Editor's note: Doug McGrath is a music contributor with four decades of experience as a member of the Dallas music community. This week, he reviews "Dropout," a new single by Pallbearer, a doom metal band from Little Rock, Arkansas.
Band name: Pallbearer
Single: "Dropout" (Profound Lore Records, 2018)
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars
One line: Promising new single conjures up a mix of doom metal and straight-ahead rock that makes them palatable to the masses.
Review: I frequently post about bands on social media, and I've detected a pattern when I post about Pallbearer: Nobody responds.
My theory is that it has to do with the band's name. No matter what the music sounds like, most people aren't going to try a band called Pallbearer.
However, they're worth checking out. Over the course of three albums, their most recent being 2017's Heartless, they've established themselves as one of the most important bands in contemporary doom metal.
This new single — their first in 2018, released as streaming audio as part of the Adult Swim Singles Program, and also posted to YouTube — sees them continuing to carve out a unique place in the genre.
Doom metal traces its lineage to Black Sabbath, grounded in Sabbath's dark subject matter, slow tempos, and super-distorted guitar riffs.
Sabbath also pioneered another doom metal trademark: longer-than-average songs. On their debut album, two songs — "N.I.B." and "Black Sabbath" — clocked in at over six minutes.
Today's doom variants can take song length to extremes. Yob, a doom metal trio from Oregon, typically includes a song on each album that extends into the 20-minute range. Windhand, a quintet from Richmond, Virginia, has even blown past the 30-minute barrier.
Pallbearer has at times fit this doomy mold: "A Plea for Understanding," the epic closing track on Heartless, spans more than 12 minutes.
But on "Dropout," they go for quality over quantity, delivering the goods in five minutes.
It begins with howling guitar leads that repeat throughout the song, carving out great bookends for the tension-building verses.
The song is anchored in place by thick rhythm guitar and thundering bass and drums, which create a platform for high-flying leads and the signature angelic vocals of singer/guitarist Brett Campbell. Tasteful vocal harmonies are an element Pallbearer has perfected, and it’s nice to hear them doing this both live and in the studio.
One thing I really like about "Dropout" is the use of a major-key "resolve" for a dissonant, turbulent song section. Pallbearer has employed this technique before, and it's one of the things that keeps them interesting and sets them apart. Some contemporaries (e.g., Windhand) employ repetitive song structures and chord progressions that make their catalog sound all the same.
With its precision, unique sound, and relative brevity, "Dropout" puts Pallbearer in a position to grow their audience to a broader range of listeners — from doom metal purists to Pallbearer fans to casual listeners whose interest they've earned through live performances and positive reviews in publications such as Spin and Pitchfork. (They'll be performing at Gas Monkey Bar & Grill on May 30, with Obituary, Skeletonwitch, and Dust Bolt.)
It’s encouraging that bands like Pallbearer can stay true to their origins, yet grow beyond them just enough to appeal to new fans. Pallbearer compels you to ignore their doomy name and just embrace good music.