Monday, March 24, 2008

Pelican, "After the Ceiling Cracked" review

Pelican"After the Ceiling Cracked"Hydra HeadAvailable NowAUGUSTA, GA - Casual music fans that get a hold of the specs for Pelican’s new live DVD are likely to wonder why a band would release a concert film over a year after the majority of the footage was recorded.

Then again, Hydra Head isn’t marketing “After the Ceiling Cracked” toward the casual Abbey Road T-shirt-wearing FYE jockey… they’re marketing it towards Pelican fans. I mean let’s face it, this isn’t something that just anybody is going to walk by, see it and think to themselves, “Eh, might as well.”

The Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over” it ain’t—which is generally a good thing. May the devil extinguish his cigar butt on the necks of the Herweg brothers if they ever go near the words “farewell tour.” Love ya, guys.

OK, so if you know anything at all about Pelican, then you’re probably not going to be taken aback by anything you see here: It’s long been known that the band is equally adept at creating quiet, mood-piece passages as they are at throwing down with mountain-shattering riffs that could kick up enough of a cosmic shit-storm to put a crack in a 2001 monolith.

That’s a given, but, because this time around you can actually see the intent in the eyes and movements of the band members. Songs like “Autumn into Summer” and “Aurora Borealis” open the viewer up to a whole new dimension of interaction; the crescendos in “Last Day of Winter,” are, likewise, nothing short of triumphant.

The best part of the DVD, however, is the archival footage, some of which dates back to a few of the band’s first performances in 2003, and which allows you to chart the course of the group’s evolution not only with regards to stage presence, but also to how they’ve approached the songwriting process and even certain songs. Juxtapose their performances of “Mammoth” and “Pink Mammoth” and see if you aren’t a little enlightened.

Evolution is the whole point of “After the Ceiling Cracked,” and the foundation upon which Pelican’s very existence is based. The impact is considerable, especially when you realize that seeing the band live is an extension of this whole experience.

I’m not sure whether to feel grateful or manipulated. Cheeky bastards—and oh yeah, the DVD comes packaged with a 3" CD that features two versions of “Pink Mammoth” (one with the entire lineup of These Arms Are Snakes), as well as Prefuse 73 remix of “Aurora Borealis” entitled “End of Seaons.” ‘Course, if you’re like me, you’d already have most of that on vinyl. Dorks! Wait…

Pelican: Streamlined, but still expanding

AUGUSTA, GA - It goes without saying that the evolution of sound, style, and substance (abuse) is typically more difficult to track when it comes to certain artists. Those kinds of changes are usually the ones that gradually take shape over an elongated period of time; having started out as perhaps a speck of a notion inspired by an Albert Camus novel or even as a botched note during a 'shroom-heavy scalar run, the idea first slithers its way onto a single track. Before you know it, you’ve got “Astral Weeks.” Just an example.

Other bands are kind enough to make it more obvious, though it just tends to give the critics a different kind of headache. After the rampant sevenths and pseudo-carnival tendencies of “Blonde on Blonde,” most folks figured it signaled a new direction in Dylan’s sound and career. Nah… turns out he just had a whim. Don’t believe me? Listen to “John Wesley Harding.”

Fortunately for those of us who tend more toward the avante-drone side of the spectrum, Pelican happens to be a shining example of the latter. While their eponymous debut EP and first pair of full lengths, 2003’s “Australasia” and 2005’s “The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw,” boasted an average song length that skirted somewhere around the ten-minute mark, only the title track from “City of Echoes,” released just nine months ago, climbs past seven minutes. Much has been made about the obvious influence of touring on the record’s sound, but guitarist Trevor de Brauw says it’s a little more complicated.

“It really had more to do with just the quality of touring, rather than touring itself,” he says during my lunch break. “We used to just do a few scattered tours here and there for the first two albums…I mean, we all had jobs and school and things like that. But when ‘Fire in Our Throats’ came out, we were able to quit our jobs for the most part and really make the lifestyle work. So it definitely had an impact in that regard; before that, we never really considered the songs as live pieces.”

Indeed, the new tracks tend to inspire more head-banging than the trance-inducing monoliths that highlighted the band’s first few years; the rock-out, it would seem, comes with an almost equal dosage of cock-out this time around, a characteristic that is endearing the band to new legions. Some are even dubbing it the group’s “Black Album.” Dare we invoke the dread name?

“You know, I guess I never really thought about it much before,” says de Brauw after a moment’s contemplation, “but yeah, the new record is a lot more digestable, much easier for people to understand. The earlier material was really slow, and ‘Fire’ was, I think, a little long-winded.”

As if a new album and tour weren’t enough, the band subsequently released a vinyl-only EP entitled “Pink Mammoth,” which featured a major key re-tooling of early song “Mammoth,” as well as a Prefuse 73 mash-up of “Aurora Borealis” and the untitled track from “Fire,” referred to on the EP as “End of Seasons.” It was released in four or five different prints, and every time a “red splatter” print comes up on eBay, a hipster, somewhere, has an orgasm.

Capping off a prolific year, however, is the long-awaited release of Pelican’s first proper live concert DVD, “After the Ceiling Cracked,” which features not only a full December 20, 2005 set from London’s Kings Cross Scala, but archival footage from the band’s early days. Needless to say, Trevor is pretty amped about it…in his own subtle way.

“Basically, the guy who filmed it got in touch with us and asked us if we’d like for him to record the London show, because the venue was really nice and perfect for that kind of thing. The label got really excited, and so we had the place set for up for recording and multi-tracking. There were some problems later on with the digitization, but the recording went pretty well.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Justin Broadrick was the sound mixer for the entire set. And oh yeah, did I mention that the DVD also features a totally “Sledgehammer”-meets-Appalachian-Trail video for “Autumn into Summer?”

“Yeah, that all happened kind of randomly!” says de Brauw. “The guy who filmed it got in touch with us while we were picking out live footage and stuff. He initially sent us about two minutes’ worth, and we really liked it.”

Pelican’s evolution isn’t limited to varying degrees of aural assault. Longtime fans will also notice some tweaks in the group’s live performance, specifically with regards to the newer material. The old songs tended to get fleshed out a little more live, but the same, de Brauw says, tends to not be true for “City of Echoes.”

“Our mood was just changing during the old material,” he says, “so during the tour, the songs would take on these slight variations, and as a result, ended up sounding more wound-up live than on the record. This time around, though, we were very conscious of that, and the songs actually sound more relaxed now.”

And while this tour will no doubt include some spacey favorites, the guitarist warns fans to not hold their breath for an “Aurora Borealis” encore.

“At that time, it was pretty typical of our shows,” he remembers. “Not so much anymore…we don’t always do encores, and we kind of wanted to put that song to rest for awhile.”

As an added bonus, fans who haven’t caught the band live will be able to witness de Brauw channeling his inner Page, utilizing a violin bow on “Last Day of Winter” and “Aurora Borealis.” He snickers lightly as he talks about it.

“That pretty much came about as a result of my learning, unsuccessfully, how to play the violin. So I just became interested in bowing anything else that I could.”