After Pallbearer avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" with 2014's killer Foundations of Burden, fan expectations run high, and rightfully so. It was so close to a perfect illustration of the band's growth (and an aesthetic shot in the arm for metal) that it raised expectations for what would come next. If Heartless offers anything out of the gate, it's that Pallbearer is relentless in their pursuit of musical growth on all fronts: Much tighter songwriting, canny self-production, poetic lyrics, elaborate melodic invention, well-placed dynamics, exploratory textures, and inspired performances. Over seven songs that run nearly an hour, Pallbearer reveal more confidence and sophistication than anyone could have expected. Brett Campbell's singing showed improvement on Foundations of Burden over its predecessor, but was still somewhat unconvincing. No longer. His voice is as much a dominant focal point as the band's punishing riffs. He lyrical delivery of these tunes is authoritative; he fully inhabits the emotional depths these songs plumb. The interplay between his and Devin Holt's guitars is more intricate and empathic (check the labyrinthine opener "I Saw the End" or the opening third of "Dancing in Madness" for incontrovertible proof). Joe Rowland's bass has a more prominent role in this mix. What's more, his lyrics (including sole authorship of the title track) shine darkly as they tread the caverns of loss and grief. Drummer Mark Lierly tight-rope walks between chugging grooves, plodding thuds, and low-end engineering.
"I Saw the End" is a beautiful illustration of prog metal's new place of prominence; it's inseparable from the band's persona. That said, their trademark Black Sabbath riff consciousness in both "Thorns" and the bone-cracking "Cruel Road," underscores that crushing doom lies at the heart of what they do best. "Lie of Survival" may open gently, but entwined twin leads, a detuned bassline, and rolling tom and kick drums create the backdrop for the most emotionally devastating track here. While the first few seconds of the title track offer an acoustic guitar, it explodes shortly thereafter with wide-open riffing, sprawling sonic washes. and power, yet offers a complex melody. Despite the attractiveness and immediacy Heartless offers -- an album that will doubtless attract an even wider legion of fans -- it will take repeated listens to absorb everything on offer. While it may be hard to resist comparisons between this and Foundations of Burden, they're fruitless. Heartless is a whole different thing: it delivers the sound of a mature band coming into its own and learning to utilize its various strengths. Pallbearer never forsake their origins, but they refuse to be bound by them as they pursue unmapped terrain.