During the previous decade, Pelican released music with a disciplined consistency. Starting with 2003’s Australasia, they delivered a new full-length every two years, on odd-numbered years, up through 2009’s What We All Come to Need, and with each released showcased both an dynamic command of their instruments along with a penchant for crafting evocative moods via mostly instrumental arrangements. As such, they were key figures in what looks in hindsight like a kind of post-millennial metal renaissance. Some of their peers since then have broken up (Isis, who reunited as “Celestial” so as not to be confused with the militant group), some have reached Grammy-nomination-level success (Mastodon, Baroness, High on Fire). Pelican, however, have simply slowed down, having released only two albums in the past decade between various solo releases and side projects such as INTRCPTR and RLYR.
As the Chicago band convenes for sixth album Nighttime Stories, some things have changed. In 2014, Jody Minnoch of Tusk—a band that also featured Pelican’s Larry Herweg, Laurent Lebec and Trevor Shelley deBrauw—passed away, as did guitarist Dallas Thomas’ father. As such, grieving is a major part of Nighttime Stories, but not necessarily in obvious ways. To hear a track like “Abyssal Plain,” one would think that Pelican are merely doing the kind of nuanced, yet emotionally charged rocking that they’ve done for years. But much of the inspiration for these songs were inspired as a result of the loss of their former friend and bandmate. The title Nighttime Stories originally had been proposed for a Tusk album but was never used, and other titles as well were named in homage to Minnoch’s own notes left behind.
In sound and in scope, Nighttime Stories fits comfortably among Pelican’s other works, its arrangements slightly more geared toward the intricate dynamics of ’90s and early ’00s post-hardcore, with traces of psychedelia coursing through its veins. “Midnight and Mescaline” is among their most direct and furious rockers, its rhythm pulsing with drive and triumph. The more subdued “It Stared at Me” is tense and haunting, broken only by a subtle climax in its final minute. And with “Arteries of Blacktop,” the band sound as heavy as ever, blending moments of rock ‘n’ roll accessibility with a powerfully sludgy low-end. All of which is to say, it’s not an album that sounds mournful or devastated, but one that offers a celebration of a late friend the best way they could—through towering riffs and some of their best air-guitar moments to date.
There is one exception. Opener “W.S.T.” was played on Thomas’ father’s acoustic guitar, and it also happens to be the most subdued, spacious track on the album. It’s the one moment that feels like quiet reflection rather than action, and it’s a gorgeous if brief segue before the roar. Nighttime Stories isn’t a funeral or a wake, but rather a statement of determination and celebration in the face of loss—untimely, inevitable or otherwise.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.