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Deep Cuts #20: Pallbearer – 'Sorrow and Extinction'
Earth-shattering doom and gloom from Arkansas's elegiac soothsayers.
Album: Sorrow and Extinction
Release: February 21st, 2012
Label: Profound Lore
For reasons I’ve only truly begun to grasp a decade on, 2012 was a transitional year for me. I was turning 24, largely disaffected at an emotional level, and looking for new experiences to enrich the internal perception of my otherwise mundane (and, it must be stated, largely privileged and trauma-free) private life.
In terms of music, this meant actively seeking discovery and pushing past previously conceived ‘boundaries’. And thankfully, this catalyst lead to many fortunate finds that I still hold dear today: Lucero’s hootin’-and-hollerin’ alt-country, Killer Mike’s smooth flow and incisive class-consciousness rap style, Coliseum’s moody post-punk, Now, Now’s delightful indie-pop, We Lost The Sea’s sprawling post-metal palette… You get the idea. However, perhaps the most important find of that decade, the one that’s had the single largest impact on my musical taste, comes from an unlikely source.
Let’s talk about the debut album from Arkansas doom metal juggernaut Pallbearer: Sorrow and Extinction.
Okay, what is doom metal exactly, you ask? Well, according to the authoritative “Doom Metal Music Guide,” available through MasterClass with instruction from Rage Against the Machine axeman Tom Morello (yes, you read that correctly; no, I did not have a stroke), it’s this:
“The doom metal music genre stems from the heavy, blues-based riffing of Black Sabbath and has expanded to hard rock and heavy metal scenes throughout the world.”
So far, so good. But what does this expansion sound like? At the aural level, the genre is broad enough to encompass a variety of progressive experimentation within the formal constraints of metal, including drone, sludge, stoner rock, folk, and symphonic elements. Think Cathedral, Electric Wizard, Candlemass, The Obsessed, etc. This subgenre fusion can also be seen in the heavy use of stylistic prefixes, helping to denote which particular variant or shade of doom you’re getting: epic, gothic, death, funeral, black, etc. And to me, this progressive versatility is one of the many strengths of doom metal.
As Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell put it in the updated and expanded edition of Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Across Time and Genre (2021):
“We would argue that this confirms metal in its many guises as one of the main locations of authentic progressive rock of the 2000s. It was into and out of metal that progressive rock found new blooms over a period of two decades, opening up to new fusions within and moving out from metal genres and approaches.” (355)
What makes Sorrow and Extinction such a compelling example of contemporary doom metal done right is its flawless execution of the genre’s constitutive parts.
At the formal level, tempo is the “speed” of a musical composition, and most of the time, we’re aware of it without needing to perceive it consciously. Doom metal, in contrast to most other genres then, is slow. Often extremely slow, frequently bordering on turgid and glacial. This is perhaps the genre’s signature stylistic device, making metal that feels interminable and (mostly) static.
On “Foreigner,” the album’s twelve-minute opening opus, Pallbearer make expert use of cathartic suspension and release to devastating effect. The track’s first two minutes play out through a gradual wash of ambient sound before a towering tsunami of distortion crashes into the listener, lurching along with punctuated drum hits and vocalist/guitarist Brett Campbell’s Ozzy-esque wail.
Much of the track continues in this vein, stuck in the vice grip of the quartet’s hypnotic thrall, providing little variation in tone or composition, until arriving at the rich guitar harmonies and crushing climax of the song’s final epic crescendo.
One thing Pallbearer do obscenely well is a well-crafted and thoroughly rewarding rhythmic shift. My favourite track, “Devoid of Redemption,” also happens to be the shortest on the record (clocking in at a brisk eight minutes, mind you), but don’t let this concision fool you. There’s plenty going on here under the hood.
Campbell and co-guitarist Devin Holt trade-off against one another against one of the band’s most recognisable riff progressions, while drummer Zach Stine punctuates each bar with the steady clang of the ride cymbal. At moments, it feels like the composition is full of some dark unnamed force desperately straining and yearning to be set free.
Then, around the 3:45 mark, everything is set loose, thrusting the track into the depths of grinding, unrelenting sonic chaos. Campbell and Holt lose themselves in these murky depths as Stine and bassist Joseph Rowland attempt to maintain order through subterranean rumble and clashing percussion.
Speaking of Ozzy, let’s talk more about Campbell’s pipes. While finding a doom band in 2022 (or 2012, for that matter) is a ridiculously easy task, finding one with actual skills in the vocal department is a much taller order of business.
As Brad Sanders wrote for Stereogum earlier this year, “Campbell’s superpower as a singer is his vulnerability.” In truth, his gift is making his voice achieve the lofty ambition of paradoxical duality.
On a track like “The Legend,” Campbell’s quaking register feels both majestic and morose, melancholy and urgent; effortlessly sliding around Holt’s crunching riffage and Stine’s gradual seismic shifts (who would later leave the band after recording the album).
In terms of lyrical content, Sorrow and Extinction doesn’t really invent the doom metal wheel—but it also has no need to. Sure, standard themes dominate—death, sadness, loss, time—and are woven together with a suitable amount of theatrical grandeur. It’s a testament, then, to Pallbearer’s thematic execution that such boilerplate ideas can approach mythic reverence and become transcendent when given an appropriate soundtrack.
The midsection of “An Offering of Grief,” bookended by minutes of plaintive acoustic wandering, finds Campbell ruminating on celestial wonders, daring to find solace outside the flesh and in the heavens above:
“Let me search the distant stars for what is left of my ruin.
Inhaling the stillness, I make silence my temple.
And place an offering of grief/
A communion with the soul.”
As the track draws to a close, dizzying riffs and distant shouts pile up end on end, sounding every bit like a chorus of the damned, adding emotional stakes to this material realm of “shadows” and “deception.”
Likewise, closer “Given to the Grave” rests on a single uttered stanza that wrestles with the existential heft of the album’s title, stretched across the ponderous expanse of the track’s ten-minute composition and hazy synth soundscapes:
“Carry me to my grave/
When at long last, my journey has ended.
On the path that leads from here into oblivion/
And no more sorrow can weigh me down.”
Taking in Sorrow and Extinction ten years on from its initial release, it’s hard to think of another debut record that showed this much promise. It certainly wasn’t lacking in accolades—the album scored a Best New Music recommendation from taste arbiters Pitchfork, rave reviews from notoriously fickle publications like Angry Metal Guy and Metal Injection, along with positions in a number of end-of-year lists. By my own metrics, though, it kicked off a fanatical obsession with Pallbearer and doom metal more generally, which continues in earnest to this day.
I featured the album in my Best of the 2010s series, along with each consecutive release: 2014’s Foundations of Burden and 2017’s Heartless. And with the exception of The Menzingers, it’s difficult to find another band that consistently places in that list across three releases and an entire decade. As I wrote in my review of the group’s most recent effort, 2020’s Forgotten Days:
“When Pallbearer lock into a groove and march relentlessly into long-form compositions, it feels as instinctive as breathing…. Pallbearer have always been more than just a doom band. Across their critically acclaimed back catalogue, the quartet have already tackled the crushing and commercial, the soaring and sentimental, the melodic and melancholy.”
You can find all of the albums in this series in the TPD // Deep Cuts playlist.