The Bible might not know much about rock and roll, but one fact of life was long ago established in it: "There's nothing new under the sun." Sure enough, every artist is a bit of a thief building upon the work of predecessors, but innovation has been rare despite the bleating of critics, who use little restraint in coining neologisms. From the dozens of hyphenated phrases created to describe music, there have been few dramatic paradigm shifts in the past 30 years or so. These "new schools" were more about determining what color of Chuckie T sneakers to wear than any real sonic revolution. Which is not to say there have been no important trends or flashes of inspiration; it's just that rock artists appropriate, modify, or blend some half-dozen musical tendencies that were present by the mid-Seventies. That said, a brilliant quartet of Windy City musicians has lately generated lots of buzz by those who tout it as "the next big thing" worthy of its own hyphenated category.
Pelican is composed of guitarists Laurent Lebec and Trevor de Brauw, bass player Bryan Herweg, and his brother Larry Herweg on drums. Nobody sings vocals. The bandmates are certainly poised for stardom, but are they also handicapped by this same buzz? And more important, are they going to be the group that finally breaks rock of its reliance on vocal communication? Now that would really be something.
Journalists seem obsessed with categorizing Pelican, most notably as "postmetal," which can be a turnoff to many who grew up on cock rock. The music is more of a seamless blend of influences than anything else, as Lebec reflected in a phone interview on the eve of the band's current tour: "I would describe it as experimental, instrumental rock music. I think that's pretty much the only description that is vague enough to be true, or descriptive enough to give hints as to what it actually is."
Yes, heavy-metal references are scattered throughout Pelican's music, but it's not the focus of the group's sound. For every person who hears Metallica or Led Zeppelin coursing through the latest full-length, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, there is someone else who hears indie-rock, New York noise, or prog-rock. Pelican seems to defy whatever "genre-rock" is thrown at it, which is just fine according to Lebec: "There's no concerted effort to fight being perceived as a certain thing, but it's nice to just know that people can bring whatever perspective they want to the table."
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What does Lebec say about his own music? "It's not appropriate for a party or something to listen to when you want to just rock out. It doesn't have any simple social association with it. I think you have to pay more attention. You can't just put it on in the background. You can sort of weave in and out of it, but for the most part, it's music that requires a listener that doesn't have a strong case of attention deficit disorder. It's not immediate music. It's more organic and realistic of the human experience, rather than how we are expected to function in this society where things have to happen a certain way at a certain speed."
Whew. Pelican first reverberated off the pages of heavy-metal magazines. The band formed in 2001 as a side project to Tusk, the still-active grindcore band that includes De Brauw, Larry Herweg, and Lebec. Grindcore is the unsubtle offspring of hardcore punk and thrash metal. Grind often sounds more like a field recording at a construction site or helipad than music. Tusk might explain Pelican's metal-heavy fan base, but you can hear the nuances that would subtracting a singer and adding a brother turn into Pelican. Subsequent Pelican releases have moved further away from standard metal. If there's any rule the band does follow, it's the same focus on creativity that has always been present in the Chicago experimental scene. Lebec mentions that Pelican is "not trying to identify as being only this or only that. That's something definitely in the water here just making music in a very open, nonniche way."
Even the group's name has added to the confusion in an umlaut-dominated marketplace. What does it represent? Lebec suggests, "If you look at us, you might think we're like clowns, but when we get onstage, we're like pelicans bombing for fish." Indeed the metaphor is apropos. Pelicans are very different from the other seabirds with which they share piers. They aren't known for vocalizing much, and although they sport a graceless waddle, few birds can soar as triumphantly. Likewise, Pelican's music is at times atmospheric, gliding on delicate, almost imperceptible structures; however, when the bandmates catch sight of a musical theme, they turn into dive-bombers and devour it whole.
But can an instrumental band engage the general public? They aren't the first rockers to try to reduce or eliminate the role of lyrics (and Lord only knows how many bands would love to kill their lead singers), but artists like the Ventures, Jeff Beck, Love Tractor, Gone, and, more recently, Tortoise and Mogwai have been thought of as musicians' musicians, not bound for commercial success. While on the recent Taste of Chaos tour, Lebec noted, "The bands on the main stage were really all stoked for us to be there. They were all fans, which was very surprising and kind of leads me to believe that a large number of people who like our band are musicians too, which is really inspiring and heartwarming."
Pelican might just break out of that box. According to Lebec, audiences on that tour "were as receptive or even more so than we ever imagined. We were in for at least feeling on a few nights that there was going to be massive discontent with what we offered, but it fit really nicely." So it seems Pelican is definitely communicating something to the masses without the crutch of lyrics. And whatever that may mean to the band, it all says something really good.
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