Nov. 26 2014 01:29 PM

Arkansas metal band thinks outside the riff

From left: Brett Campbell, Mark Lierly, Joseph Rowland and Devin Holt

You’ve got to hand it to a band that can make doom feel invigorating.

Pallbearer, a metal quartet from Little Rock, Arkansas, have sadness and loss encoded in their name. Their new album, Foundations of Burden, was recorded by legendary producer Billy Anderson in Portland, a city whose gray and misty weather offered the ideal backdrop to Pallbearer’s grave, multilayered sagas. Yet amid their crushing riffs and funereal grooves, they’ve managed to fill their sound with sunlight: bright guitar melodies, uplifting vocal harmonies and a general sense that all is not totally lost.

In a genre that often centers on darkness and negativity—from the dejected revenge tale of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” to the blackened cosmic landscapes of Electric Wizard’s “Funeralopolis”—this approach makes Pallbearer unique. Then again, one could argue that they don’t sound like doom metal so much as majestic metal, often stretching their songs out past the 10-minute mark with Byzantine chord sequences fit as much for an ancient coronation as a burial rite.

Pallbearer bassist Joseph D. Rowland—who plays in the group with vocalist / guitarist Brett Campbell, guitarist Devin Holt and drummer Mark Lierly—says he doesn’t even follow doom metal closely anymore. Lately he’s been listening to classic rock and “kosmische musik” (a style of German electronic music from the ’70s). His favorite band is German avant-garde outfit Popol Vuh, known for their hauntingly mystical score to Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, Wrath of God.

“I feel like the doom-metal scene is more popular than it’s ever been now, but at the same time, I feel like it’s kind of oversaturated with a lot of bands that are just sort of doing the same thing,” Rowland says. “Not every band that claims to be doom metal is doing anything other than just kind of rehashing the same riffs over and over. I feel kind of cynical about a lot of that stuff nowadays.”

Still, he doesn’t want to be too harsh on all the Sabbath wannabes out there today, especially considering the circumstances of what it’s like being human today—from the rise of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over rebel-held Ukraine to the suicide of Robin Williams, this past summer alone offered plenty of reasons to feel like doomsday was nigh.

“I think the state of the world right now is pretty dire,” Rowland says. “It makes sense that doom metal would be pretty present in a lot of peoples’ minds.”

Pallbearer formed in 2008 and caught the attention of the underground-metal world a couple years later with a beautifully dire three-song demo they’d posted on Bandcamp. They got even more critical praise for their debut album, 2012’s Sorrow and Extinction, whose carefully plotted ruminations on death split the difference between melodic flair and raw honesty, winning them crossover appeal while soothing broken souls across the land.

Foundations of Burden, which came out on Profound Lore Records in August, finds them polishing their crunch. Guitars are stacked in multitracked layers. Campbell, Holt and Rowland all contribute vocal parts to make clean leads and harmonies. In opener “Worlds Apart,” what sounds like a chorus of Campbells soars from Hades to the heavens as he reflects on the yin-yang relationship between darkness and light.

“A lot of the harmonies on the record are actually just Brett harmonizing with himself,” Rowland says. This is the first time the band has experimented with multiple vocal parts; they were inspired by classic big-stage rockers like Rainbow and Kansas. “[With] so many bands in the ’70s, virtually every person in the band did backup vocals, and did it really well. To me, it adds that much more to the music.”

Rowland, who wrote the lyrics for half of the songs on Foundations of Burden, does lead vocals on one track and harmonizes with Campbell in other moments. So, what’s his secret to epic metal singing?

“If you want the honest truth, it’s mostly going and doing karaoke,” he says.

Indeed, in Pallbearer’s early days, when he, Holt and Campbell were students at the University of Central Arkansas, they often hit up a neighborhood bar with friends for karaoke night, where Rowland would belt out power jams by the likes of Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple.

Pallbearer play Saturday, December 6 at Soda Bar

“There was one time that I was having a particularly good night,” he says. “I was pretty smashed, and I got up and did ‘Red Rain’ by Peter Gabriel. That was a fun one.”

Rowland hopes to explore multipart vocals even further on their next record. But for now, they’re focusing on supporting Foundations of Burden.

Of that album, “Ashes,” at just a little longer than three minutes, is its shortest (not just on the album, but in their entire discography), which demonstrates the complex relationship they’ve built with doom over the years. The song is quiet and lonely, with keyboards billowing like smoke and lyrics about moving onto the next world. But by the end, it’s not a feeling of agony or dread you’re left with. Instead, it’s a sense of calm release: “Then souls set free amidst the gray / Lifted through the ashes.”

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