If Pelican didn't try playing the reinvention card, City of Echoes would sound like a solid effort from a great band.
By claiming reinvention, or drastic evolution, upon the release of a new album, a band can really hamstring themselves. Fair or not, it places a set of expectations on the listener that perhaps wouldn't be there otherwise. Sometimes the claim pays off, and the band has moved forward and improved, but often the drastic change card makes for a disappointing album not because the album is bad, but because it isn't "different" enough from previous material. Whatever that means.
And so it is with Pelican's new record, City of Echoes. Free of any pre-release claims, it is a solid, energetic and intricate record from a band that can play the hell out of some prog-post-whatever-you'd-call-it-metal. However, since the band insists this is a drastic new direction for them, and it doesn't really sound like that, the album feels more hemmed in and unoriginal than it actually is.
The biggest problem is that much of the "reinvention" hype is based on the album's most superficial element. City of Echoes has been tagged as both the band's "straight rock" record and its "pop" record. And while an argument can be made for the former (an argument that, consequently, works against the idea of evolution), the "pop" elements found on the record seem to imply that pop music is tame. Of course, the best pop music is, in one or another, decidedly not tame. But Pelican uses "pop" elements only as flat contrasts to their loud guitar attack. The opening of the title track sounds like some middling college rock before it busts into what Pelican does best. And while other songs are more successful at the fusion of metal with pop stylings, most notably the shoegaze-leaning "Spaceship Broken -- Parts Needed", mostly the "pop" on the record come off as an unnecessary beard.
The more concrete change on the record is concision. Only one song goes over seven minutes, and the chiseled-down sound works for them. These songs have a focus to them that makes them sound like there's more at stake on this record than previous Pelican albums. Where The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw was bigger and more sprawling, the 40 or so minutes of City of Echoes prefer to move away from the idea of space as tension to a more immediate impact.
And while the album might imply some strange ideas about pop music, it does dispel a common and misguided idea about metal as a whole. Pelican, like any good metal band, composes songs that are never as simple as they initially sound. They write intricate songs where instruments conflict as much as they come together. The guitar work of Laurent Schroeder-Lebec and Trevor de Brauw, which is as good as its ever been on City of Echoes, is full of as much bickering and counter-play as it is two simultaneous blasts. And it is that intricacy of composition and emotion that negates the idea that metal is always, and simply, about anger.
Metal is a music far too complex (when done right, of course) to be reduced in such a way. It is just as outrageous as saying pop music is simply about love, which of course it isn't. In either case, to make such a claim is to deny that things like love and anger, when used in art, are usually springboards into much deeper, much murkier questions. Pelican, and a good deal of other metal bands understand this, so while anger may be an element of metal, it is not what the genre is all about, and City of Echoes is no exception.
What the album could use, however, is maybe an amping-up of the metal. For all its tries at different sounds, and this ill-fated "pop" notion, the non-metal parts sound more often than not like metal that is trying not to be metal. The acoustic-driven "Winds with Hands" sounds like a demo of some ass-kicking prog-metal to be recorded later. And in the quiet closer "A Delicate Sense of Balance", the ham-handed drumming belies the band's encoded penchant for rocking hard.
Pelican is a solid band, and >City of Echoes is an energetic and exciting record when the band isn't trying to sound like something it isn't. Innovation is not a bad thing, but neither is playing to your strengths.