How Pelican bounced back from the burned-out abyss

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Sometimes you have to scale things right back to ensure everything keeps moving forward. That’s certainly been the case for Pelican, the punishing postmetal art-hardcore quartet that bounced back from the abyss with last year’s excellent Forever Becoming.

Five years ago, the Chicago-based instrumental unit looked like it was done, its members burned-out from years on the road at a time when—with CD sales slipping—touring had become the main means by which bands in the underground made their money. Guitarist Trevor de Brauw remembers having had enough of something that started out as a way to have fun with friends, namely guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec, bassist Bryan Herweg, and his brother drummer Larry Herweg.

“The goal of any live performance is to reach a point where you kind of lose yourself, and the music takes over and you are no longer fully conscious of yourself,” says de Brauw on the line from the Windy City. “I was having more and more shows where I was spending time thinking ‘What am I doing here?’ Not in an ‘I’m not enjoying this’ kind of way, but more in a supreme state of self-consciousness. Like, ‘It seems really weird to be on a stage with people staring at me.’ ”

It turned out that de Brauw, who says Pelican stopped being fun and started to seem like work, wasn’t alone in his thinking.

“I think that we were all going through it to different degrees,” he says. “Laurent was the first one to say it. We did a six-week tour with Isis that year, and when we got the offer for that, we were on tour. Laurent didn’t want to do it, and we had to talk him into it—he was like, ‘I really don’t want to be on tour all year.’ Then we had a headlining tour when the record came out in the fall. When you are going full momentum, it’s really hard to put the brakes on.”

It’s easier, however, when someone decides to leave the band. Even though he formed Pelican and acted as its main songwriter, Schroeder-Lebec amicably walked away from the critically respected group, his departure officially announced in 2012. For a while the group’s remaining members did their best to have normal lives, taking steady jobs, reconnecting with friends, and starting families. Eventually, though, the pull of Pelican would prove too much.

With de Brauw and Bryan Herweg stepping up as the group’s new main writers, and Larry Herweg and former touring guitarist Dallas Thomas offering valuable guidance and input, the songs that would eventually form Forever Becoming started to come together. The resulting record is essential listening for anyone who appreciates the senses-numbing bombast of acts like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky.

The opener, “Terminal”, is marked by skeletal guitar sketches and ominously off-kilter drums, and the album-ending “Perpetual Dawn” mixes ultra-mega OK riffing with passages of break-of-day beauty.

In between, you get highly textured songs that—fittingly, given their back story—explore themes of death and rebirth, conveyed through epic distortion-swirled swells and meditative lulls. The best thing about Forever Becoming? That would be that Pelican has been re-energized, with de Brauw and his bandmates having learned a coping strategy or two from the burnout they suffered a few years back.

“We structured the album to be like a death sentence at the beginning,” de Brauw relates. “Moving to death, things get increasingly dark, but then there’s regeneration at the end. We wanted things to end with the sense that the person who is listening, or who is narrating, or whatever force is behind the record, is coming into a sense of acceptance or rebirth. So, yeah, we’re really excited to still have this band in our lives.”

Pelican plays the Rickshaw Theatre on Wednesday (June 18).

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