Pelican Ephemeral [EP]

[Southern Lord; 2009]

Styles: instrumental doom/sludge metal/post-rock
Others: Earth, Sunn 0))), Isis

If asked to come up with a list of heraldic creatures, beasts featured on the armoric insignia and pageantry of yore, you could probably come up with some classics. The bear, boar, dog, lion, stag, tiger, and wolf come to mind easily. But the pelican? Really? Apparently the pelican is a symbol for self-sacrifice; in medieval culture, the mother pelican was thought to be particularly devotional to her young, providing her own blood when no other food was present. Another version of this story, a decidedly ‘metal’ one, says that the pelican used to kill her young and then resurrect them with her blood, an analogy to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. One can assume that only the most pious knights would deserve to have the symbol of the pelican emblazoned on their shield or chest plate. Without any supporting documentation, I’m not going to conclude that the members of Southern Lord’s Pelican are practicing heraldry — or larping, for that matter. But it's curious to wonder whether they arrived at their band name after having studied medieval culture or through some unrelated linguistic self-association.

It’s a valid question, since a band like Pelican often needs additional explanation. At its core, their sound has always been heavy, deep, riff-laden, and sludgy. However, without a vocalist, pinning the band down is tough. We have no vocal cues, no lyrics with which to characterize the group’s output and are instead forced to evaluate the band on the merits of their instrumentation alone. If they had a screeching, angst-ridden herald fronting them, we might be able to place them exclusively in the black metal camp, where swords and shields are perfectly appropriate. Or perhaps if they had a forlorn, whiney brooder singing songs of personal torment, we could put them at the heavier end of the emo/post-rock spectrum. Instead, we just have records like the three-song Ephemera EP: tracks that riff along like early Metallica without any of the arpeggios and shredding; darker than thrash, but as riffy as stoner rock; a band begging for a genre but getting nothing beyond disjointed comparisons.

When you exist in a niche that defies accurate genre pigeonholing — Pelican's non-stoner, non-black, non-doom, heavier-than-Godspeed brand — its easy to get railed on. Metal-heads can be notoriously fickle; many Pelican fans got their introduction with 2003’s Australasia, a determined riff suite, epic and grandiose. Its success left expectations high, but the departure that came next with City of Echoes was not met with much approval. It was positively noodly, bearing a quasi-Satriani vibe that evoked less metal and more instrumental New Age. The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw had a few tracks possessing a heavy, stoner-metal feel, such as “March to the Sea,” but there were still healthy doses of tonally blissed-out atmospheric post-rock, as on “Red Ran Amber.” Fans found these changes to be challenging and sometimes disappointing.

There’s a lot of disagreement over Pelican’s path since Australasia, but the impression I get from all the hemming and hawing is that, ultimately, listeners prefer doom, sludge, and crunch over any noodling. Perhaps Pelican are too heavy and instrumental to ever appeal to a non-metal crowd, forced to exist in some neutral zone between post-rock and doom. I think this ambiguity may benefit the band, giving them license to do whatever the fuck they please.

With all that said, Ephemeral may be able to go a long way toward appeasing the greater Pelican fan base. This is the band's first release for Southern Lord, and it sees them returning to the heavier, darker side of their earlier releases. It's short and sweet at barely under 20 minutes, with little more than heavy, dark riffing. A small dose of artful twang about five minutes into the second track brightens an otherwise weighty atmosphere, but for the rest of the EP, we find no excessive excursions or indulgent noise wash. Final track “Geometry of Murder” is an Earth cover featuring Dylan Carlson on guitar; even here, the riff ebbs and swells in a way that Earth doesn’t usually indulge.

Ephemeral is a clever and concise statement of doom with a twinge of stoner metal thrown in, and seems an appropriate way to debut on Southern Lord after so many twists and turns, the bulk of which have been received in less than glowing terms. But its brevity leaves us wondering what else Pelican has in store. Southern Lord is a premiere metal label, and perhaps being ensconced in an environment replete with upper-tier metal bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room, Boris, Weedeater, and sunn 0))) will rub off on Pelican in a way that brings even better results.

1. Embedding the Moss
2. Ephemeral
3. Geometry of Murder (w/ Dylan Carlson)

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