The Quicksand of Existing: Pallbearer, Mountain Caller and the ghosts of memory

Posted by Knotfest in Culture on December 15, 2020

With two momentous new albums, Pallbearer and Mountain Caller have crafted thrilling interpretations of doom metal. But perhaps their greatest achievement is turning the despair and hopelessness of the genre on its head.

All things must pass. It is a tale as old as time itself. It is also ‘an incontrovertible truth of life’, says Brett Campbell, singer and guitarist with Pallbearer: ‘Time washes things away – all things. All human endeavour, great or small, will be washed away by time. There’s nothing you can change about that.’

Campbell’s message is fatalistic, if you want to see if that way – but it also contains hope. On Pallbearer’s new album, Forgotten Days, the centrepiece is the 12-minute-plus ‘Silver Wings’. Slow, crushing and grand, it is quintessential Pallbearer – harking back to their 2012 debut, Sorrow and Extinction. The silver wings of the song’s title belong to some ghostly vulture, circling over ‘bones of crippled behemoths’. Huge, dominant beings are reduced to relics of the past, and the song is an allegory of the passing of time itself, where ‘the greatest of triumphs’ are like sand ‘washed into the infinite sea.’

‘Silver Wings’ has strong echoes of ‘Ozymandias’ by the Romantic poet Shelley. In the poem, a traveller reports of ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’. These are the remnants of a statue of a tyrannical king called Ozymandias, once imperious but now a ‘colossal Wreck’. From this larger-than-life ruin ‘The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ ‘Silver Wings’ and ‘Ozymandias’ testify to what Campbell calls ‘the ephemerality of all things’. Tyrants fall, but also loved ones die.

Forgotten Days is about loss. It has been ten years since the death of bassist Joseph Rowland’s mother. The album finds Rowland grappling with the repercussions of that trauma: ‘Now is the time to sit down and begin to understand who I have become,’ he is quoted in the album’s press notes. For Campbell, it is also about the loss of identity: the forgotten days that come with the onset of Alzheimer’s, which his maternal grandmother has been struggling with. As he told me, ‘losing those touchstones that create your identity, your memories and your relationships. It’s a pretty horrifying thing that lots of people go through.’

The title track opens the album in emphatic, punishing fashion, with one of the heaviest and catchiest riffs the band has written. The ‘dark clouds’ that encroach on the narrator’s consciousness destabilise any trust they have in those around them, and, worst of all, in themselves. The song, like most of Pallbearer’s music, is inherently sorrowful, but it is also angry. It rages against the encroaching fog. Campbell says he was ‘trying to convey the chaos and terror of the realisation that you’re losing yourself’.

The song is inspired by his grandmother’s deterioration, but it is also about how personality changes. It concerns the experience of reflecting on former versions of yourself; what has changed and what has been lost for good. The song’s video stages this in space, with a protagonist haunted by doppelgängers of himself and his partner, nightmarish visions and ink-like clouds blooming outside the spacecraft’s windows.

The video was influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, where a psychologist called Kris Kelvin travels to a space station which is observing the ocean planet called Solaris. The planet is reported to be triggering hallucinations and madness in the crew. Soon after his arrival, Kelvin is haunted by the lifelike appearance of his dead wife, a physical materialisation of his conception of her while she was alive. One of the crew tells Kelvin he thinks the planet is extracting ‘islands of memory’ from them. This is also a medical term used for when head injury patients start to recover some memory after a traumatic event.

Space is a theatre for oblivion in doom metal. There, protagonists rush headlong into ‘constellations of despair’, as Pallbearer put it in the song ‘Riverbed’. This only tells some of the story, because it is clear in the video for Forgotten Days that space, and the doom metal genre, are as much about hope and recovery: to be reconciled with yourself and to confront death – in order to live.

Another band, London’s Mountain Caller, have released an album called Chronicle I: The Truthseeker. It begins with a protagonist who wakes up amongst rubble in a world that is not ours. The album goes on to tell the story of how she ventures through a desert, comes to a mysterious city hewn from canyon walls, and then encounters a tribe who are more friend than foe. They capture her. She is imprisoned and made to battle a great beast in an arena like the Roman Colosseum. This is all part of the recovery of her identity. As guitarist Claire Simson put it to me: ‘while all this is happening she’s starting to remember who she is and finds her voice and realises the power she has.’ The twist is that this story is told almost entirely through instrumental songs.

I had a particularly memorable experience listening to the Mountain Caller album on the evening of 5th November, known as Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, when we celebrate a foiled attempt to blow up parliament in 1605 with fireworks and bonfires. It was a cloudless night and as I reached an open field with the song ‘I Remember Everything’ playing, it seemed like the sinuous, off- balance guitar and basslines were tracing delicate patterns between the stars and silhouetted branches of the oak trees. The song surged with a more ferocious power just as a military helicopter suddenly emerged from the darkness, lit up like a spaceship.

This moment of revelation was apt. As Simson explains, this is a turning point in the album: ‘If you look at the track names, you get to “I Remember Everything”, which is in the first person for the first time, because that’s when she’s starting to remember, and her consciousness is starting to come back to her. Until then she’s just walking around trying to remember – everything’s a bit of a fuzz and a bit of a daze.’

Mountain Caller’s songs were carefully crafted by the three-piece band: sometimes the story led the music and at other times the music led the story. Their philosophy is that ‘nothing is too anything’ when it comes to songwriting. The moment a human voice does emerge is during a breakthrough in ‘A Clamour of Limbs’, a song that buffets and cajoles, with a lumbering main riff not unlike ‘Samarithan’ by doom legends Candlemass. After a few false breaks in the music, a tranquility breaks out and a voice chants, ‘These things you said will trouble me always’, before the song is consumed in the tumult again.

This awakening to consciousness is also about telling a different kind of story in a new way. As Simson explains, Mountain Caller’s protagonist is not clearly described: ‘We haven’t given her any ethnicity or a name, and in our designs [by artist Hannah Templer] we purposefully hide her face because we want women to be able to see themselves in her. I think there are a lot of stories untold, especially from women, so it was very important for us to have this empowering protagonist – despite all the trials and tribulations she goes through – finding her power and finding her voice.’

Conceived as the first of a trilogy of albums, on Chronicle I: The Truthseeker, Mountain Caller are exploring metal’s interplanetary hinterlands. An alternative to cosmic rage and self-annihilation, Simson sees it as ‘the other side of the coin to where it’s nihilistic and doomy. We wanted this to be an empowering and positive story told from the perspective of the woman.’

In January this year, Richard Stanley’s film Color Out of Space was released – it is a beautiful and simultaneously grotesque vision of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous stories. Starring Nic Cage, it concerns a family on a farm in a rural location near the fictional town of Arkham, part of what is widely known as fictional ‘Lovecraft Country’ (a distortion of New England). One night a meteorite impacts their front yard – with catastrophic results. Over the following days, their farm is overrun with a blooming purpley-pink fluorescence, which seems to irradiate and contaminate the environment. At first it is rather alien and wonderful, but soon the film descends into outright body horror.

Lovecraft’s writing takes a dismal view of the human race. People are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, presided over by monstrous, unfeeling Elder Gods. But for Stanley, as he told the Bloody Disgusting website, Lovecraft was ‘a sort of negative father figure who’s been looking over my shoulder since I was about seven.’ The writer was beloved of Stanley’s mother; an unusual source of comfort and connection while she was suffering from cancer, says Stanley: ‘HPL is my mom’s favorite writer. She read me his stuff when I was a child. Then my mom died of cancer very slowly over a period of 10 years. During which time, I read most of Lovecraft’s material back to her and got to see firsthand how different parts of her personality shut down as she mutated and died.’

That mutation of the human body is rendered in horrifying scenes towards the end of Color Out of Space. It is the proximity to the emotional reality of the family’s destruction, rather than the allegorical distance of science fiction, which makes it so affecting. Losing your physical and mental faculties might be the greatest horror of all, and one which science fiction films and heavy music makes it easier to deal with. As Campbell says of his grandmother’s dementia: ‘They don’t recognise anything. In a lot of cases people don’t remember the modern world. They’ll end up living out moments throughout their lives. It’s such a strange thing. To me, I can’t experience it from her perspective, but it seems to me it would be quite terrifying.’

As their name makes perfectly clear, Pallbearer are determined to carry their listeners to confront their mortality. The last song on Forgotten Days ispage4image3681248‘Caledonia’. When I ask Campbell if Scotland has a significance to them, he reveals it is actually the cemetery where Rowland’s mother is buried: a place where, Campbell sings, ‘I could hardly muster a goodbye.’

For Campbell, this reckoning with our deaths is the way to unlock the secrets of what life has to offer: ‘So much of art and so much of the human experience is focused around this concept of either trying to flee death, or accept death. A lot of people don’t want to think about it, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the inherent finite nature of life. And I think that once you can come to terms with it, its finite nature, it kind of spurs you to do more. It makes every moment a bit more precious.’

When I first saw Pallbearer live it was supporting YOB at the Camden Underworld in London in 2014. Pallbearer were touring their second album, Foundations of Burden, and YOB had just released Clearing The Path To Ascend. Pallbearer were the buzz band that night, it was their first proper European tour, and a portion of the audience left after their set. Their loss, because YOB were magnificent – they played their new album in full and bookended it with other highlights from their catalogue. What struck me about both bands was how spiritual their titanic heaviness seemed to be – a type of soul music rooted in thundering expression. It shares the same sorrow and emotional resonance as any of the great traditional soul musicians, albeit sounding completely different.

Campbell is surprised when I ask him if doom metal is soul music. But he understands why I might ask the question: ‘Our music is a very honest expression of who we are. Lyrically it’s a pretty direct representation of our concerns as people. And musically I think that we have a language amongst the four of us that is very natural.’

Though it can often sound like the end of the world, Pallbearer and Mountain Caller tell stories in their music about recovering something easily lost in the torrent of existence: our sense of ourselves. On ‘The Quicksand of Existing’, Campbell sings of being sunk into the ground, willing on a katabasis – a descent into the underworld. It is an unusually depressive sentiment on Forgotten Days – to be enveloped by the ground. But since they have made it clear that sand is there to be washed away, the overriding message is that time will retrieve us from our woes.

words by Dan Franklin


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