Mainstays of heavy post-rock, Pelican, have a new album out called “Forever Becoming”, and it is everything music should be and more. “Forever Becoming” is the band’s fifth full length album, and marks over a decade of blazing their own path with crushing riffs and organically flowing songs that cover enormous scopes of sonic territory. Normally we restrict our coverage at Backseat Sandbar to local music, but we’re extending our range here for Pelican for a few reasons: 1) I’m an unapologetic nerd for this band; 2) they’re incredibly influential, and Louisville has a good number of fantastic post-rock acts, so it bears mentioning that post-rock is a thing that we need to talk about from time to time; 3) I’ll explain later why this might be one of the most important albums of this loose genre of music, and worth listening to. Over and over and over again.
Victor Hugo once said, “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”. This holds particularly true of instrumental music, because the compositions themselves have to speak for the lack of a vocalist delivering lyrics. That’s never held Pelican back from saying a lot; and especially not now. “Forever Becoming” shows Pelican to be more focused and driving than ever, and also indulging more grooves and hooks in their still-riff-laden tracks. About half of the songs on this new album are much shorter than expected, compared to previous albums, but they still manage to bear the mass of some megalith constructed from guitars, bass, and drums.
Overall, “Forever Becoming” feels so much fuller, and yet still more nimble than some of their sludgier, more doom-oriented tracks on past endeavors. There’s also a noticeable lack of empty space here, which is something that took a while for me to notice. While this album is without a doubt a Pelican record, with all its trademark trimmings, it also shows that Pelican are taking risks and staking their claim over a much broader scope. It’s also a very refreshing album; hardly lingering very long in any one element, but also not moving so quickly as to be frantic or chaotic. Ever since their last EP, “Ataraxia/Taraxis”, Pelican sounds more focused, more structured (but not lacking in creative flexibility), more indulgent of a good hook. They’re also flexing their chops on a technical level with adventurous tones, and subtle nuances in instrumentation and composition.
The opener, “Terminal“, is short but straight to the point. This album is going to be really heavy. The first drum beat sounds like a thunderstorm is looming. And in a way, the rest of the album is that storm waiting to crack open. But for now, industrial-style tones and slow but steady beats draw in until clean, intricate guitars break away and the bass fuzzes along as the drums lighten up and syncopate more and more with the intricacy of the guitars. Enough space is left for a quick breath, then “Deny the Absolute” - which is a slightly heavier, more fleshed-out version on this album than on the 7-inch of the same name – bursts out. On first listen, this might be the fastest songs Pelican has done. It also has a decidedly more “metal” vibe to it with the effect treatments on the guitars; compositionally, it has surprising touches of post-hardcore that one might not expect. But it really works here. Clocking in at five and a half minutes, it still manages to cover a lot of ground even compared to Pelican’s other hits that are at least twice that in length. Like I said before, this is kind of the key to the “new” Pelican – coherent trajectories from start to finish. “The Tundra” follows with the heavy-soft-heavy, or loud-quiet-loud thing that we see in post-rock, but works a lot into it that a listener needs to chew on for a bit. It’s a good flow from the songs before and after it, but it also marks Pelican standing firmly and strongly in their Pelican-ness. What I mean here is that it has a kind of deconstructed, super-aggressive blues feel with a really moody desolation. It merits a revisit of “The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw” or earlier works. The song closes with a throw-back to their debut self-titled EP, circa 2001, with a slow and steady CHUD-CHUD-CHUD-BLEEK-BLEEK (that’s the technical term for it, at least). Following is the other single that was released as a teaser for this album, “Immutable Dusk“. This one has a sweet doom-laden groove that runs through about the first third of the song. This is one song I really can’t get enough of. The middle of the song breaks out into a weirdly dark, weirdly quiet, weirdly awesome stretch that has an almost jazzy feel to it. This is where I really noticed a lot of impressive subtle nuances that gradually build up, increasing a sort of tension until it all crashes down with a heavy collapse of riffage that closes out the song. Next, “Trenody” starts with this sort of haunting, light airy ambience that makes me think of Opeth (“Blackwater Park” era), which I guess kind of works because the word threnody means a hymn to the dead. This song is just gorgeous in its subtle complexity and slick technical tricks. Not to mention it just sounds cool the whole way through. The third song released as a teaser for the album, “The Cliff“, draws some lines from the sounds of “What We All Come to Need” without being repetitious. “Vestiges” has a rolling, cyclical rhythm from start to finish making it a solid jam. I’ve mostly managed to avoid fanciful imaginative imagery up to this point – you can read other blogs for mentions of vikings and dragons and such – but one of the cool things about instrumental music is that it can be so many things to so many people. A pretty slick BMX video was set to a Pelican song several years ago that really spoke to me as a former BMX rider. These images came to mind when I listened to “Vestiges”, except this time I’m an avid commuter cyclist and that steady cyclical flow makes me picture my favorite parts of a good long ride. Like what people talk about when they fondly refer to “highway-driving music”, except I don’t particularly enjoy highway driving, hence my warm fuzzies about cycling. The album closer, “Perpetual Dawn“, is an excellent synthesis of Pelican’s various stages over the years, as well as a step in a different direction, much like a summary of the album as a whole. It bears some of the stylistic markings of almost each of their past releases, which is a pretty cool feat.
This album has a great flow from start to finish. Each song chugs along its own path, and the sum of the parts comes together to form this massive thing that accumulates in scale. I know a lot of people who need vocals and lyrics in their music, and instrumental stuff is just maddening to them. I’m normally conscientious of these people’s needs if they’re ever around when I’m listening to music, but “Forever Becoming” is one of those albums that I’ll just have to say “shut up and listen”. Sometimes it’s the lack of words that says so much more. This album is one of those significant contributions to a body of work that has the potential to change the over body. Post-rock is such a nebulous genre that sometimes it’s not even worth using to describe a band’s sound. Post-rock songs tend to reflect this with a characteristic looseness in structure and pacing, often taking 15-plus minutes to wander all over a bunch of riffs and swells. Maybe the most important thing about “Forever Becoming”, and Pelican in general, is it’s departure from those characteristics. These songs manage to do what other post-rock songs can’t – they cover a lot of ground, but they don’t waste any time and they carve out a very clear path along the way.
It’s highly recommended that you track this down at one of this city’s fine independent record shops, but can also buy the album from iTunes, or physical formats at Blue Collar Distro.
How did I manage to blabber on without taking a stab at what’s behind all this? I don’t need to. Pelican guitarist, Trevor de Brauw, took the time to answer some interview questions. If you remember the last time he talked to Backseat Sandbar, he had a lot to say about what’s going on behind the scenes. Let’s see what Trevor has to say this time:
Last time I had a chance to interview you, we talked about what was going on with the band and what was behind the last EP, “Ataraxia/Taraxis”. What has changed, if anything, for the band since then?
The most notable change is that Laurent formally departed as a contributing member to the band. It marked a huge change for us as he was pretty much the most active writer in the band. It gave Bryan and myself an opportunity to really step up our contributions writing-wise and to work on a fresh partnership as a songwriting duo. I think these roadblocks and obstacles gave us an injection of energy that comes across in the new material.
Some of the reviews out there are pretty imaginative when describing what’s going in the music, but if it’s fair to ask what Pelican is trying to say, what are you all trying to say with the music?
I’d argue that all interpretations of the music are equally valid. We create the music as an expression of our internal emotional worlds, but without a specific message that’s being communicated. I believe that part of why our music resonates with people is that they can apply some of their own ideas and interpretations to the canvas; that they can see a reflection of their emotions in the music.
So, what’s behind the title of the album, “Forever Becoming”? Is there a continuing theme or philosophical direction that connects this album to “A/T” or “What We All Come to Need”?
The three you mention are continuous to the degree to which the themes covered all somewhat gravitate around adulthood and the realizations or struggles that accompany growing up. The new album is about coming to terms with mortality, starting from a perspective of trying to live in denial of it, but by the end of the album coming to accept the beauty of death’s place in the cycle of life and death. Even in death we are in a state of transition as our bodies decompose and become organic matter of the earth once more.
What do you attribute to the changes in Pelican’s sound over time? (Different inspirations? Life events? Band dynamic?) It seems like there’s a more noticeable stylistic shift on “Forever Becoming”.
There’s too many factors to try to pinpoint anything because every aspect of life is always shifting. I guess some bigger ones are that we are always growing as musicians, but also we are always evolving as people, which plays into the life events and interpersonal dynamics affecting things, as you suggest. With this album there was definitely that new energy that I alluded to earlier with regard to mine and Bryan’s new songwriting dynamic, but there was also a renewed energy overall. We’d taken a long hiatus from writing and there was this heightened sense of excitement in getting back into it – there was very little pressure and no real sense of having anything to prove, we were just writing for the sheer joy of getting together and playing. I think there was a point before our hiatus where we had begun to take the band for granted – the time off gave us perspective and gratitude for how lucky we are to have this creative outlet and we channeled all those feelings into the music we were making.
One of the immediate connections Pelican has to Louisville is an upcoming tour with Coliseum. Any other links the band or music shares with Louisville?
I grew up on Endpoint, Sunspring, Falling Forward, Slint - all that shit. Chicago’s hardcore scene was a little barebones in the early 90’s – Louisville had this exciting mystique because it was a nearby midwestern town, but it seemed like people had their shit together in a way that we hadn’t figured out in the “big city” as it were. Over time we got to be friends with Breather Resist/Young Widows and did many tours with them and are now tight with the Coliseum dudes as well.
Anything else you’d like to add, or say about other projects you’ve been working on? I know Teith came out with an album this year (which also rules)…
Thanks! Chord have recorded a new album and we’re just sussing out what to do with it now. I’m also booked to do a collaborative performance with Steven Hess at Utech festival in Milwaukee next month. I suppose if we click really well maybe we’ll try to record something. On top of those projects I’m slowly working on the same solo album that I’ve been recording since 2005 and my post-Teith band Let’s Pet has gotten more active lately. All of those things move slowly too, though, because I became a father 15 months ago, which is really my main project.