Live: What Happens When Metal Bands Think Too Much
Pelican keeps getting lost in the desert
Pelican + Mono + The Life and Times Avalon May 9, 2006
Lately, critics have been falling all over themselves for big, crashing, epic art-metal bands, bands with shoegazey guitar textures and long instrumental bits and weird time signatures and beards. In theory, these bands bring the visceral gutpunch of actual metal without all that cheesed-out spiked-guantlet dragonfire stuff that makes critics feel like we're hearing something stupid. Avalon has been working overtime to corner the local market on shoegaze-metal, booking the two biggest bands in the genre (Isis and Pelican) within five days of each other. It makes sense: New York may be the one city in America where critical love can actually pack a venue. And Avalon should be the perfect venue for this stuff: dank air, high ceilings, great drum sound, creepy-looking gothic arches, weblike metal balconies going up. And it would be perfect if the club wasn't staffed by an army of asshole bouncers in full danceclub mode, steakheads who don't realize that you don't have to police live shows as heavily as you do club nights because most of us aren't going to try to do coke in the bathroom stalls or whatever. It's hard to stay standing up for more than an hour to watch an instrumental band like Pelican; their show would probably be a lot more enjoyable if you had a couch to sit on. And Avalon has a couch, a big one, up on the second floor behind the DJ booth, but it also has a guy whose entire job is to tell you not to sit on the couch.
I've always preferred Isis to Pelican, if only because Isis fits my idea of metal better: big riffs, cookie-monster vocals, general creepiness. But someone along the line fucked up my guest-list spot to see Isis (I bet it was the couch guy), so I ended up going to see Pelican instead. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much. Decibel gave Pelican's last album, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, album of the year honors last year, but I didn't hear it at all. To these ears, the album was icy and bloodless, all plodding sleepy guitar-throb; entire ten-minute tracks went by before I even noticed they were there. And I had no idea how the band qualified as metal at all; the record fit much better with stoner post-rockers like Mogwai and Godspeed. But Jesus Christ, everything changes when they walk onstage. For one thing, they play loud, loud enough that I could feel it in my socks. For another, they're into it, the three guys up front falling to their knees and throwing their heads back and generally acting like rock dudes. Everything that sounded clean and dozy on the record comes alive when they're playing it raggedly and fuzzily onstage, pulling off a visceral thump way more satisfying than anything you hear on the album. Their drummer plays the fuck out of the double-bass, but he doesn't lean on it constantly the way the guy in Morbid Angel does; he just brings it out for the big moments. And those big moments, the climaxes the songs build up to, are just totally epic and glorious and amazing. The live show isn't perfect; the band is way better when they snap out of their awkward time-signature bits and into a straight-ahead chug, and nobody needs to see anyone play guitar with a bow ever again. They don't know what to do between songs or when equipment is being fixed, so one guy sort of politely mutters into a microphone about how happy they are to be there for a few minutes while roadies run around and plug in wires. But I was expecting to see a truly boring show and I ended up seeing one of the best bands I've seen all year, and surprises like that will always make me happy. If Pelican ever wants people to know how great they are without having to see them live, they're going to need to find themselves a producer who lets them play loud.
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Another nice surprise was Mono, who played before Pelican and who are apparently a big deal in this whole shoegaze-metal scene even though I'd never heard of them until like a month ago. Mono are four pretty, skinny, stylish Japanese people who start out every song playing playing quiet, aqueous guitar lines while feedback and cymbal-whooshes build up and then a beat suddenly locks in and everything gets unbelievably loud and gigantic and then finally bleeds away to quiet, aqueous guitar lines again. Bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor have been doing the whole quiet-loud-quiet build thing for so long that it's been a cliche for years, but Mono does it beautifully. Their quiet bits are pretty and evocative, sometimes doing the Sonic Youth ringing-guitars-entangling thing, sometimes really creepy and ominous, sometimes sad and slow. The first time they leap into loud mode, it's stunning, like somebody's grabbed your head and twisted it around completely. They tend to keep doing this stuff continuously, so it's hard to tell where one song ends and another begins. This is instrumental rock, of course, and the people in the band don't jump around like the Pelican dudes, so eventually your mind starts wandering and, if you're me, you try to figure out which No Limit video was the best (the verdict: Silkk the Shocker's "It Ain't My Fault," the first one, the one where he gets electrocuted). The quiet bits can go on way too long (my friend Zach: "The drummer is really good, and they never let him play!"). But I'm sort of stunned that I went to see two instrumental shoegaze-metal bands and ended up really liking both of them.
I was afraid the entire show would be something like openers the Life and Times, a Kansas band that plays spacy droney Slint stuff with no real force or power or immediacy; that's what most shoegaze-metal records sound like. But in the right setting, with the right bands, with an appreciative crowd and everything turned up really loud, this stuff can be almost shockingly powerful and majestic. Still, it would've been better if I could've sat on the couch.
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