Other than to dismiss their descriptive validity, you will never see me write the phrases "art metal," "indie metal," or "hipster metal." Chicago's Pelican has sadly spent an entire career dodging the accusations inherent in these terms. In a perfect world, the music should speak for itself. But it's not that simple.
Suddenly fashionable again, the metal genre has a lot of pop-cultural capital these days. There's no shortage of opportunistic musicians waking up one day and deciding that they are going to "get into," then make, metal without a true love and knowledge of the genre. A casual observer's amusement with Slayer, Pantera, and Mastodon is not cause to start a band. Then there are the dilettantes who issue shortsighted spoofs of the genre, like Rob Crow (of indie-pop darlings Pinback), who formed the uninspired, unfunny "metal" side project Goblin Cock.
By contrast, Pelican doesn't just make metal — they are dyed-in-the-wool fans of the genre. They just happen to make a form of the music that crosses genre boundaries. And Pelican's type of metal is topical; there are no retro elements, unless the '90s are considered retro. (Okay, maybe the '90s are a little retro.) Pelican's take on metal echoes the "glacial" or "ambient" style of '80s- and '90s-born metal bands Neurosis and Isis. An instrumental band, Pelican removed the sometimes alienating vocals from this style and emerged as one of contemporary rock's great unifiers of "pretty" and "heavy." (England's Jesu currently wears the crown.)
Pelican's first release was an eponymous EP in 2003 on the Hydra Head label (the band's home since). An appropriate imprint, Hydra Head was founded and is still operated by Aaron Turner of Isis. Over the past decade, the label has emerged as a leading torchbearer and tastemaker regarding underground, experimental, and just plain amazing metal. With that initial EP, the agenda was set right away: the instrumental meeting of Mogwai's dreaminess and memorable songwriting, the bent riff mastery of the Melvins, and elements of the protean doom-metal scene.
It was Pelican's full-length debut, Australasia, that turned heads, and rightfully so. Within the 11-minute opener "Nightenday," the guitar lines take on the emotional appeal of beautiful vocals set against the pounding, hummable chug of the riffs and rhythm section. It's the yardstick by which the rest of the album, and its 2004 follow-up, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, can be measured.
Within the strict boundaries of their chosen style, Pelican milked as much variety as possible for these two albums. Then they changed things up a little. Last year's City of Echoes is Pelican's version of rock: faster tempos, catchier song structure, shorter songs, overt melody. With their signature degree of heaviness intact, it's the quartet's best album to date and a great place for beginners. Many people are curious about underground metal but are repelled by the vocals, regardless of the fact that no genre of music utilizes a wider variety of vocal styles. Pelican is a readymade solution to that conundrum.
Black Cobra, which is sharing the bill with Pelican at the Hi-Tone Café this week, is less interested in melody and less interested in having a full band. Guitarist/vocalist Jason Landrian and drummer Rafael Martinez pull more sound from a limited lineup than any two-piece going, even Lightning Bolt. Landrian hails from defunct Florida sludgecore legends Cavity, one of several bands that applied Black Sabbath and the Melvins to the crushing, sonically violent direction that hardcore had taken in the early '90s.
Yes, Black Cobra can be down-tempo and sludgy at times, but the focus is on pummeling intensity with intermissions of minimal introspection. Representative releases like 2006's Bestial and last year's Feather and Stone deliver this formula in spades. Imagine if Mastodon were a two-piece or if Today Is the Day were a tad bit friendlier, and the picture becomes clearer. Live, Black Cobra is reportedly a force to be reckoned with. By the time they make it to the Hi-Tone on Tuesday night, the duo will be seasoned by an unforgiving touring schedule that regularly puts the band on the road more than 200 days a year.
Last but not least, Relapse Records' Unearthly Trance, the opening band on the bill, is a brutal beast that can effortlessly move between the pounding thud of Neurosis and the aggro-noise of Unsane.