When The New York Times writes an article on heavy metal centering around an obscure Chicago band; when the leading extreme metal magazine, Decibel, votes this band’s hardly extreme album the best of 2005; and when this band earns this recognition without a singer — you know that something’s going on.
Pelican is an instrumental quartet whose name you’ll hear much more of in coming years. Much as Mastodon’s Leviathan was the metal album that won over the indie set in 2004, Pelican’s The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw became the hip metal album of 2005. Ironically, this was probably because the album was not very metal. The band’s debut full-length, 2003’s Australasia, was very much metal, with curmudgeonly dark riffs in expansive songs sometimes topping ten minutes in length. But in early 2005, a two-track CD single, “March into the Sea”, presaged new directions for the band. The title track was a 20 minute epic that began with doomy, lumbering riffs that gave way 12 minutes in to acoustic guitar and piano textures. The second track was a remix of a song from Australasia by Justin Broadrick in his Jesu guise. Broadrick, of course, gained notoriety in the bleakly crushing Godflesh, but turned around in Jesu with more hopeful sonics, albeit in no less heavy settings.
It’s amazing what changing one note will do. Metal is full of minor chords, which are conventionally perceived as dark-sounding. But move the third in a minor chord up one note, and you get a major chord, which is traditionally perceived as happy-sounding. On an unamplified instrument, this may hold true. But when you add distortion, you get overtones that render chords much more complex. Bunnies hopping through fields become living, breathing creatures with dirt-matted fur and fear of predators. A major chord on a detuned guitar played through a massive Marshall stack is no less heavy for being major. When Broadrick in Jesu started playing major chords through major distortion, he didn’t go soft — he opened up his sound. Likewise, on Opeth’s Ghost Reveries, PopMatters’ pick for best metal album of 2005, singer/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt credits the album’s light/dark tension with experimenting with major chords.
The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw is full of not only un-metallic major chords, but also acoustic textures. In fact, the untitled fourth track is a straight-up acoustic number with delicate, folksy guitars. More importantly, the dirty guitar tones here aren’t very metal. Sure, there’s plenty of distortion, but no more than on, say, a Pearl Jam record. The tones bring to mind Creation-era shoegazer bands — “Red Ran Amber” runs under sheets of My Bloody Valentine-esque feedback en route to placid indie rock tones that yield to crashing waves of distortion. If M83 made metal, it might sound like this. “Aurora Borealis” features particularly winsome chromatic notes that recall Slanted and Enchanted-era Pavement. It’s a great day when a metal review can use the word “winsome”.
Notable here is the lack of palm-muting, the staccato guitar technique responsible for the chunka-chunka machine gun sound in much of metal. The one time palm-muting appears here, on “Autumn into Summer”, it’s loose, casual, more of a reference to metal than a vehicle of aggression. Thus, like most non-metal rock music, this album mainly operates though strummed chords and ringing notes. Vocals are perhaps what people find most off-putting about metal, and the lack of vocals here significantly lowers the testosterone level. In short, the absence of metal’s ugly qualities makes this album accessible. But it’s important to trace its lineage back to Black Sabbath, who set a precedent with acoustic and psychedelic textures on Vol. 4, and Neurosis, whose sound similarly opened up in recent years. Is Pelican indie, rock, or metal? Yes, yes, and yes.
This isn’t a perfect album, though. The songs have an appealingly creaky humanity, but at times the performances are quite loose. One guitar in “Last Day of Winter” is noticeably out of tune. While the long songs are experimental and trance-inducing, the songwriting itself is primitive, as the band simply moves from theme to theme without much in the way of transitions. Thus, this album is only the tip of the iceberg. Other bands, like Isis and Red Sparowes, are also mining this open-ended, atmospheric sound that uses metal as a point of departure, not a stylistic boundary. If you like Mogwai or Swervedriver, check out Pelican. From there, it’s not so far to Enslaved’s Isa and Jesu’s self-titled album, both of which should shatter popular prejudices about metal.