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The Tailspin Continues: Pallbearer Confront Grief on 'Forgotten Days'

Wednesday, 21 October 2020 Written by Matt Mills

Photo: Ebru Yildiz & Jacob Slaton

On the front cover of Pallbearer’s fourth album, a mother looks on in heartbreak with a baby in her arms, as her parents fade away in the background. You could not find a more fitting image to underscore ‘Forgotten Days’.

Fracture and loss within a family unit is the defining concept behind this crushing doom metal collection. It’s a unit that, growing up, many believe will last forever. However, entropy, decay, and death, are inevitable, even for those with the closest bonds. Both of Pallbearer’s lyricists—bassist Joseph D. Rowland and singer-guitarist Brett Campbell—know that firsthand.

In 2003, when he was just 18, Rowland’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. For six years she lived with the disease before losing her life, leaving behind wounds that the songwriter is still struggling to cauterise. “My mom, because of the way I was raised, was the person that I looked to for guidance the most,” he explains. 

“Having her completely pulled out of my life at a time when I was still learning to be an adult was massively unhealthy, both from a literal sense and a mental standpoint. I did not handle it in a healthy manner at all. Having that light extinguished put me in a tailspin that’s continued up until today. I have struggled not having that one person that I look to for guidance in my life, to never again communicate with her.”

Rowland’s aspects of ‘Forgotten Days’ re-examine his emotional development since that life-shattering loss. “Did a part of me die while watching you go?” asks the heartwrenching Rite of Passage. “I watched the colours fade out from the joys of life,” adds the gorgeous finale Caledonia, contributing to the bass player’s long-delayed exorcism of grief.

“My life, and our lives, have been very turbulent these last 10 years,” he says. His mother died just months before the first Pallbearer demo. Yet, the Little Rock, Arkansas band were quickly swept up in the insurgence of new American doom, alongside fellow acclaimed neophytes like Bell Witch, Thou and Primitive Man. Record deals, albums and tours followed fast, offering no time for Rowland to nurse his immense heartache.

“I don’t think any of us expected Pallbearer to become something that we’d dedicate the vast majority of our time and resources towards,” he continues. “Because of that, a lot of the last decade I’ve spent suppressing my emotions about my mom passing, and not spending the time that I needed to fully begin to study the person that I have become. That’s a lot of what ‘Forgotten Days’ is about.”

Rowland’s lyrics prove eerily complementary to Campbell’s, whose words on cuts like the title track vividly describe his grandmother's life with Alzheimer’s disease: “Everything I am I can feel slipping away, like sand through my fragile hands.” These themes combine to centre ‘Forgotten Days’ around the erosion of the family, succumbing to the throes of time.

Alongside this thematic weight, Pallbearer deliver 53 minutes of oxymoronic doom metal, juxtaposing fuzzy chords and unhurried rhythms with multifaceted vocal melodies and flashy guitar leads. Despite songs like the lengthy Silver Wings hinting at a history of prog-tinged maximalism, ‘Forgotten Days’ is a simplified journey compared to the complexity of its career-affirming predecessor ‘Heartless’.

Pallbearer’s first album on the high-profile Nuclear Blast label in Europe (home to Machine Head, Nightwish and Lamb of God), ‘Heartless’ was an extravagant groundbreaker. It indulged in enormous compositions and Pink-Floyd-esque psychedelia. “When we were writing it, I think our level of playing made us, as songwriters, want to do something more expansive and acrobatic,” Rowland remembers. “We knew early on that we wanted to take a more progressive direction. It was just that our level of playing had to catch up to our ideas.”

Furthermore, ‘Heartless’ was home to codified political analysis, released in the wake of the 2016 US election, as Rowland and his bandmates adjusted to their Trump-governed homeland. Opening track I Saw the End, for example, lamented how humanity’s greed and blind faith in lies could easily lead to worldwide disaster.

“‘Heartless’ had more of a macro view, while ‘Forgotten Days’ is a focus on personal turmoil,” the bass player summarises. “It was a step in a more broad direction. But, moving on, that music ended up being challenging to play night in and night out. We knew we wanted to scale it back a bit. For ‘Forgotten Days’, we wrote a record that was more straightforward. It has more of a focus on the core of the music, rather than being a showcase of musicianship.”

Switching from the outward-looking ‘Heartless’ to the intensely self-reflective ‘Forgotten Days’, Pallbearer recorded in appropriate isolation. The four-piece holed up at Sonic Ranch Studios, situated around 40 miles from El Paso, Texas, among pecan orchards close to the Mexican border. 

“We were in the middle of nowhere,” Rowland states. Surprisingly, he adds that recording such emotive music in extreme seclusion was “pretty enjoyable”. “There were no real distractions, so we would track all day and then at night we all sat around a campfire,” he adds. “It was a peaceful experience, I would say.”

The resulting album is Pallbearer’s most open and honest to date, as musically captivating as it is lyrically devastating. It’s a mature analysis of loss that  Rowland hopes will resonate for a long, long time. “We’ve always aimed to make music that feels timeless, and not easily placed within one specific era,” he says. “I hope that somebody 500 years from now will hear ‘Forgotten Days’ and be confused as to when it came out. Hopefully, it’ll still feel impossible to place then, too.”

‘Forgotten Days’ is out on October 23 via Nuclear Blast.


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