“Everything popular is wrong,” Oscar Wilde once declared. “If I was making my movies for critics, I’d be living in some small Hollywood apartment somewhere,” retorted Jerry Bruckheimer. A bizarre triangulation of that divide—a shameless glitz-and-tits approach to faux-anthemic blockbuster melodrama masquerading as elite-approved Art for Art’s Sake—plagues “metal” these days, as decidedly “un-metal” folks play “headbanger” by night in a host of dunderheaded critical darlings with banal commercialist tastes: Baroness, Mastodon, Torche, and especially Pelican.
The latter’s latest milquetoast opus, What We All Come to Need, says so little with so much, which is practically the product slogan for the Chicago band’s pancake-handed attempts to fuse phony triumphalism with the concrete-feet prog with which Neurosis took its baby steps but eventually, wisely discarded. Trans Am, a schlocky, neo-futuristic transliteration of Jan Hammer, Giorgio Moroder, Mike Post (he of the Magnum, P.I. theme), and Kraftwerk, are another formative influence. But those guys, tongues firmly in cheeks, were having too much fun leaping genre and sub-genre fences, reworking typical rock territory—covered by ZZ Top, Skynyrd, Bad Company, etc.—with atypical (and very non-rock) instrumentation: sequencers, electronic drums, Moogs.
In fact, Trans Am’s 1997 record Surrender to the Night manages to anticipate, encapsulate, and render utterly superfluous Pelican’s entire aesthetic with only its first track, “Motr,” a 3:41 mini-epic that slowly builds to a sun- and wave-soaked climax featuring climbing riffs, crashing cymbals, and Masters of the Universe (as in Tom Wolfe, not He-Man) shtick for folks who’ve never had a bad day in their lives. “Motr” works spectacularly partly because of Trans Am’s indifference, and partly because the band is talented enough to pull it off: The air-brushed buildup and continual peak are cliché motions Trans Am are happy to glide through. But the song’s true brilliance lies in its ability to connect emotionally with listeners, regardless of the band’s emotional investment, or, in this case, lack thereof. Trans Am’s skill at making “meaningful” songcraft meaningless is misunderstood by bands like Pelican, who attempt to do the exact opposite.
Pelican may have occasionally indulged in Neurosis’ post-apocalyptic bubblegum approach, but Trans Am’s curious nihilism is the band’s bread and butter. Little wonder the stock crowd response at a Pelican show isn’t running in circles in an aimless mosh pit or clichéd fist-pumping, but instead folks clutching themselves and rocking to and fro, overcome with the music’s relentless emotional ambiguity. Without the aid of a vocalist to impose structure and baldly convey each song’s content, Pelican overcompensate instrumentally, rendering overwrought cross-bearing howls through heaps of guitars and pedals. Whereas Trans Am revel in their self-awareness, Pelican don’t appear to realize the thin line they walk between retreading past efforts and full-blown self-parody.
Such actual-metal bands as the Lord Weird Slough Feg or the Gates of Slumber are overly comfortable with the genre’s traditional tropes—folklore, swords & sorcery, etc.—and make better music for it. There’s no mistaking either band’s intentions, and, consequently, both ensembles proudly yield concise, irony-free records. But making a clear aesthetic statement was never a crucial element of Pelican’s craft. Same with Georgia’s Baroness, whose frontman, John Baizely, claims his band’s music to be influenced by “fine art, cinema, and literature,” which is as stiltedly silly as name-dropping higher mathematics, physics, or philosophy, when what the band really peddles is exactly the everything-and-nothing Hallmark heft so many claim to uncover in Pelican’s wordless, aimless songs. While Baizely’s predilection to hawk such High Times erudition makes him sound more puerile than he likely is, it’s difficult to imagine him honestly striving to disseminate meta-emotional discourse through music as transparently commercial as his band’s stoner-metal-meets-Ford-truck-jingle approach.
Regardless of the dizzying genre qualifiers hung on Pelican’s music—post-rock, post-metal, atmospheric sludge, post-doom—the band’s output has differed little since their 2003 debut, Australasia, which laid down the template: ponderous instrumental pieces given precious song names like “Angel Tears” or album titles like The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, a preciousness only tolerated from the critically coddled and strategically enigmatic. There’s little reward in puzzling out such meandering song structures—a trope utilized by Pelican and practically weaponized by Georgian Baroness neighbors Mastodon, whose songs follow a lock-step pattern of pelting the wall with red-handed swipes from prog touchstones like Yes’ Close to the Edge and King Crimson’s Red, just to see what sticks. Of course, nothing does: The listener is left ultimately with a pointless technical pissing match. The same goes doubly for Florida’s Torche, which often sounds like Looney Tunes composer Carl Stallings tearing through Helmet’s late oeuvre in double-time. Baroness can’t begin to approach the shut-in chops of those other bands, but there’s something to be said for aspiration.
Apologists for this sort of thing hold fast to the do-one-thing-but-do-it-well dictum, a platitude usually lei’d on such proven lifers as AC/DC and Motörhead, bands with a process and point of view as blunt and tactile as a nightstick. But those bands radiate a feral authenticity, with orgiastic crowd-pleasers that double as dry-hump soundtracks and arguments against geometry. Pelican, by contrast, overthink and underemote, believing that abrupt atmospheric changes and winding structures disguise the band’s dismally one-sided approach to jam rock, when all it really does is expose their playing-scales-in-alternate-tunings-over-repetitive-beats as the emotional dynamism it isn’t.
What We All Come to Need is more, and consequently less, of the same. They’ve become more comfortable with reeling in the ambition, which means the listener gets mostly seven-minute versions of what Pelican’s ideal, Explosions in the Sky, couldn’t manage to cut to 10. Long derided as “the poor man’s Isis,” Pelican actually usurp their former labelmates’ made-for-TV appeal, but EITS, of course, usurped them both, graduating from writing music for films that didn’t exist to soundtracking Friday Night Lights, which did. Grounding deceptively ecstatic music in a film larded with Americana pablum but hailed repeatedly as culturally significant is not only indicative of the fatal atrophy of “popular imagination,” it also shows consumers’ unwillingness to accept the authentic, reaching for the numbing reality of the familiar, over and over again.
That Pelican pride themselves on being hard to pigeonhole shows that cognitive dissonance isn’t solely the province of political pundits. Neurosis were always one to lay the deep dread on thickly, via broad brushstrokes heavy with Dickean sci-fi paranoia. They alone can’t be faulted for two-bit mimics and likely never imagined their compositional approach would be used so effectively as a springboard to Pelican’s (and Baroness’, Mastodon’s, and Torche’s) overwrought musical “catharsis.” Sure, Pelican may be simply feigning the emotion they try so valiantly to communicate. But for fans of this sort of fake metal, that fakery—and not the real emotion it pantomimes—is what they’ve all strangely come to need.
Pelican play the Highline Ballroom November 30