Complete with dense forests of heavy electric guitars
The term post-rock came about to describe the influx of bands in the ’90s that could be categorically defined as rock, but drew more inspiration from non-rock styles (i.e., electronic and minimalist classical) and experimental music that moved far beyond rock and roll’s original intentions (kraut-rock, math-rock, prog-rock, etc.). The style was centered in Chicago and that city’s vaunted (and sometimes maligned) record labels like Drag City, Thrill Jockey and Kranky and post-rock protagonist Jim O’Rourke. In a parallel experimental universe, metal and punk music were changing. Groups like Neurosis and Sleep were altering the mindset of the head-banging crowd by making a thinking-man’s breed of doom metal, which was often labeled stoner rock.
Post-rock + metal = Pelican
At the culmination of this musical history lesson is Pelican, which come to us from Chicago. Often described as an epic musical group, the completely instrumental band develops huge crescendos with dense forests of heavy electric guitars. There is also a delicate touch within the heart of Pelican’s sound: Odd time signatures, brighter, moodier melodies, a sense of dreaminess and a willingness to break certain rules of metal (i.e., using pianos, musical saws and acoustic guitars) set the group apart. The band is like the Sigur Ros of the metal genre, geared more towards the contemplative and brooding set of ears.
The band was formed shortly after the turn of the century by guitarists Trevor de Brauw and Laurent Lebec, with sibling bass and drum combo Larry and Bryan Herweg. The band handmade copies of its self-titled debut EP in 2002, an album recorded for $400, and spent the next year honing its craft and playing a handful of shows.
The second Pelican show turned out to be its most important, a gig it opened for the like-minded and prominent group Isis.
Isis was formed by Aaron Turner, a kingpin in the metal world, who was just starting his own label called Hydra Head. Turner eventually signed Pelican, and both bands and the label have gone on to produce some of the most influential and original music of the decade. Much like John Fahey’s Takoma label seemed to produce and define its own genre and scene in the ’60s, Hydra Head is home to almost all of metal’s finest and most innovative artists. Besides Pelican and Isis, the label has released the works of Jesu, Boris, Merzbow, Daughters, Cave In and Oxbow.
Following the re-release of the Pelican EP by Hydra Head, the band released its first proper LP in 2004, Australasia. The title spoke of a spooky netherworld, a perfect place to introduce the unique and spatial sound it represented. The album was a trance-inducing experience to listen to, mammoth-sized guitars seemed to lap like waves on top of more gentle moments. It cruises along at a cautious pace in six musical movements that, taken as a whole, felt like watching the slow drifting of continents and hearing the slow cracks of the tectonic plates.
Australasia’s genre kinesis spoke to a wide range of people. The band attracted a diverse fan base, pulling (mainly dudes) from the crowds of indie-rock hipsters, old metal heads and experimental music junkies. The common denominator is that Pelican can input imagery into the listener’s head in brilliant and overpowering ways. Entering this music can be like entering a swamp; there are no lyrics, no singing and the music is loud, obfuscating and complex. There is nothing familiar to hang on to, but there is an undeniable hypnotic voodoo in it.
By the time Pelican’s second full-length album, the imaginatively titled The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, in 2005, the band had further complicated its sound by introducing alternative guitar tunings and acoustic guitars.