With this EP, Pelican don’t seem to understand that promised tension that never delivers can be as frustrating as tension that never finds release.
Pelican could have done a bit better when picking their namesake. Any poetic connection between beauty and flight poets love to espouse is forever severed the first time you witness the image of the comically pouch-billed and rumpled, poop-brown mess that is a pelican flapping to a splash in the murky waters of the bayou. Even mid-flight they’re much too big to pass for graceful, looking always as if they’re about to come down in a crash. They are the exact opposite of everything that Pelican, with their ethereal and yearning brand of post-rock, strives to be.
At least they have one thing in common, though: both will fly when thrown off of a cliff -- at least if Pelican’s latest EP, The Cliff, is anything to go by. Alright, it’s a cheap joke, I’ll admit, but the fact is that this latest release does a fine job of soaring: it's made up of the eponymous track (a cut from the group's previous album, Forever Becoming), two remixes thereof, and "The Wait", a song left on the cutting room floor from that album. Unlike a certain bird, Pelican defy gravitational laws. They just keep rising and rising and rising until they leave the stratosphere, until they leave the exosphere, and indeed until it leaves Earth’s atmosphere altogether, until they’re floating so far out in space that they have no point reference to refer to and no propulsive force by which to return.
It’s not that Pelican’s brand of post-rock is indulgent. There are no excessive guitar solos or needless and interminable drum-fills. Even the longest of the songs, at nine minutes, never feels bloated. In many ways, it’s even modest: Allen Epley’s groaning croon stays in reserved, never battling with the instruments; no single element goes off on a tear. Instead they all buoy each other up. It's a very pleasant kind of background noise.
But it's also never compelling. There needs to be an anchor to ground this all before it floats away, an element here that contrasts distinctly with all of that melodious smooth rock and gives the ear an interplay to draw attention. There are lyrics, yes, and the novelty of hearing them in a Pelican song might provide a kind of weight, but it's a light one indeed: generica like “Baby, you’re fighting destiny / I’m getting close you know" generates about as much force as a spit.
Justin Broadrick attempts to remedy this with an alternate take that drops the vocals, allows more time for build, and emphasizes the drums and guitars. And if he didn’t cloak it all in an airy filter that puts the entire song at a remove, it might have worked. But he does, and then because he seems to think that the only way to counteract this is to introduce a number of cheap sounding mechanical whirrs and whizzes and grinds, he overburdens the song. There’s a clearer vision to Aaron Harris and Bryant Meyer’s mix, one that emphasizes driving sounds and intensifies the drums while back grounding the vocals for textured effect that is too sadly undercut by a closing which emphasizes a menace that was completely lacking (and rightly so) in the original song. It’s a contrast so marked, a tonal detour so baffling, that it goes right beyond providing contrast to sabotaging all prior efforts.
Only with “The Wait” does Pelican seem to provide that blessed moment of real tension when, at the halfway mark, they build for a moment, stop, seem to recant, only to then build again. This time, they build to an explosion that opens the rest of the song. However, it doesn’t explode with much force at all: the song unfolds from here, but slowly and by layers, ultimately to no great end. If it had worked to a fade out, the effect might have worked, and it might have given a sense that the song was traveling farther and farther beyond the listener’s reach. But the song instead cuts off without any kind of decorum.
By refusing to introduce any real tension, Pelican may fancy that they’re making music with a cosmic sweep, one that seems to elevate above the petty concerns or more earth-bound, conflicted rock groups. But it also seems as if they’re scared to introduce any tension for the fear that it will never be released. Unfortunately, Pelican don’t seem to understand that promised tension that never delivers can be as frustrating as tension that never finds release, or that there’s as much danger in drifting aimlessly as there is in crashing. They and their collaborators on The Cliff EP seem to forget that even a bird as ungainly in flight and piss-poor at landing as the pelican has carved out an evolutionary niche all its own.