The nearly rabid critical acclaim that followed Pelican's debut full-length, Australasia, in 2003 and the sludge and blast of 2005's The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (both on Aaron Turner's Hydra Head imprint) has been both blessing and curse for the band upon the release of 2007's City of Echoes. In other words, there is a tension surrounding the album's release that creates a make-or-break situation among fans and critics. While the recordings have some similar traits -- they are the same band, after all -- City of Echoes moves off the dock into sonic waters they've not entered before. Playing a guitar-saturated brand of extreme music is fraught with obstacles at this juncture -- especially after the nearly incessant touring that followed Fire and exposed them to so many people who had never heard them before and ratcheted up the underground culture's level of desire for something bigger and better. Pelican have done the only things they could do under these circumstances: shut the door on the outside world, take a rest, and figure out new ways of writing -- they pull out the stops by using craft and restraint to write actual "songs." It's a left turn, admittedly, but ultimately one that works. For starters, the tunes are shorter than on previous offerings -- the longest thing here is the title cut, which is just a shade over seven minutes. The band's rhythm section has been criticized, particularly drummer Larry Herweg for his thudding, previously metronomic style (some who only heard recordings thought Pelican used a drum machine -- ouch!). Here, Herweg is allowed a far greater range of expression, and actually plays against the beat in places, seeming to be out of time, while creating a new space for the guitars to enter in terms of tempo and texture. Elsewhere, the melodies Pelican built into their chugging riff style have been accented to create a more taut sense of dynamics.
The title cut begins with a nearly sweet, lithe guitar melody played by Trevor DeBrauw and countered by "rhythm" guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec; when the power switches on at the minute mark, the collision erupts but a different melody counters the riff. These two guitarists play very different things, moving toward each other, almost in counterpoint -- which they actually do elsewhere. Schroeder-Lebec must know the entire history of metal; the riffing he employs is sheer power tempered by glam-metal's sense of lyric and delivery. DeBrauw works his lines in like a knife edge to balance the equation as bassist Bryan Herweg walks the tightrope between. There is movement -- plenty of it, in fact, from loud to soft or vice versa and back again. The one-note piano line that commences "Spaceship Broken -- Parts Needed" is weighted by Bryan's bassline (and he even gets a low drone so distorted, fuzzed-up, and over-amped it feels like punishment) as the guitarists enter with repetitive melodics and subtly reverbed chord figures. The backbeat presence of Larry Herweg's snare and kick drum offers the only clue that something else is about to happen, and it does. It erupts out the very same riff and roils and curdles along fretboards and near blastbeats. The acoustic guitars introduced sparingly on Fire are back, but they have a solid presence here, more than as ephemera. The track "Winds with Hands" forgoes the rhythm section altogether. Both guitarists begin on acoustics, weaving melodic patterns that are trancelike and intricate (think the Jimmy Page intro to "Going to California" and "Over the Hills and Far Away" to get a hint), and gradually evolve into others. They give way as DeBrauw brings a high-pitched electric into the mix somewhere and transforms the cut in its intensity, as volume and lyric melody become the foreground to counter once again. It's beautiful and dark, seductive and forbidding, all at the same time. The sheer bass sludge that kicks off "Dead Between the Walls" is all poison, louder than God. When the guitarists enter, Schroeder-Lebec think he's in Judas Priest (Hell Bent for Leather era), riffing his ass off when DeBrauw drops some evil lead line to counter -- nope, not a solo. It crackles along in a surge until it transforms itself at the midpoint into...one of the best surprises here.
The aggression that began on the album's opener, "Bliss in Concrete," continues with the heavy metal riffing that commences "Lost in the Headlights." We are talking heavy-duty late-'70s/early-'80s metal with a Pelican twist. The lead lines are knotty and confounding, so the rhythm section needs to be circular. Schroeder-Lebec is an awesome rhythm guitarist. His sense of time is truly refreshing. The album ends in the most puzzling manner possible with the slowly evolving low-tuned drone of Bryan's bassline and acoustic and electric guitars that shimmer and shape a sparse melody, so gradually and elegantly that it's hard to believe this is the closing tune. It has its moments of power, but the record whispers, rather than blasts, to a close. It may dishearten some fans, but anyone who digs into the bone marrow of City of Echoes will understand that this is a real stepping stone for Pelican. As a band they've refused to take the easy way out or paint themselves into a corner or play to expectations. They've moved forward without losing sight of what makes them unique, and by doing so, they've moved the entire instrumental heavy music genre forward as well. Some underground conservatives may claim "sellout," whatever that means, but Pelican have ensured that they have a new path of exploration open to them -- perhaps several simultaneously. A backlash may occur, but it's critically groundless. The craft and care put into City of Echoes is a breath of fresh air and puts them back into a musically territorial space all their own.