There’s much to love about heavy metal culture, but the eagerness to be pleased, of those who comprise metal fandom, is one of its most lovable qualities. Flip through a couple issues of Decibel and you might find yourself hard pressed to spot a review that scores within the 50th percentile, let alone more than a handful of 70ths. As an internet critic, this is nearly unfathomable. Sure, I approach most albums with open arms, yet I usually find the charms of the majority to be elusive or underwhelming. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Should art be something that everyone can appreciate? Metal dudes (of all genders) sure seem to fucking love pretty much everything. At the very least, the fact that an IRL troll like Burzum still has a career speaks to the genre’s disinterest in admonishing members of its own ranks. Reverence isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, but an echo chamber often forms among the fervor of headbanging and congratulating.
Case in point, Pallbearer’s Foundations of Burden, this year’s emergent metal frontrunner. It’s not that I don’t love the record or think that it isn’t a strong work by most conceivable measures; Foundations might be my favorite album of the year so far, which is precisely the reason why I’m disappointed that nothing expressly critical has yet been written about it, not from any major outlet, print or digital, metal or otherwise.
The narrative thus far follows two variations of a trope: one of the small town band hitting the big time, and the other of young royalty prodigiously ascending the genre’s throne. The former is certainly true of Pallbearer (who hail from Arkansas), and one need not spend much time with the band to realize the allure of the latter. Indeed, there’s a tasteful majesty woven into the very fiber of the band’s core. “Watcher in the Dark,” Foundations’ literal center, spends more than a minute putting itself together before new drummer Mark Lierly arrives with sullen pomp and sodden circumstance. Lead singer Brett Campbell’s vocals don’t make their entrance until just after the three-minute mark. Doom is not known for either speed or brevity, but it’s the grace, taste, and earned confidence of Pallbearer’s countenance that distinguishes the band, which isn’t something that can be fully understood without actually listening to the record.
In fact, that combination of taste and grace is what makes this record so ripe for crossover success. Despite its density, Foundations is hardly threatening or impenetrable. It’s certainly never boring, at least not during the time you spend with it. Even if doom isn’t exactly the most dynamic genre, that Pallbearer seem to have achieved mastery of it within two years is worthy of note. Thanks to Billy Anderson (the producer of Sleep’s Dopesmoker), Foundations sounds considerably better than Sorrow and Extinction, its almost equally excellent predecessor; that’s inarguable past anything other than aesthetic preference, but aside from aesthetics, this album itself isn’t substantially different than what came before it. The balance of melody and weight is unchanged, and this new album plays better as less than more. And more can be an appealing offer, when it involves the emotional range displayed here. Foundations of Burden is a journey, a seriously fucking epic campaign — whatever. Whenever the thick sog of the guitars, sheer masturbatory wads of them, grows too heavy, Campbell loosens his death grip and allows us to savor the fleeting refractory respite. The title track never fails to exhaust me, but when the song’s air of resignation dissipates, cleared by a sick 45-second solo, I find myself barreling headfirst into an unexpectedly tender and sentimental interlude, and can’t help but be swept up in the contrast. Every time I play the song, it’s the same breathless surprise.
And yet, for all of the triumphant gratification that is to be found in this record, Foundations’ lack of ambition deserves to be addressed. To say that they succeed at revitalizing well-worn material is to sell Pallbearer short, but it’s not untrue, not so far. And here, at the band’s coronation, I find myself wondering how well served they will be by unquestioning attendants. Metal is one of the few genres wherein refusal to change is generally considered a net positive. Despite my enjoyment of Foundations of Burden, the narrative that I’m hung up on is not one of meteoric ascent, but rather the eventual trajectory of such a path: where do Pallbearer go, now that they’ve garnered universal acclaim? Should Pallbearer release a slight variation on the same album a third time in another two years? Would altering the balance of their sound cause them to lose something along the way? The roof is kind of low for metal as a whole, and if the continuing half-lives of Mastodon and Baroness are any indication, liftoff is less difficult than landing.
Metal fans, more than those of any other genre, should understand the importance of burning one’s idols, and so it’s not without consideration that I’m scoring this record lower than it deserves. If the only way to raise dissent, or at the very least have it be seen, is by outlying it somewhere toward the bottom of a Metacritic page — at least after that site’s editors get around to creating a page for Pallbearer — well, then there are probably worse reasons to grade on a harsher curve than the critical mean. To be frank, niche as Pallbearer might be in the grand scheme of mainstream, this is a blockbuster we’re talking about, and not some intimate, personal work; what use is criticism anyhow against the magnetic pull of mass appeal?
Foundations of Burden is special, there’s little question of that, but the precocious virtuosity of the performance doesn’t change the fact that the material is far from challenging. To the contrary, Foundations offers reason to believe that Pallbearer are maybe too eager to provide exactly what its fans desire from them. Somehow, to me, it doesn’t seem impossible to be both completely thrilled by a record and still want something more, in a less effable sense than the gluttonous bounty the record provides.