City of Echoes
n 2005, Pelican rocketed into many Top 10 metal lists by being not very metal. The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw had a creaky rhythm section, pastoral acoustic guitars, major keys—metal as indie rock. The band's lack of vocals helped its popularity ("so much better without all that growling!"). So did a breathless New York Times article that placed them at the forefront of so-called "art-metal." Pelican's loooong songs slotted in nicely with those of Isis and Neurosis, and the thick-rimmed glasses metal revolution was on.
Hipsters would have had more difficulty (and metalheads less) with the band's first full-length, Australasia. Considerably more curmudgeonly than The Fire, it suggested Black Sabbath forced to jam sans Ozzy. With thick, downtuned riffs, heaviness and drone dominated, as the band hadn't yet developed its signature cross-cutting guitars.
To an extent, that heaviness remains on City of Echoes, thanks to a phenomenal recording by Andrew Schneider at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio. Drums punch with clarity, guitars sizzle with size, and the bass tone is to die for. Overly hot mastering makes for a fatiguing listen, but the solution is simple—turn it down. Not very metal, but perhaps appropriate.
The main change is shorter songs. Pelican tired of playing 10-minute epics live, so only the title track here exceeds seven minutes. The results are mixed. On one hand, the songs are more "focused" in that they afford less time for attention to wander. On the other hand, they've lost the potential for transcendence. Pelican has never been transcendent, but its longer songs hinted at the possibility. The hindrance has been songwriting consisting mainly of stringing riffs together. For sure, the riffs are often great, but the dynamics in Pelican songs have come from playing rather than songwriting. Start soft, then get louder and louder—ascension through brute force.
City of Echoes often operates this way, but a few transitions here and there help patch riffs together. Still, the highlights are discrete. "Lost in the Headlights" has a lovely tapestry of clean guitars; the smooth tones of the title track recall early Cure. "Dead Between the Walls" mixes satisfyingly metal riffs with surprisingly eerie jangles. Dissonance is not Pelican's strong suit; while "prettiness" contributes to its appeal, the band sometimes feels like it's treading major key water.
Pelican's rhythm section is both its weakness and strength. No other band would support such heavy tones with such a fragile foundation. Drummer Larry Herweg plays for the crushing Lair of the Minotaur and grindcore outfit Tusk, so he certainly has the chops to play with "strength." Thus, playing so wobbily must be a conscious decision. It doesn't work with Pelican's metallic side, as riffs machine-gun emptily without percussive backup. But when the band quiets down, the drumming feels vulnerable and human. This is so not metal, but it helps make Pelican one of the more interesting "metal" bands today.