Pelican, Forever Becoming: Portrait of a Work in Progress

Their fifth album, Pelican‘s Forever Becoming is noteworthy immediately for being the band’s first outing since their 2001 inception to not feature the guitar work of Laurent Schroeder-Lebec. Schroeder-Lebec made his last recorded appearance with the band on 2012’s Ataraxia/Taraxis EP, and has since been replaced by The Swan King‘s Dallas Thomas, who joins founding guitarist Trevor Shelley de Brauw and the rhythm section of bassist Bryan Herweg and drummer Larry Herweg in one of the last decade’s most quietly influential groups. Not a bad gig, and while I wouldn’t want to trivialize the inevitable change in dynamic that losing an original member after more than a decade of playing together would invariably bring about in any band, Forever Becoming (released on Southern Lord) at least shows Pelican have weathered the storm well in terms of holding onto their original sonic mission and blending post-rock atmospherics and open-spaciousness with unbridled tonal crunch and low-end weight derived from doom and heavy rock. In that regard particularly, Forever Becoming should offer thrills to longtime followers left cold by the pastoral wanderings of 2009’s What We all Come to Need (review here), as it pares down some (not all) of that record’s airiness in favor of a heavier push, not quite as much as did 2007’s City of Echoes coming off of 2005’s The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw and Pelican’s landmark full-length debut, 2003’s Australasia, but it’s worth noting that though tracks like “Immutable Dusk” and “The Tundra” have their ambient stretches and that Forever Becoming‘s 51 minutes aren’t lacking for atmosphere, it is at times a surprisingly heavy record. Since it’s been four years since the last one — twice Pelican‘s pace up to this point — I’m not inclined to chalk all the difference up to the acquisition of Thomas for the second guitar slot, but it’s a shift that’s apparent even on LP bookends “Terminal” and “Perpetual Dawn,” which are about as dreamy as Pelican get here.

It’s the former cut given the duty of opening Forever Becoming, and it does so with foreboding tom hits from Larry that come accompanied by rumble and lurching, mechanized-sounding feedback (my mind went immediately to The Book of Knots). Between the title and the bleakness of the song itself, it’s a dark note to start off on, even with a few peaceful seconds of softer guitar before the thud and distorted rumble resumes, giving a quiet lead-in for the rush of “Deny the Absolute,”  probably the fastest track on the album and one that engages quickly with a post-hardcore feel, discernible structure, and that peculiar intensity — “hurry up and think!” — that Pelican have developed as their own over the course of their time together and many others have tried to emulate to varying levels of success. Already the band have established an overarching flow and they stick to it for the duration, as “Deny the Absolute” gives way to the somewhat slower but similarly constructed “The Tundra,” which breaks in the middle for a moment of atmospheric exploration before resuming its crushing course in one of Forever Becoming‘s most satisfying linear builds. A turn comes with the more angular riffing of “Immutable Dusk,” but Thomas and de Brauw‘s guitars work well together such that the movement into a more open-vibing “chorus” makes sense coming off the prior progression and leading to a lengthier, more subdued post-rock break, which patiently rebuilds over the next several minutes — fluid, in motion as it mounts tension — until just before five minutes into the total 7:13, a vicious chug emerges that is traded off one more time before the song’s real apex arrives to cap the linear drive, drums, bass and guitars all headed in a single direction and even injecting some last-minute churn into what makes for an exciting finale, leaving the quiet opening of “Threnody” to give a breather before  it gets underway with warm, prominent low end and a bounce that seems to be culled from a more traditional heavy rock feel, but which is developed over the next several minutes into an otherworldly exploration, bass and drums holding the momentum together in the second half while Ebow guitar adds echoing depth to the mix.

Because it’s heavier — and by that I mean tonally thicker — one might expect there to be some element of aggression in Pelican‘s sound that wasn’t there on What We all Come to Need or has yet to be shown in their work, and that’s not really the case on Forever Becoming. One of the album’s greatest strengths, and this is demonstrated as “Threnody”‘s ethereal pulse gives way to the bass-leaning thrust of the feeling-its-way-out “The Cliff” and into the more bombastic “Vestiges,” comes from Pelican’s ability to take the newfound heft and incorporate it into their familiar, always-in-control aesthetic. They do so with an immediate sense of mastery, and at least in that respect, Forever Becoming comes across like the album they weren’t quite ready to make when they did City of Echoes, though I won’t take away from the appeal of that release either. Heavy as it is, “Vestiges” remains evocative in kind with the Pelican standard of resonance, and with a slow fade, seems only more contemplative as it transitions into the quiet start of “Perpetual Dawn,” which could’ve easily doubled as an alternate title for the album itself (also an opposite maybe of “Immutable Dusk?”). At 9:42, the closer is also the longest track, and while it doesn’t seem as interested in hitting with the same kind of impact as “Vestiges” or “The Tundra” — which was suitably frosty — it instead spends its extended runtime bringing Forever Becoming into context with Pelican‘s past work, delivering an ebb and flow of volume across a wistful emotionality. Perhaps that’s nothing new for the band as a whole, but it’s something they’ve shifted away from focusing on in these tracks and it stands as a reminder that Pelican, however heavy this album might get, are still very much Pelican. That late reassurance is much appreciated as Pelican move beyond their first lineup change, though if they continue for the next however many years to explore new influences and work them into their established aesthetic even as they refine what that aesthetic means, one could hardly call them anything other than consistent.

Pelican, “Deny the Absolute”

Pelican on Thee Facebooks

Southern Lord Recordings

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