By: Dennis Cook
Slip in Pelican's new concert DVD, After The Ceiling Cracked (Hydra Head) and you'll find four youngish, unassuming guys in tees, plaid button-downs and jeans. A foreboding buzz starts, amps and instruments gurgling to life, and with a synchronized stomp they embark on a "March To The Sea." There's something geologically deep about their sound, which could be the soundtrack to The Big Bang or the scarring of prehistoric land by angry lava. Then, unexpectedly about four minutes in, their faces scrunched in concentration, the whole enterprise dives into a delicate, downright pretty passage that compliments and contrasts with the thunderous notes that precede it. Before long they return to their finely crafted Sturm und Drang, a strange descendent of the dual axe artistry in Thin Lizzy and the wordless storytelling of jazzbos like Jean Luc Ponty, Jaco Pastorius and contemporary rock kindred spirits Explosions In The Sky.
Neither wholly rock nor jazz, Pelican straddles the seeming chasm between these genres with strong legs and an even stronger sense of conviction. Instrumental music is at a natural disadvantage in conjuring specifics but Pelican's music thrives in personal interpretations. While titles like "Last Day of Winter" or "Aurora Borealis" are evocative they're also hugely ambiguous, leaving great space for both the musicians and listeners for find their footing in the shifting terrain they generate. So intricate are their albums that it's somewhat surprising that Pelican is able to pull off these thick tales live. Their stage presence is a nice mix of seriousness and happiness over pulling off these compositions in real time. While they might have brought in elaborate animations and other bells and whistles for Ceiling Cracked it's far more interesting from a music lover's perspective to see a pretty straightforward performance, luxuriating in their bow stroked electric guitar textures and voluminous low end, a majestic noise that's been generated by very human hands.
"We usually write the songs and then name them afterwards. It's not an afterthought but the music we need to go naturally with. The music always comes together first and then the rest comes later from the mood of the actual song. It makes more sense to pull a title out from the mood we've created organically," says drummer Bryan Herweg, one-fourth of the band with guitarists Trevor de Brauw and Laurent Lebec and Herweg's brother Larry on bass.
Pelican by Pedro Roque
Pelican immediately made a splash amongst both metal fans and Tortoise enthusiasts with their 2003 debut, Australasia. In a world of endless derivatives it was clearly something new and has gone on to become a touchstone for a growing subset of instrumental rock bands. The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw followed in 2005, and last year's stunning City of Echoes found their sound growing even more dense and collaborative.
"All of the song titles on City of Echoes were supposed to be based off of our touring experience, which really got started over the year long tour for Fire In Our Throats. It was a fresh start for us to stop working [day jobs] and go out on the road full time. 'Dead Between The Walls' was taken from a story about a meth head junkie they actually found in one of the clubs between the walls in the basement. He fell back there and it was weeks before they found him. It's kinda creepy," says Herweg. "The underlying idea on the record was how you go to these different cities and having them echo the same things. You see so much but at the same time you see the same things."
Being hard to pin down, elastic and lyric-less, has made Pelican a challenge for writers to capture in words. The description "instru-metal" has been coined around Pelican, who are none too fond of it. Their All Music bio begins, "The secretive instrumental art metal outfit..." though they are pretty warm guys.
"We are completely the most open, easy to get along with people. We take the band seriously. This is a day-to-day thing for us. Maybe it's the no-vocals things. I think we surprise some bands we go out with, too, if they don't know us. We went out with High On Fire and they couldn't believe we were drinking as much whiskey as they were," offers Herweg. "I always say we play instrumental rock, which covers a pretty broad perspective. We're too all over the place in our tastes to be stuck in any one genre. [The early albums] grew out of riffs Laurent was writing. Trevor, Larry and Laurent were playing in Tusk, and Laurent was writing stuff on guitar that didn't fit in. That's kind of how Pelican got started. He was listening to a lot of Godflesh and Goatsnake at the time, so it was a weird, unpremeditated mix of those things [laughs]. When we got to Fire In Our Throats all of our individual influences started to come in, and that only increased on City of Echoes."
A few comparisons, however, give them a kick.
"I like the ones that don't even make sense like Slint, which we've gotten a lot," says Herweg. "Earlier on Godflesh comparisons were flattering. At one point someone compared our show to My Bloody Valentine, which is awesome!"
For a band with such a highbrow reputation, Pelican swings pretty good. Despite the intrinsic complexities of their work, they know a groove when they encounter it, something abundantly clear in concert and on the new DVD.
"That's the most important thing about music for me. Not to be cheesy, but it's got to groove. A lot of pieces start really choppy and we find it after a time. I don't know exactly why it works but I like that mysterious part," Herweg says. "All four of us love playing live. That's why we do it. We write the songs so we can get out there and perform again. It's the best part of being in a band. It usually gets way more fun live. It tightens up and becomes much more of a blast. It's my favorite part. Debuting a new song is super exciting because I know how it will be a week later after we've played in front of audiences. It makes the song relax and a groove starts to happen more. That's my favorite point, where every night we're knocking it dead."
Pelican tour dates available here...
JamBase | Chicago
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