Pelican: After the Ceiling Cracked [DVD]

Hydra Head

Pelican’s third album, City of Echoes, was a somewhat drab affair. While by no means a bad album, per se, it presented an almost watered-down version of Pelican’s sound, largely lacking in the perfect moments of synchronised grandeur, beauty and brutality that made the Chicago quartet seem hitherto so vital. It may not be an intentional one, but After the Ceiling Cracked, which for the first times translates the renowned Pelican live experience into a cinematic one, is a both reaffirmation (via contrast) of that third opus’s deficiencies and, more importantly, a reminder of the qualities that raised the bar for them in the first place. Made up largely of live material from Pelican’s two earlier albums, After the Ceiling Cracked is an exposition of the vitality in which City of Echoes was generally lacking.

The main course here is a full live show from back in December 2005, at London’s Kings Cross Scala venue, while the trimmings are concocted primarily of various live footage collected from 2003 onwards. The focus is very much on the music, rather than the people who make it. It’s an obvious clich√© but, as you would expect from a band like Pelican, the music does the talking. The Kings Cross show, for example, is unashamedly ‘no frills’, and is all the better for it. In the absence of any ostentatious camerawork or gimmickry, centre stage is simply occupied by four young men, enrobed in blue light, veering from entranced concentration to wild abandon to the ebb and flow of their compositions.

It’s especially captivating to see such cerebral people caught up in the moment, as they are throughout. Eyes are closed, heads are flung with scant regard for the grey matter within, and you get the sense that nothing — absolutely nothing — matters to Pelican at that moment, bar wringing every last drop of noise from their instruments. Several times — like when “March into the Sea” begins to free the restraints of its ambient respite and pick up the pace once more, or “Sirius” grows ever more chaotic towards its conclusion — the spine tingles. It’s not hard to see why this show has garnered a reputation.

But while the band members’ visible catharsis is entrancing, the Scala show is perhaps most interesting from the point of view of a musician, or at least someone with an active interest in the creation and execution of compositions. For After the Ceiling Cracked‘s focused camerawork highlights the intricacies of Pelican’s music, from well-trained hands constructing complex riffs right down to the footwork that coaxes out glassy shards of delicate noise via “pedal wankery”, as the band themselves term it. It certainly makes for more interesting viewing than the shots of row upon row of hairy head-banging presented by many rock DVDs.

As for the ‘extras’, if you want to call them that (for they make up over half of As the Ceiling Cracked); these are generally of high quality, too. The interview with Laurent Lebec and Larry Herweg is mildly diverting, though hardly deeply insightful and is marred by a poor sound that leaves you strained to hear each word. But this is the only real disappointment. After the Ceiling Cracked is a disc quite evidently made simply for lovers of Pelican’s music, and so that’s what it provides, by the truckload. With live footage spanning all of Pelican’s three albums, and their self-titled debut EP, it is nothing if not broad-ranging.

Of particular interest, Scala set aside, is the gleefully sinister video accompanying “Autumn Into Summer” and footage from 2003 of a performance of “Forecast For Today” and “The Woods”, two tracks from the early self-titled debut. As you might expect, the sound is a little murky here, but the compensatory intrigue of seeing Pelican’s earlier material fleshed out live (especially when placed alongside their more matured material as it is here) makes them a worthy inclusion, particularly for the (presumably many, given the contrast in attendance with the Scala show) people who missed out on their early years.

Also included is a wealth of images spanning tours and recording sessions, but these are really just the icing on the cake. The real draw here was always going to be the live footage, and the Scala show in particular. And, given the quality of that particular set, After the Ceiling Cracked was always onto a winner. That said, the disc is lovingly crafted, and capably walks the line between providing fans with a wealth of material and refraining from including grainy old footage that really should have remaining gathering dust in the archives. If City of Echoes frustrated you, After the Ceiling Cracked might just remind you of what made Pelican so special in the first place.

RATING 8 / 10