) 13-minute closer “A Plea for Understanding,” the entire group puts forth the full realization of their vision: More than a doom band, Pallbearer is a rock group with a singular songwriting talent and emotional capacity. Heartless finds the group putting forth their strongest individual efforts to date: Campbell and Rowland, along with guitarist/vocalist Devin Holt and drummer Mark Lierly, turn in peak marathon performances. Both Campbell and Rowland also handle synthesizers alongside their normal duties, and there are plenty of gently strummed acoustic guitars amid the crunchy electric ones, adding a moody, ethereal spareness to the towering metal. The almost 12-minute “Dancing in Madness” opens with dark post-rock ambience and moves toward emotional blues before exploding into a sludgy psychedelic anthem. A number of the seven songs feature a humid rock swagger.
By fusing their widest musical palette to date, Pallbearer make the kind of heavy rock (the heavy moments are *heavy*) that will appeal to diehards, but could also find the group crossing over into newer territories and fanbases. After having helped revitalize doom metal, it almost feels like they’ve gone and set their sights on rock and roll itself. Which doesn’t seem at all impossible on the back of a record like Heartless.
Kayo Dot has never made the same record twice. To read various descriptions from magazines and reviews, you might feel like you couldn't be reading about the same band. From chamber music to black metal to goth to jazz and avant-garde classical -- nothing really fits. Is Hubardo the "true" Kayo Dot? Is Coffins on Io? Choirs of the Eye? Does the question need an answer?
Toby Driver, the primary composer and frontman for the band, has been fiercely productive over the years, and while that usually refers to how many songs or albums an artist has made, with Driver the productivity is in the realm of ideas as much as music itself. In the course of a single Kayo Dot song, the amount of risks and liberties taken with form and convention usually outnumbers what other artists cover in a full album. That's not to say Kayo Dot doesn't have an impressive catalog. Neither is the band jarring the listener from one absurd extreme to another just to prove a point. For as much ground as they cover, it's always in the service of a carefully curated mood.
The core of Kayo Dot might be that mood, one that lies at the crossroads of darkness and mystery. In films, the music that accompanies mystery is almost always nocturnal, probably playing on some primal relation in our brains between the unknown and the night time. It's at this intersection that one is most likely to nail down what Kayo Dot is all about. Driver still collaborates with former maudlin of the Well bandmate Jason Byron, with Jason handling lyrical duties. Byron, who is a lifelong student of the occult, gives the listener a feast of words to unpack that are as elusively satisfying as the labyrinths of sound they travel through. Whether by way of menacing guitars, ethereal woodwinds, or alien electronics, there's always a sense that a new passage could open, that around the next corner could be anything: a beast or some figure of erotic desire.
Kayo Dot have played the stages of Roadburn and SXSW. In 2015, Driver organized and played a month long, career-spanning residency at The Stone in New York. Kayo Dot records have appeared on labels as diverse and distinguished as Hydra Head, The Flenser, and John Zorn's Tzadik. With the release of 2016's Plastic House on Base of Sky, they take a decidedly electronic turn, incorporating a variety of synthesizers (many of them vintage analog) to create another work of ambition and magnitude that fuses the explosive musical imagination of a band like Magma with the forward-thinking experimentalism of Conrad Schnitzler or Morton Subotnick.
Everything is fluid. The only constant is change. You can't step in the same river twice. Many people hold these truths to be self-evident. As these ideas become even more more commonplace, it only makes sense that musicians should defy the demand to answer the question "Who are you?" The refusal to answer is, in a way, the best answer possible. Kayo Dot is what that refusal sounds like.