Throughout the course of their career, Pelican has drawn constant comparisons to doomsludge greats Isis, and rightfully so. The massive wall of sound, the crushing waves, the dynamic planes; these are all reasons that prompted Pelican’s signing to Isis lead guitarist Aaron Turner’s Hydra Head Records to release their acclaimed debut Australasia in 2003. But to write Pelican off as just another Neurosis-worshipping, Isis-copying bunch of toadies misses the point by an enormous degree, marginalizing a unique group with much more to offer than just good, old-fashioned meditative metal. If you’ll indulge in a more philosophical vantage, there is something in the essence of the Chicago quartet that sets them apart as a wholly unique sonic organism.
What is it? It’s not the loud/soft contrast that has come to define the genre; playing lingering, drifting notes that build into arching crescendos that leap into oppressively heavy riffs and power chords just isn’t that special anymore. But there is an intrinsic quality of pressurized sensation to Pelican’s music, a kind of menacing element that surges toward the listener and stops just before burying them, breaking off into a weirdly enveloping cocoon in the cacophony and chaos instead. It’s salvation just before the point of execution, both equally urgent in their purpose, and paradoxically offered by the same fretted axe.
Purposes, or intents, of course, are much more difficult to convey when there are no lyrics to bolster attention deficiencies and give a clear indication of aim. So bands like Pelican have only two chances to convey their thoughts: by the song’s title, and within the construct of the song itself. Take album starter “Glimmer”. It starts slowly, though weightily, before ascending into the next level of atmosphere like an inverted rockslide. The riffs are perilous, taking the listener quickly down into murky depths, but their counterpoints are uplifting, ultimately leading into a pensive bassline that somehow feels exactly like sunlight reflecting off water would look. “Ephemeral” is built around two dangerous riffs, the second more progressively shattering than the first, that don’t threaten so much as promise an untimely end. It is how I imagine suffocating in space as the air was ripped from your lungs would be like, but just before total darkness an unknown force pulls you upward to a mysterious cosmic haven where you can breathe again in the presence of something eternal.
Midway through the album it becomes clear that this isn’t just a haphazard collection of songs. No, this is a narrative experience told through the instruments, a story that focuses on the divine principles of life and death. It starts, as all things do, with a birth, then moves into Pelican’s take on a midlife crisis as seen through the celestial lens of “Strung Up from the Sky”, and falls to the earth “An Inch Above the Sand” from there. The synthesizers toward the conclusion of “What We All Come to Need” (over a riff that sounds eerily like something off the similarly ethereal Satellite Years by Hopesfall) offer an answer, though perhaps not one the listener might want. It hints at something supreme behind the opaqueness of life’s many questionable occurrences, but ultimately makes the choice discretionary. “Final Breath” is just that, introducing a surreal bit of vocal work that helps create the slipping away, the drifting off, the ascent or descent into one’s ultimate resting place, the chanted cadence of the words creating a hypnotic effect over the dreamlike collision of sound.
When it’s over, What We All Come to Need is as aphoristic about living as it is metaphoric about dying. It’s a musical version of Picasso’s Guernica where the instruments are the paintbrushes and your ears are the canvas. The contrast of light and dark is a constant theme from start to finish, and the duration of the experience is a complete journey across the ups and downs of humanity. Most of all, the album is a testament to life’s impermanence. As we rise, so too we fall, so make the most out of everything in between. What we’ve all come to need is balance and perspective before death, and Pelican provides that with perfect precision.