Mind Burns Alive

Nuclear Blast
rating icon 9 / 10

Track listing:

01. Where The Light Fades
02. Mind Burns Alive
03. Signals
04. Endless Place
05. Daybreak
06. With Disease

When PALLBEARER first emerged with "Sorrow and Extinction" 12 years ago, it was immediately obvious that they were operating on a more cerebral level than most of their doomed-out peers. Neither a traditional doom band in any meaningful sense, nor recognizable as exponents of any particular slow-motion offshoot, the Little Rock quartet seemed to be constructing a brand-new musical world of their own: one where slow and heavy reigned, but also where emotional rawness and vulnerability were as fundamental to the songwriting process as the riffs themselves.

PALLBEARER stood out as bona fide songwriters and skilled arrangers, with songs that created their own sorrowful vocabulary to express long, dark nights of the soul. Since then, they have acquitted themselves brilliantly. After the reputation consolidation of "Foundations of Burden" (2014),  they fully embraced the progressive aspects of their sound on the crushing but nuanced "Heartless" (2017),  and then stripped everything down to its riff-driven essence on "Forgotten Days" (2020).

The latter received a more hesitant response than its predecessors, largely because PALLBEARER seemed to have sidelined their adventurousness in favor of a more direct approach. In truth, the band wrote another batch of songs at the same time, and "Mind Burns Alive" is where they come alive, flipping the focus from straightforward heaviness to something much more intimate and dynamic. A sometimes mellow counterpart to "Forgotten Days", album number six shares certain atmospheres and guitar tropes with its predecessors, but with a much greater emphasis on pained melancholy and the rarely acknowledged extremity of restraint — "Mind Burns Alive" is the most radical PALLBEARER to date.

It is also their most emotionally affecting record, by some margin. Liberated from doom metal's volume-obsessed fundamentals, PALLBEARER have found a much more effective way to break hearts. "Where The Light Fades" received a mixed response upon its release as a single, but it thrives in context, and sums up this stylistic shift in the most startling way possible. A gently rolling, bare-bones doom-rock hymn, it owes more to indie mavericks RED HOUSE PAINTERS or the tearstained minimalism of 40 WATT SUN than it does to regular descendants of BLACK SABBATH. Vocalist/guitarist Brett Campbell revels in the exposure, his troubled tenor no longer drowned out by riffs, as it drifts across his band's most starkly beautiful music yet. The underlying theme of this record is concerned with mental fragility and its many horrors, but even at its most turbulent and tense, "Mind Burns Alive" is a jaw-dropping demonstration of finesse.

The title track is as heavy as this record gets, but its highs and lows have equal power. When PALLBEARER drop the volume and turn up the tenderness, they become even more overwhelming: their melodies shine brighter, the emotional cuts are deeper and their ensemble chemistry is laid bare like never before. "Signals" is even more extraordinary. Another song that nods towards RED HOUSE PAINTERS and their artful, post-rock peers, it backs up the idea that a simple chord sequence can be the most potent weapon in any band's arsenal. So languid and defeated that at times it seems to stumble along, "Signals" is also the most beautiful thing PALLBEARER have ever committed to tape and one of the heaviest, if only in terms of its emotional heft.

Elsewhere, "Endless Place" is a ephemerally proggy sprawl with acres of sonic space to house a series of stunning lead breaks, a lissome sax solo and overlapping waves of scabrous riffing; "Daybreak" begins as a spine-tingling ghost reverie, before the melancholy is trumped by frustration and fury, as guitars are cranked to their more usual, bludgeoning levels; and the closing "With Disease" crawls through ten minutes of palpable misery, with one foot in PALLBEARER's tumultuous past, and the other planted firmly in singer/songwriter territory, campfire folk allusions and amorphous clouds of distortion included.

Those clinging to the idea that PALLBEARER will eventually start to repeat themselves should politely bow out now. "Mind Burns Alive" is a departure, but everything that made this band so appealing first time around is still observable and integral to these songs. The difference is that PALLBEARER have learned that silence is the most powerful noise of all, and their mastery of the space between the excruciatingly quiet and the punishingly loud is total. Still special, then, and growing more potent and persuasive with every passing year.

Author: Dom Lawson
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