Originally written by Dean Brown.
Since primitive man made a rhythmic racket by slapping a stick off a rock-face, instrumental music has always been an important part of our culture throughout the ages. Nowadays we are accustomed to dudes that cram their junk sideways into their sisters’ jeans and sit sculpting sounds using the latest piece of mass-marketed computer technology, but around the beginning of the new millennium, instrumental music within the heavier realm–a part of the post-rock/metal catch-all genre–was a hot topic, as bands popped up on a daily basis right across the grid.
Mute musicians schooled on Mogwai’s back catalogue, Neurosis’s command over the elements, and Slint’s 1991 classic Spiderland formed bands as a refreshing sidestep away from the slithery lotharios that paraded themselves as rock ’n’ roll saviours during the permed ‘80s and the furrowed brow growlers that made up metal’s nü sub-species throughout the ‘90s. There was no explicit political preaching involved; no god-bothering shtick; no distractions from the music itself. It was egoless, voiceless music borne of soundscapes pulled from a guitar pedal-board the size of a small spacecraft.
As is the case with all emerging trends within music, however, the momentum eventually died off because of oversaturation and a lack of songwriting imagination. And the irony of its ascent and subsequent collapse is not lost when you consider that the instrumental post-rock / metal we’ve been either thrilled by or bored to death by was predominately based on the rise and fall; the gradual swell and resulting downpour of sound. With 2013 pulling us closer into winter’s arms, post-rock/metal, and by association, instrumental rock/metal, is an afterthought lost beneath the recent occult rock fad and before that, the NWOBHM revivalists that “just wanted to party, man!”
Nonetheless, instrumental rock/metal bands of a certain vintage still exist to create, and unsurprisingly the survivors are the bands that never relied solely on incremental builds and explosive crescendos. Two such names are Pelican and Russian Circles; both bands have new albums (both are also on their fifth full-length) that, while stylistically different, share similarities in terms of desire to create music without leaning on the same songwriting ideas that informed their earlier releases, albeit with opposite results.
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Pelican’s role in the popularity of post-metal during the early ‘00s cannot be underestimated, as the Chicago four-piece crafted some of most influential instrumental metal albums. The band’s 2003 full-length debut for the now defunct Hydra Head Records, Australasia, was an evocative opus whereby acrid, growling riffs and prolonged passages of earth-worn expanse collided like tectonic plates. Its 2005 follow up, the poetically titled The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, took what Pelican’s early EPs and Australasia had begun. It fully controlled the pull of nature and flow of the seasons to create an atmospherically affluent work of art that spoke on many levels without a single word being uttered. The Fire… would mark the end of Pelican’s predilection towards songs that naturally unfurled at an organic pace, ignorant of perimeters and time’s watchful eye, as 2007’s City of Echoes and 2009’s What We All Come To Need birthed songs that utilized a more “traditional” songwriting format.
This shift in style was needed at the time. Even though Pelican had explored the drawn-out side of its sound to great artistic reward, the band was at the point where it needed to change things up to evade the pit of repetition that ensnares many a band not named AC/DC or Motörhead. However, due to the manner in which the band freshened up its approach, Pelican lost some of its charm: The vast sprawl had been corralled into a kind of verse/chorus paradigm that stifled creativity. This change in songwriting style highlighted the limitations of the musicians involved, particularly drummer Larry Herweg, who, even during the delicate movements, always had two lead hands.
Something palpable was missing from Pelican’s music and it was only when “Final Breath,” the last track off What We All Come To Need, played out that the realization hit like an Appalachian avalanche: Pelican, for the first time, needed a singer to sound whole. The band brought in vocalist Allen Epley (The Life and Times, Shiner) for “Final Breath,” and his alt-rock melodies atop the instrumental base worked exceptionally well, though it left the impression that Pelican’s post-The Fire… music was written to underscore a voice that never materialized. Consequentially, the songs the band wrote were less gripping than they once were, and it seemed like Pelican’s best had been left in the past.
Sadly, most of the same problems have carried over to Pelican’s fifth full-length addition to its discography, Forever Becoming, released through Southern Lord on the 15th of October. And, of course, jibes like “Forever Becoming… stale” would still be on the tips of tongues if the band had continued to furrow the same course as Fire…, but that natural wave of drama – Pelican’s prime selling point – that carried the band’s first two full-lengths and the ambitious “March to the Sea” is, yet again, nowhere to be found.
Forever Becoming begins with a startling thud from a floor tom. Feedback groans under a slow exchange of snare and tom hits, while a gentle refrain is played on the guitar. A coarse bass-line emerges and its distortion paired with the dense beats acts as a distraction from the simple, clean guitars. As far as openers go, a less-is-more approach would have been more beneficial. “Deny the Absolute” is on the right side of volatile in comparison, although it is indicative of Pelican’s recent exploits, as the band hooks you in with a fearsome riff before a number of banal chord progressions leaves you longing for vocals again. (Pull in a favour from the likes of Walter Scheifels or Ryan Peterson and make this song shine!)
From here, the same issues arise as there is no story to tell, just a series of riffs joined together. “The Tundra” is a tumult of predictable and repetitive metallic emissions; “Threnody” apes “Ephemeral” off What We All Come To Need and further confirms Pelican’s predictability. Even the departure of founding member and guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec, who has been replaced by the band’s touring guitarist for the past two years, Dallas Thomas, doesn’t seem to have sparked new life into Pelican whatsoever.
Granted, “The Cliff” does show real purpose and control as it gets to the point as humanely as possible, but the last two songs, “Vestiges” and “Perpetual Dawn,” both of which, when combined, span 16 minutes with change, do not warrant their running times – especially when you consider how imaginative and thought provoking Pelican used to be. A tedious trawl through guitarist Trevor De Brauw’s burly riffs, Brian Herweg’s Helmet-esque bass-lines, and Larry Herweg’s monochromatic beats doesn’t muster much of a response, and both songs just drift forward, retreat and lull without actually engaging the listener.
A lack of confidence may be the crux of the problem. “Immutable Dusk” is a glaring example of a band unsure of itself. Besides “Deny the Absolute,” “Immutable Dusk” is the heaviest song on Forever Becoming. Its quaking grooves ripple hard, but the band separates the heft with insipid melodic sections that build pointlessly and reduce the momentum. A confident Pelican would hurl out those riffs without feeling the need to add softer dynamics. Past songs like “Drought” took a fistful of similar sounding riffs and rode the groove into the barren earth, and that was all that was needed. “Immutable Dusk” would have been a triumph if it had brazenly ran the gauntlet at full pelt. Instead, Pelican settle for mediocrity and rather than reach out for bravery. Russian Circles, on the other hand, has yet to reach a creative peak, as the band’s music staunchly holds attention spans due to a more subtle stylistic shift.
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Russian Circles began in 2004 as wild instrumental trio, intent on cramming as many mammoth riffs and side-winding time-changes as possible into each song of its debut full-length, Enter. Enter sounded like Don Caballero riding bareback into the night on Remission-era Mastodon’s flame-engulfed horse, and it was as reckless as it was exciting, even though you knew the band couldn’t justify such uncontrollable songwriting down the line. Station followed in 2008, and while it was not as unbridled as its predecessor, it demonstrated a change in the band’s thought process. This fully came into effect when bassist Brian Cook, he of Botch and These Arms Are Snakes fame, joined the band in 2007.
The acquisition of Cook as a full time member of Russian Circles was quite the coup for guitarist Mike Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz. Song-wise, the rampaging twists and turns were quietly toned down in favour of ponderous, dark atmospherics that avoided the tropes of instrumental music yet kept the required metallic grip. And from this point, Russian Circles began to sound a lot like the criminally underrated Shora. (Specifically, the band’s wondrous Malval release, a must-have for fans of not only Russian Circles but of rhythmically charged instrumental music in general.)
Cook’s inspirational bass playing–his ability to fill space and his percussive pulse–locked in place with the inventive moves of Turncrantz; his dexterous drumming still remains a polar opposite to Herweg of Pelican. Not only that, Cook’s experience and ability to hold a song with as few notes as possible freed Sullivan to pull out every trick from his guitar and array of pedals, and the music they created together for 2009’s Geneva and 2011’s Empros dripped with robust textures and tones (much like the aforementioned Shora), not to mention punishing riffs.
The band’s fifth full-length, Memorial, released on the 29th of October through Sargent House, is arguably the band’s most affecting album yet: While Empros was heavier in a musical sense, Memorial is much heavier in terms of its emotive impact. Brian Cook succinctly surmised the new album in a recent statement as being “straightforward, intense, heavy,” adding, “We subconsciously gravitated toward darker and more somber sounds.” Such gravitations have been growing more evident for anyone who has followed the band’s progress since Enter, but what this album has that the previous albums didn’t is cohesion from beginning to end.
Bookended by two songs that are similar in their solemnity, “Memoriam” and “Memorial,” the completeness of this album is apparent from the first listen. “Memoriam” plucks a path to your heart with acoustic guitars and the accompaniment of violins residing off in the distance. “Memorial” revisits this motif at the album’s end but the difference – and stroke of genius – is the guest appearance of the ghostly, reverb-enhanced vocals of chanteuse Chelsea Wolfe. Wolfe, who will be touring with Russian Circles this fall, lays some arresting melodies upon the music that, although aloof, connects with the listener accordingly. Together, both songs provide an appropriate way to start and finish an album rich in shadowy allure. According to Cook, the idea came from Pink Floyd’s sequencing of Animals: “Open with a stripped down version of the song and end with the full band song.”
The impression Memorial imparts is one of heavy-is-the-heart sentiment, yet Russian Circles has managed not to sacrifice the force of its music. “Deficit” is oppressive in its construct: the tight, chugging riffs and the deafening throb of Cook’s bass contrasting with Turncrantz’s storm-summoning rhythms. “Burial” is placed between the downtrodden draw of “Cheyenne” – a song not unlike the music Brand New has been writing in recent years – and the poignant highpoint “Ethel,” which pulls on the same heartstrings as Anathema did on Weather Systems. And while “Burial” isn’t as clever and riff-orientated as Russian Circles sounded on its debut, its metallic input is a necessary contrast to the songs that fall either side of it.
Very rarely during Memorial does Russian Circles allow for dynamic turns within the one composition; the band prefers to keep the flow focused from song to song. That is why “1777” stands out more than the other seven songs as it turns a darker hue as it progresses. It begins with wickedly adept, almost hip-hop beats from Turncrantz and an uplifting layer of tremolo-picked guitar-lines that soothes like Alcest. But, like all of Russian Circles’ best songs, an unsettling air eventually surrounds the music, as tom runs and snare cracks lead to an elegiac crescendo that hits the listener horizontally and unexpectedly.
The weakest track on Memorial is “Lebaron,” as it travels uncomfortably towards nü metal before the song’s descent pulls it back on course. And the reliance on the same chugging riffs that feature during the heavier moments of Memorial, when taken into the context of the album as a whole, is clearly a stylistic choice of the band, as we know Sullivan has the propensity to peel off pummelling riffs if the song / album calls for it. The overall premise of Memorial is an old one, one that modern musicians fixated on blinding us with technical tomfoolery have forgotten: Suppress your ego and use your talents for the good of the album.
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This maxim is even more essential when writing instrumental music. In order to create unforgettable instrumentals, bands need to be able to connect emotionally and inspire visions through their music. Each album needs to take you on a journey, whisper thoughts unspoken in your ear, and strike at nerves that were already raw or feelings you didn’t know were raw until the music exposed them. Pelican has lost this essential quality over its last three albums, but the band has proved in the past that it does possess the gifts to spark thought and feeling without words – the musicians involved just need to find confidence to let it radiate again for the sake of the band’s survival. In contrast, Russian Circles shine brightest when immersed in total darkness. The shards of hope that emanate from Memorial’s gloom currently place this three-piece at the forefront of instrumental music.
As it stands, Russian Circles currently epitomise what instrumental music has been about since time immemorial: Limitless sound that holds its tongue yet speaks a multitude.
In Memoriam: Mary Kate O’Keeffe (1922-2013)