Stephen Lee Clark is a Brooklyn-based musician and songwriter from the Bay Area. He performed as a touring musician for many years in projects such as Deafheaven, Monuments Collapse and his solo project Field Agent. Stephen is an avid reader, writer, walker and runner. He spends most of his time outdoors or thinking and talking about football and the Oakland Raiders. He once cried while visiting the National Air and Space museum. When he is at home he is usually plugging away on Ableton or having long in-depth conversations about space and football with his beautiful cat The Red Pill.
“I have to ask you a question, man… Do you believe in other dimensions?”
This was the first thing that Mark Lierly (the drummer of Pallbearer) said to me on our 2014 tour. I questioned who he really worked for and expressed my skepticism, but then our conversation quickly took a deep dive into aliens, time travel and secret societies. Everything was very much in the “feeling each other out” phase of tour, so his question was the perfect icebreaker and we were friends from then on. We all became very close, and our bands and music meshed like my and Mark’s paranoid and conspiratorial brains had.
To instantly get along so well with someone is quite rare for me. For those people to be the four dudes who wrote Foundations of Burden is some full-on, untrustworthy “who sent you?” shit. It is and has been one of my favorite and most-played records from any band in recent memory. Between my love of that album and being buds with them, I was admittedly a little nervous about listening to their new record, Heartless.
You know when the Hubble space telescope captured those two galaxies colliding to create the elliptical galaxy NGC 3597?? That’s about how heavy the heavy is.
The record starts with no equivocation; album opener “I Saw the End” begins with a quick fade-in followed by an eruption of destructive guitar tone that should probably be synonymous with the name of the band by now. While there is no mistaking the overall feel of this band, it is hard to ignore the overlying clarity that accompanies Heartless. The heavy is heavier. Like, you know when the Hubble space telescope captured those two galaxies colliding to create the elliptical galaxy NGC 3597?? That’s about how heavy the heavy is. The lead guitars are EQ’d masterfully and the bass and drums cut through perfectly. The drum mix stands out for its clarity and it definitely feels like Mark has stepped up his game. Halfway through this song, it is quite clear this album will not just be a clone of the band’s earlier efforts, but rather a clone injected with some sort of super-soldier drug the government has been developing under wraps for years.
“Lie of Survival” brings us to the first clean intro, which is beautifully transportive in a way that made me feel lonely and weary — as if heading toward the end of a long desert pursuit, overtaking death itself. The song eventually transitions into one of the more romantic tracks on the album — and quickly became one of my favorite Pallbearer songs to date. I kept getting so enveloped in the strategically entangled guitars that I would inevitably have this recurring moment in which I realized, “Oh ya, this is a really heavy song,” which seems to be a theme to this entire record.
The mixture of Joe Rowland and Brett Campbell’s vocals match perfectly to add another layer of unsettling danger to this whirlwind.
As winding and explorative as “Lie of Survival” and “Dancing in Madness” are, the seemingly strategically placed “Cruel Road” was lying in wait ready to sock me in the face and remind me to whom I was listening. It starts out equal parts unrelenting swells of thick rhythm balanced with tempestuous dark leads that at any moment could capsize your sorry excuse for a life raft. The mixture of Joe Rowland and Brett Campbell’s vocals match perfectly to add another layer of unsettling danger to this whirlwind. Preceding the eye of this storm is a dark tone from guitarist Devin Holt that seems to come in from the depths to remind you, “You’re probably going to die, my dawg.” One of my favorite things about this song is the emergence of Joe’s demanding and rigid bass lines, perfectly written to settle directly in the middle of the interwoven guitars, binding everything together. Finally, they decide to quit playing games and remind you that you are but a meager human and there is nothing you can do to resist the ocean. The perfect contrast to the songs before, “Cruel Road” ends like it starts: colossally.
Closing out the album is “A Plea for Understanding.” The airy guitars that open give a true sense of a wide-open space being filled with a full spectrum of colored reverb. This song slows everything down as if finally laying this force to rest. When the distortion hits, it is a true display of the tightrope that Pallbearer walks so easily between devastation and an almost adventurous sadness. Eventually, everything opens up again and the faint guitars crisscross and show the true hypnotic nature of this song. With nothing to hide behind, the vocals emerge, as dark as everything else, almost in preparation for when it all comes back and simultaneously hits you. This song winds down a road of despair that reflects the feeling you get when you realize, “Damn, it’s all over.” A little reminiscent of the albums before it, this is the absolute perfect way to end Heartless.
It seems Pallbearer has completely ignored the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ model and replaced it with a ‘make all that shit better’ model.
It seems Pallbearer has completely ignored the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model and replaced it with a “make all that shit better” model, which they pulled off seamlessly. Transcending labels such as “metal” and “doom,” they are just one of those bands that do what they want and do it well. It’s hard to ask anything of a band but to keep improving, and Heartless is definitely that — a complete and utter improvement. When dealing with previous albums such as Sorrow and Extinction and Foundations of Burden, saying Heartless is an improvement is like saying, “Hey, this Earth 2.0 looks like a pretty cool spot.” And while fourteen hundred light-years might seem pretty far away, this album will definitely make the trip seem a little shorter.
Masters of space travel, or at least an audio representation of it, Pallbearer have really outdone themselves with this record. Not afraid to present their staunch musicianship absent unrelenting distortion, this album is more than just a metal record, it’s a coronal mass ejection coming to plunge the world into perpetual darkness. Again, at least Earth 2.0 is out there, and I’m sure Heartless will get some “Album of the Year”s there too. Oh, and on Earth 2.0 a year is three hundred and eighty-five days, so Pallbearer gets an extra twenty days at the top.