For nearly 20 years post-metal outfit Pelican has been brewing riffs, solos, and fuzzed-vibes almost entirely sans-vocals. Fusing elements of doom, stoner, black, and other beloved subsets of metal, the quartet exploits the freedom of not being bound by lyrical themes or narratives. With evocative cover art and an expressive, albeit crunching, musical aesthetic Pelican can shroud their sound in mystery. Nighttime Stories, their first proper release in six years, discloses the band’s matured take on the nuances and possibilities of instrumental metal.
The gloom and reserve of opening track “WST” acts as a prelude to the chaos and energy to come. A moody guitar riff is double-tracked with distorted and acoustic guitars, conveying both rage and tenderness in the same musical sphere. Inspired in part by the passing of guitarist Dallas Thomas’ father, it’s steeped in introspection and dread. Lead single “Midnight and Mescaline” is an energized rocker, fuzzed-out, frenzied, and raw. Guitars are laced with a buzzsaw distortion typical of stoner rock fare, but with shifting time signatures and relentless energy, it offers no mellow respite in tempo or drive.
Working without a vocalist forces Pelican to think creatively about their song structures. Writing and recording without a singer/screamer exposes just how good–or bad–the guitar, bass, and drums really are. Anyone can hammer out a repetitive guitar riff and a 4/4 drum beat, but not everyone can make it as hypnotic as the material on Nighttime Stories. Take “Cold Hope”, a gravel-laden affair akin to Crowbar, Eyehategod, and the rest of the New Orleans doom and sludge sound. Pelican hammer out the main guitar riff with tightness and conviction so intense you can almost feel the heat coming off the amps. Punctuated by moaning string bends and momentary countermelodies, its a track build on the creativity found when there’s no singer to hide behind.
The most striking thing about Pelican is their ability to flow from one metal subset to another unencumbered by any lyrical hangups. Flirting with space rock, “It Stared at Me” is a mid-tempo tune that builds on clean guitars and glissandi melodies. It’s a track that doesn’t feel at all out of place next to the rage of “Midnight and Mescaline”. Likewise, “Abyssal Plain” treads between alternative rock grooves with blast beats straight out of black metal without feeling forced or unnecessary. Working for nearly 20 years in an instrumental context helped build Pelican into a tight, intelligent band free of any genre-specific hangups.
For better or worse, the distortion and chugging power chords throughout Nighttime Stories are reliable. The title track is a growling and psychedelic take on doom metal motifs that doesn’t exceed beyond tried and true heavy riffs and glaring harmonics. Pelican knows how to deliver the goods and the grooves, but for a band nearly two decades in their career one would hope to hear boundaries stretched a bit more. Every track is a banger, no question about it, but with their track record it’s not unfounded to anticipate Pelican can afford to get more ambitious, maybe even a little weird with their sound.
Nonetheless, Nighttime Stories is a solid record from a unique band. Heavy metal is a genre born on riffs, and Pelican has those in spades. Purely instrumental records may be difficult to pull off, but Pelican has more than enough brains and brawn to show how well it can be done.