If the question is, “What are Pelican doing on their new four-song Ataraxia/Taraxis EP?” then the answer is, “Whatever the hell they feel like.” The Chicago instrumental foursome, now marking more than a decade of existence, have successfully interwoven post-rock atmospherics into doomed guitar crunch, and over the course of their career, helped set the stage for what we now think of as post-metal while never quite conforming wholly to the aspects of that or any other genre. Ataraxia/Taraxis finds its release through Southern Lord, and like the band’s label-debut full-length, What We all Come to Need (review here), did in 2009, the latest studio outing seems to be bent on keeping the band’s urban escapist atmospheres alive while measuring them against noisy tonal heft. It’s interesting that the title, which comes from the opening and closing tracks, respectively, would refer to first a state in which anxiety is absent, and then to the opposite – one in which it’s very much present. One might expect that to coincide sonically, the four tracks of Ataraxia/Taraxis – those being “Ataraxia,” “Lathe Biosas,” “Parasite Colony” and “Taraxis” – would also get progressively heavier or more frantic, as we move from one state to the next, but that doesn’t seem to really be the case. Although there’s no shortage of heaviness, particularly as the build of the five-minute closer comes to its head, Pelican’s flow isn’t so cut and dry as that, and listening, that’s probably to the benefit of the individual pieces themselves, as each has its own stylistic and structural agenda apart from the service it does to the 18-minute EP as a whole, beginning with the gradual arrival of “Ataraxia” and the intertwining of acoustic and electric guitars and other ambience that makes up its progression.
The inclusion of acoustics itself is notable within Pelican’s back catalog, though it’s not the first time they’ve come up, but they do seem to be more of a focal point on Ataraxia/Taraxis than they’ve ever been, and it’s enough to make me wonder if the band came into this recording thinking they were doing their version of the proverbial “unplugged” release. If that’s so, they’re still very much plugged in, whether it’s the sweet electric notes and underlying noise rumble of “Ataraxia” or the distorted riffy chug of “Lathe Biosas,” which answers the relative stillness of the preceding track with an unabashed heavy groove made all the more potent by drummer Larry Herweg’s changes between straightforward and half-time measures. The arrival of “Lathe Biosas” acts as what “Ataraxia” has been building toward – it’s the payoff, in other words – but if “Ataraxia” is an intro, it’s certainly one with a progression of its own. In any case, the guitars of Laurent Schroeder-Lebec and Trevor de Brauw carefully shift from the opening riff of “Lathe Biosas” into lead and rhythmic positions before meeting again in what serves as a sort of music-only chorus, until about halfway in, a break offers airy post-rock noodling skillfully kept grounded by bassist Bryan Herweg’s progressive maintenance of the build. The “chorus” returns, and “Lathe Biosas” reveals itself to be something of a pop song, structurally, right up to the repeated chorus and the chugging outro brought to a halt by Herweg’s punctuating snare. Where What We all Come to Need seemed to patiently revel in its atmospherics, to dwell more in its parts, Ataraxia/Taraxis moves quickly – perhaps that’s the shift that inspired the title – but there’s still a decent amount of space imbued into “Parasite Colony.”
Efficiency proves to be Pelican’s strongest asset for both the song and the EP as a whole. “Parasite Colony” offers satisfying riffs, intriguing progression and ambient sprawl within a 4:42 runtime, standing as a firm argument both for the band’s maturity and their strength as songwriters, whatever unconventional stylistic or methodological aspects they might also incorporate. They’ve learned how to make their songs do what they want them to do. As it moves from its quiet middle back into the central figure riff that most typifies it, “Parasite Colony” may not be as evocative as some of Pelican’s other works, but it does manage to craft an image in its relatively short amount of time. This sets up closer “Taraxis” to execute Ataraxia/Taraxis’ most directly linear build, essentially working from the silence where “Parasite Colony” leaves off to start with its acoustic and electric interplay. Schroeder-Lebec and de Brauw are still riffing, whether it’s acoustic or electric, and that adds to the gain of momentum throughout the 5:12, which cycles through what might otherwise be a verse/chorus tradeoff twice before dropping to a shaker and bassline from Herweg that carefully transitions into the EP’s closing movement. Heavier at 3:46 and more crashing than anything Pelican have yet brought to the table here, the finish of “Taraxis” offers satisfying catharsis without seeming to be entirely based around the idea of payoff.
None of the EP feels produced with maximizing tonal weight in mind – Pelican have done that before, and this sounds more pastoral – but “Taraxis” finishes with significant crunch, too earthbound to really be psychedelic, but still giving some sense of head-swimming swirl, or maybe it’s the latest incarnation of the band’s churn that so many others have adopted in their considerable wake. In any case, it’s one more instance of Pelican doing whatever the hell they want, which seems to have been the overall mission for Ataraxia/Taraxis. The thrilling part about it is that no matter where Pelican go creatively, they always manage to captivate and to bring something new to their sound. Hard to say whether these tracks are some kind of precursor for the full-length follow-up to What We all Come to Need — parts were apparently recorded between Los Angeles and Chicago and compiled together into the finished product — but after the three years since that album was released, I care much less about that than I do about the sheer fact of having some new output from the band, who continue to enthrall with each step along their apparently ongoing progression while always piquing the interest for what they might do next.Chicago, Illinois, Pelican, Southern Lord