Forever Becoming is an apt title for the Chicago-based post-metal outfit Pelican, who despite significant name recognition and years of experience is still struggling to come to its own.
Ataraxia/Taraxis, Pelican’s four-song 2012 EP, at the time provided a glimpse of foreshadowing that was absolutely necessary following the flatline mood of What We All Come to Need, the band’s last studio album. Along with incorporating acoustic elements that had been a long overlooked strong point within its style, the EP did what What We All Come to Need unsuccessfully tried to do: amp up the mood. As I wrote in my review of Ataraxia/Taraxis, the move to the Southern Lord label was one that made all the sense in the world when it was first announced. Pelican wowed the metal world in 2005 by hopping to the top of Decibel’s end-of-the-year list with its excellent The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, but even with solid follow-ups like City of Echoes, it was evident all along that the group’s already expansive style (see: Fire in Our Throats’ three ten-plus minute behemoths) could use some enhancement. Southern Lord, well known for delivering on all fronts with respects to sub-bass heaviness and guttural grind and d-beat, seemed like the ideal new channel for new exploration.
The first final product of this union, What We All Come to Need, is not, however, the jolt that many might have expected. Where it beefs up the sound it also flattens it; “The Creeper”, featuring Sunn 0)))’s Greg Anderson on guitar, has mighty riffage abound, but all of the other instruments around the guitars do little else than prop them up. “Post” bands of any kind face a difficulty that’s become one of the defining crises surrounding Pelican’s sound: Given that post-rock and post-metal’s roots are in pop-oriented verse/chorus song, how does an instrumental band play off those structures without vocals, which are an integral part of them? If a musician doesn’t do a good job in elevating an instrumental of this type through sophisticated arrangements, what usually ends up happening is the creation of a glorified backing track, where the music begs for vocals to be at the top of the mix. “The Creeper”, along with most of What We All Come to Need, is victim to this trap. Simultaneously intensified in mood and streamlined in structure, the album is only superficially heavy; in every other respect, it’s a step back from Fire in Our Throats and City of Echoes. Ataraxia/Taraxis quickly reverted this trend, offering up songs like the two halves of the title track, where mood and atmosphere are just as important as displaying a powerful riff.
Forever Becoming, Pelican’s newest studio offering since What We All Come to Need, unfortunately, does not stick to that trend—entirely. The best moments on the record capture what signing to Southern Lord indicated the band would do. The last minute of the mammoth album highlight “The Tundra” is the heaviest Pelican has ever sounded, and it’s absolutely crushing—in the greatest possible sense of the word—to hear. Most importantly, the heaviness doesn’t just come from the riff itself, which is quite satisfying, but from the group’s willingness to let dissonance and feedback into the mix. Each strum of the guitar feels like a gut-punch of icy winter wind—an apt way to live up to the track’s name. Opener “Terminal” juxtaposes guitar lines reminiscent of Isis with some stupendous drumming by Larry Herweg, and, appropriately, it’s the atmosphere that lingers in the mind by the time it’s done. Pelican may at times indulge in the prettier kinds of post-rock that draw indie kids and people who love Friday Night Lights, but few would deny Pelican’s “heavy” credentials.
The bulk of Forever Becoming, however, continually tries to reassert those credentials riff after riff without doing much in the mood department, in doing so falling to the same folly that What We All Come to Need is victim to. A great deal of these tracks, once they get into their groove, are content to get stuck in it, which is a big problem considering how the chord progressions they’re using don’t feel like something that should be in the front of the mix. They instead feel like backing for a missing vocal line. Far from “post-metal”, Forever Becoming is instead the sound of a band trying especially hard to push past the basic formulas of rock music itself without ever overcoming its fundamental aspects. The ear of the modern “average person on the street” is, for better or worse, attuned to the rhythms and structures of pop music. This is of course not to say that all bands must obey the dictates of that style, but it is to say that one can’t, so to speak, play the game and expect to skirt past the rules. Pelican is, if this album is any indication, a pre-post-metal outfit, one that’s continually pushing itself only to find it’s still a few steps behind. At this point in time, Pelican really is Forever Becoming.