Restraint is a virtue far too frequently neglected in metal, replaced with displays of virtuosic skill. Of course, the danger that accompanies this approach is when it becomes utterly self-indulgent and masturbatory—a demonstration of raw ability usurping the craft behind the music’s creation. With Heartless, however, Pallbearer embraces these oft-forgotten concepts and, in turn, delivers a master class in compositional restraint and subtle intricacy.

This does not mean that this album is entirely devoid of metal’s staple elements; present across the album are harmonized licks, chugging rhythms, vibrato-coated wailing vocals and soaring guitar solos (those in Heartless’ closer, ‘A Plea for Understanding’ are especially gratifying for the young metalhead still inside me). While these building blocks may be familiar territory, Pallbearer still manages to piece them together in a way that remains altogether compelling throughout.

While the biggest standout moments on Heartless are when Pallbearer are at their most towering and melodic, their impact is only so great because of how they are balanced by the album’s heavier spots. On ‘Thorns’ and ‘Cruel Road’, Pallbearer brings Heartless back to Earth with crushingly heavy and certifiably headbang-worthy riffs that hearken back to doom metal royalty acts like Black Sabbath and Sleep.

Whether the symbolic ties between the image of a humanoid mountain on the cover of Heartless and the musical experience delivered by the album were intentional, or if the cover was merely aesthetic in nature, the connection is between them is definite. Throughout Heartless, Pallbearer effortlessly balances the detuned droning sounds of the center of the earth with the soaring melodies sung on cloudy mountain peaks.

Doom metal, by its definition, is meant to explore our dark and most terrifying fascinations of our existence—death, suffering, abandonment, staunch conviction in resolution and forgiveness ultimately proven false by apocalyptic forces of destruction. Pallbearer does not shy away from these familiar themes, especially in song-closing lyrics throughout Heartless. Despite any thematic predictability, though, these moments remain incredibly poignant, as displayed in the final lines of ‘Lie of Survival’:

Last burning breath filled with death and desire
Our boundless pride becomes a funeral pyre
The end remains the only god we can't deny
All still believing the lie of survival

In the album’s closer, ‘A Plea for Understanding’, however, Pallbearer deviates slightly from this pattern in favor of a subtle, yet critically important and impactful, turn towards optimism, if not catharsis:

Behind the eyes lies a truth
So deeply concealed
Somewhere inside is a place
Where the weary rest and heal
Anger, fear, and regret keep the darkness at hand
But these feelings are real
All I ask, won't you please understand

In these closing moments of the album, Pallbearer shows that their knack for subtlety, nuance, and dynamic composition are ideals not only important to their work musically, but also lyrically and thematically. As a result of these ideals intersecting with the band’s immense technical proficiency, Heartless is a triumphant metal album, and is yet another entry on the list of arguments for Pallbearer being among the few bands in the genre’s peak echelon today. With Heartless, Pallbearer has laid down the gauntlet for the entire metal genre to even contend for its album of the year. As of now, that title belt is firmly around their waist, and it will take something truly remarkable to win it away from them.