Instrumental rock bands engender a feverish devotion. Groups like Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor boast rabid fanbases yet get raked over the coals—much of the time by those same fans. But, perhaps none of the aforementioned groups have seen the kind of “Crossfire”-level handwringing as Chicago’s Pelican. Couple the group’s four-year hiatus with the fact that they often toe a line that dips into metal territory—another style that claims adherents quick to nitpick—and you’ve got a recipe for controversy. But, on Forever Becoming’s second track, Pelican seem to be issuing a gag order of sorts. Two minutes into “Deny the Absolute”, it’s apparent that the band is as heavy and anthemic as ever. Pelican can’t hear you above the din.
“Deny the Absolute” is a remarkable song with an even more striking center. It chugs along ominously and fiercely like something Colonel Kilgore might have selected to play after “Ride of the Valkyries”. It’s utterly thrilling, a testament to Pelican’s present unity. Oft-maligned drummer Larry Herweg keeps a tight beat, while his brother, Bryan, unleashes a thrusting bass assault. And, to reiterate, it is heavy: the kind of track that a baseball closer might be wise to adopt as entry music.
It’s the pinnacle of Forever Becoming, but the record has other worthwhile moments. “The Tundra” paces forward with a vigorous clip and ignites in its last minute. It’s further testimony that Pelican are at their best in synced-up moments. “Immutable Dusk” is more ruminative, splitting the difference between the sounds of Explosions in the Sky and, say, Isis or Neurosis. (Most of the song titles on Forever Becoming could be easily mistaken for lost Sylvia Plath poems or, at least, the wall scribblings of a Sarah Lawrence College sophomore. As a recent press release ponderously reports: “Forever Becoming is an immense, speaker-rattling meditation on the infinite cycle of death and life.”) “Dusk” is followed by another epic, “Threnody”, which adeptly explores the poles between quiet and noise.
Many instrumental bands exploit builds, and while Pelican do so with tact, you can be left wanting more variation and exploration. “Threnody” moves from tickled picking into a teamed-up crescendo. It’s a trip, the quartet—which includes guitarists Trevor de Brauw and Dallas Thomas—strumming as quickly as possible. Still, it’s all a bit familiar. Haven’t others plotted out this territory previously and more effectively? And, further, hasn’t Pelican? Certainly, a track like “Autumn Into Summer”, from 2005’s Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, uses its nearly 11 minutes to expertly showcase a raw and bold post-rock. The layered guitars on it (one of them is played by Laurent Schroeder-Lebec, who departed the band last year and was replaced by Swan King’s Thomas) converse and converge with each other in a way not found on Forever Becoming.
Pelican’s harder sound makes such earlier developments hazy. Yet, the band comes back to them awkwardly. The album’s closer, “Perpetual Dawn”, is a dead-ringer for a tune Mogwai would choose to cap an LP or show. But it’s that fact—that Mogwai or Godspeed or Explosions could be playing it—which is troubling. It’s an oversimplification to declare that a share of post-rock “sounds the same” but, sometimes, Pelican suffers from being too weighed down by its roots. That said, when Pelican rages—in a way they never have before—they prove they still have plenty of life left.