Instrumental warriors Pelican find stunning new life on fifth record ‘Forever Becoming’

PelicanChanges are a way of life in music and for bands, and the number is quite small for groups that begin and end with the same personnel and the same ideas. Hell, metal standard-bearers Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Metallica have made many changes to their lineups over the years, and they survive to this day, albeit not always as strongly as they began.

Ever since their formation in 2001, Chicago-based instrumental warriors Pelican have gone relatively unscathed, putting out some classic records that helped metal fans accept and champion a band sans vocals and help tons of other artists follow their lead and make this style not only accepted but popular. Their incredible 2003 debut “Australasia” pretty much is like the “Paranoid” and “Number of the Beast” of instrumental metal, and they continued to pave their path from there, gaining more followers and momentum. But then the inevitable changes struck. Longtime guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec stopped touring with the band and eventually announced his indefinite hiatus from Pelican, and their fans started to wonder if 2009’s “What We All Come to Need” would be their final breath.

Pelican coverLast year, those worries took some weird turns. The band released their very strong “Ataraxia/Taraxis” with Schroeder-Lebec on guitar, and then his departure was announced. But rumblings started to surface about a new, fifth album, and now we have the brand-new “Forever Becoming” ready to begin Pelican’s second phase as a band. Guitarist Trevor de Brauw, bassist Bryan Herweg, and drummer Larry Herweg (he of some of the most ridiculous criticism of all time, something I’ll never understand) reconvened to write the new record, and despite initial plans to carry on as a three-piece, instead invited new guitarist Dallas Thomas into the creative process. It was a big chance the band was taking, but one they seemed intent on enacting.

The new 50-minute, eight-track new album does sound different from the band’s back catalog. It’s not foreign territory by any means, and there are moments that sound like classic Pelican, but there’s a decidedly darker edge to some of these tracks. There’s more doom, a murky pall, and even some thick mud the band trudges through, and it turns out the shuffling had a positive effect on the band. In all honesty, “What We All Come to Need” wasn’t a bad record, but it lacked a little magic we’ve come to expect from Pelican, and that returns on this new album. Turns out the changes had a positive effect, and this is of their best efforts in years.

You feel the thick shadows from the start with opener “Terminal,” a simmering, hazy track that immediately alerts you to the doomy edges and solemnity that encompasses many of these tracks. It takes its time, it sets a mood, and it leads you into “Deny the Absolute,” a song with a much different tempo but one that sounds like it belongs right where it is in the sequencing. It bursts through the gates, with burly melodies, more aggression, and a great deal of crunch, and the charged-up riffs and morose trickling feel thick and chewy. “The Tundra” starts off menacing and thrashy, some of the heaviest stuff Pelican have done to date. The guitars are smeared and gritty, the melodies explore but also penetrate, and there are sections of pure sludge from the band that serve notice that they can break bones just as effectively as everyone else. The conclusion is just pure devastation. “Immutable Dusk” is one of the songs that treads closer to classic Pelican territory both in melody and mood. It’s a nice throwback as well as a reminder that while they may be sporting darker threads, they haven’t forgotten what’s gotten them here.

“Threnody” also has a more traditional feel, but it also has its pockets of spiked violence and chaos, as the guitars are especially dismal and cloudy. But the track also has some atmospheric moments where the storms subside and the sun shines ever so briefly. “The Cliff” is the shortest song of the bunch, with a potent post-punk feel and still some darkness, and that leads into “Vestiges,” a 7:15-long helping of aggression (the basslines are like thick steel coils) and thrashy goodness. Yet, like “Threnody,” the blitz is broken up by some brighter melodies that give the song intricate textures and plenty of personality. It’s a really enjoyable, rollicking listen, and it’s indicative of a lot of this new material that feels like it’s taking deep breaths of fresh air. The 9:27 closer “Perpetual Dawn” has a nice dose of sunburnt guitar and reflective melodies, letting you come down a little from what preceded it, and it has a vibrant soul and solid backbone that makes it a nice curtain dropper for the album. There is more post-punk magic, and halfway through, calm arrives, letting the song become downright gorgeous and melancholy, shimmering and sparkling, letting you take a breath and dream along with them. The tempo and volume slowly return, the band kicks into more energy and speed, and the song crescendos into the night, taking you along with it into the stars.

Change is never easy, and you don’t know what’s going to come from it, but it sure sounds like it was a shot in the arm for Pelican. “Forever Becoming” belongs alongside their trailblazing early work as one of their strongest records, and they sound like they’re hellbent on making this new chapter of Pelican’s run a fiery one. This band has crushing new life and potent intent, and I can’t wait to hear how these songs sound live and what comes next from the revitalized Pelican.

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