It’s hard to describe the music of Pelican. The Chicago- and Los Angeles-based band, performing at the Highline Ballroom on Monday, Nov. 30—makes hypnotic instrumental metal with enough atmosphere to mostly transcend the genre, which puts music writers in an awkward place. So they reach for some other genres: prog-rock, post-hardcore, post-metal, instru-metal. And when that’s not enough, they try comparing Pelican with like-minded acts Isis and Neurosis. But sometimes even that won't do, and the flummoxed scribe has no choice but to go for broke: elaborate metaphors, comparisons with art and nature, and impressionistic references to the passage of time. The A.V. Club picked out a few of the most florid descriptions of Pelican floating around the Internet, about the group's new album What We All Come To Need and more, and posed them to Pelican drummer Larry Herwig. He seemed pretty flattered… for the most part.
“What We All Come to Need is as aphoristic about living as it is metaphoric about dying. It’s a musical version of Picasso’s Guernica where the instruments are the paintbrushes and your ears are the canvas.” —Pop Matters
Larry Herwig: I don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. I know Picasso and I’m assuming they’re being complimentary, so I take that as a good review. I don’t know if I would necessarily say about the band, but I’ll take it for what it is.
The A.V. Club: Are living and dying important themes for Pelican?
LH: Definitely. The EP earlier this year was called Ephemeral and that’s a Greek term for short lifespan. We’re just referring to us all being temporary and kind of reminding ourselves that we’re not here for a very long time, and to try and make the most of it.
“Like the changing of the seasons, Pelican swoop in without warning and steal the earth from beneath your feet. But like any compassionate benevolent figure, they also harness the power to give, and for the bounty they have provided us with here, we should all be thankful.” —Splendid
LH: Yeah, that’s awesome. I think that kind of ties into the band name, referring to the pelican and the swooping. We’ve had seasonal themes on previous records. The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw was a very themed record, with song titles like “Autumn In The Summer” and “Last Day Of Winter.” But yeah, I think that’s great. I agree with it 100 percent.
“… futuristic neo-metal à la Voivod to ominous, Neurosis-like art-doom to the high-prog constructions of King Crimson."—Spin
LH: Wow, that’s pretty rad. Those are three of our favorite bands. The Neurosis thing is kind of obvious, I think, just cause we’ve cited them so many times. Our early stuff was very heavily Neurosis-influenced. Occasionally people would say stuff about Voivod, but not so much. Those are three pretty groundbreaking cutting-edge bands.
AVC: Do you and other members of Pelican stay looped into prog-rock as well?
LH: It depends on eras of prog. Like the modern stuff, bands like Porcupine Tree or Dream Theater, none of us are really into that kind of thing. But if you’re talking about the older stuff from the ’70s—King Crimson and Rush and stuff like that—yeah, we’re all fans. Some people in the band listen to it on a more regular basis than others, but King Crimson gets a lot of love.
“At times their driving tunes achieve a muscular ambience… like fog spilling down a glacier at dusk.”—Blender
LH: That’s pretty rad. It paints a pretty vivid picture in your mind, and I think we always try to do that with our music. The vast landscapes and kind of the escapism that comes, hopefully, with our music, and kind of letting the mind wander and the imagery that might come with it.
AVC: When the band writes songs, are you trying to evoke specific images?
LH: I can’t speak for the whole band, just for myself, but not so much anymore. I think in the early days, yes. Now it’s like we’ve doing the band so long that the songwriting is so natural and not forced, and like we don’t even have to think about it anymore. It just kind of happens. In the old days, early on, we might have talked more about individual songs and what kind of stuff might pop into mind. As time goes on, there’s less talk or even brainstorming about the songs anymore. It’s like second nature.
“Generally speaking, however, the band’s future is fairly bleak at this point.”—Hearwax
LH: Yeah, I don’t think so. It’s funny, because I expect to hear that at this point. Just because when you come out, maybe you’re well received and then you’re kind of like the new kids on the block. Everyone’s excited and rooting for you. Then you hit a point where it’s like you’re not the new kids anymore—you’ve been around, you’re kind of old news. Even if you’re still writing good music—and our new record, I think, is our best record—it’s almost like people are kind of over you in a way.
AVC: As a musician, do you see a purpose or a benefit to criticism?
LH: It’s hard to kind of weed through all the reviews and all the people who have things to say and find which ones are really important and which ones are valid. Everyone’s got something to say. I’ll talk about the Pitchfork review. That came out a few years ago, when City Of Echoes came out. It wasn’t the most well-written review, but he had some harsh things to say about me. From the opening sentence to the final one, it was basically four paragraphs about why I should not be in the band. But I kind of thought about it and I was like, well, there are certain things that I need to work on—things I can do to better my playing. In that way I took a pretty harsh review and I tried to take the positive side on that, and not really let it get me down. I think that’s a sign of taking criticism in a good way.