Playing at the Empty Bottle

Thursday, July 24

I first saw the local band Pelican during a sound check in January at the Fireside Bowl. Actually, the band was offstage. What I saw was their gear: Two half stacks for the guitars, eight or ten effects pedals, a bass cabinet nearly the size of a twin bed stood on end. The drum kit could’ve doubled as a hurricane breakwater–snare, hi-hat, two kick drums, two floor toms, four freestanding cymbals, and four rack toms as big as cafeteria soup pots.

The Fireside is small, as a bowling alley or a rock club, and it’s not much of a challenge for a band to project all the way to the back wall. But it looked like Pelican had shown up planning to shake the paint off an aircraft hangar. I remember thinking: These guys had better be excellent.

I don’t like contrived suspense, so let’s get this out of the way now: Pelican is excellent. The interesting part is how.

Brothers Bryan and Larry Herweg play bass and drums, respectively, and Laurent Lebec and Trevor de Brauw both play guitar. No one sings. The absence of vocals means they can turn everything else up to foreground volume, and they do. Every instrument is drop-tuned, and the guitar sound is about six miles thick. The riffs (when there are riffs, and not just a droning, chocolatey quarter-note throb) go to work not so much on the brain as on the body’s other soft places–the throat, the eyelids, the belly, the genitals. The music is neutron-star heavy, but it isn’t catchy, and there aren’t hooks. You won’t leave the venue humming these songs, and you don’t need to–not any more than you need to be able to remember a massage. You just feel better.

Taken in by Pelican’s huge sound (and that huge pile of gear), even savvy consumers of live music routinely pigeonhole the band as stoner rock or metal. But Pelican is serene. Pelican does not swagger. I don’t like stoner rock or metal, and I like Pelican. It therefore follows that Pelican must play something else.

I know this is a bit of a leap, but more than any other thing I can think of, a Pelican show is like a Phill Niblock installation.

Niblock is a minimalist sound artist and composer based in New York. He works mostly with extremely loud drones. His installation in May 2001 at the Renaissance Society was a lot like an enormous sandbox–you could literally play in the sound, which consisted primarily of dozens of tracks of microtonally drifting cello (or flute, or hurdy-gurdy) amplified to skull-softening volume and pumped through a carefully calibrated configuration of loudspeakers. From down the hall it sounded like little more than a deafening test tone, but once you stepped inside you were immersed in a sea of overlapping and interweaving sound waves. Layers and layers of harmonics and overtones pulsed, pooled, and simmered–the best visual analogy I can make would be to the moire patterns you get when you overlap two halftone screens. I could feel the air moving, and I became acutely aware of being surrounded on all sides by molecules vibrating in intricate and invisible patterns. Different notes seemed to collect at different locations in space–sometimes such a node would be so tightly focused I could dip my head into and out of it just by nodding.

This may seem a long way from rock ‘n’ roll, but the biggest differences between a Pelican show and a Niblock installation are the drums and the secondhand smoke.

At the Abbey Pub last month, Pelican opened for Melt-Banana, playing four songs in just under 40 minutes. (The band’s eponymously titled debut, released earlier this year on Hydra Head, is a four-song EP that clocks in at roughly half an hour. The same label’s putting out a six-song, 50-minute full-length in the fall.)

I wasn’t expecting singing, but there wasn’t even a vocal mike onstage–they never greeted the audience, never so much as mentioned the name of the band. There was no fiddling between songs. For the most part they kept their heads down, like railroad workers.

Pelican’s refusal to engage the audience can best be understood as an extension of their strict minimalist aesthetic: the band is about sound, not personality. There are no melodies, no verses or choruses. Nobody ever takes a solo, and the drum parts are spare and simple, with brief, precise fills. Patterns repeat exactly, with no permutations, and though each song is multipartite the entire set is essentially monochromatic. (Not that this is bad: criticizing this music for being monochromatic is a little like complaining that the ocean is all blue.)

“Mammoth,” track two on Pelican’s EP, opens with a few bars of a stately single-string guitar figure, then lands on a thundering chord with all four feet–and then lands on it again and again, 64 times in a row. By the time the band finally changes notes, I no longer especially want them to. There is craftsmanship here, but it erases its own fingerprints; the spell would be broken if your attention were called to a technical detail. Ordinarily I get tired of music if it’s too repetitive, if it doesn’t develop a direction, if it isn’t taut with the push-pull of competing impulses–but Pelican breaks all those rules. Their music shuts my brain down. Critical listening isn’t just irrelevant; it’s impossible.

At the Abbey–a much bigger room than the Fireside, with a correspondingly powerful PA system–the sound lapped against the ceiling and seemed to pour into my head from everywhere at once. I swear I could feel the crest of each individual sound wave as it passed through my breastbone, and the juddering double kick drum on “Forecast for Today” and “Drought” made it hard to focus my eyes. The cuffs of my jeans vibrated around my calves like ringing bells. The air seemed to have thickened into gel, and it felt like my arms were floating in it. The sound was like a strong, steady current of warm water: I could lean into it, and every time it stopped I felt a shock of icy weightlessness. The tiny silences in some of the songs–caesuras just long enough to gasp in–seemed designed to make me grateful when the sound came rushing back to hold me up again.

On the tray card of their EP, Pelican addresses the subject of extreme volume by quoting an essay called “Earplugs” by guitarist Marc Ribot. The quote reads, in part: “The musician is both sacrificial victim and magical protector who filters the dangerous volume levels through his/her body (literally standing between amp and audience) to protect the audience. This ritual is not unlike the shamanistic practice of filtering strong poisons through their bodies so others can enjoy the less toxic residue by drinking their hallucinogenic piss.” I assume Ribot meant this self-serious self-aggrandizement to come off as tongue-in-cheek, and the way Pelican uses his words, they are funny. But there’s something that makes me think twice. A pelican, in medieval alchemy, was a specific type of alembic or retort: a two-story glass vessel with a tube leading out of the upper section back into the lower, in which a substance could be redistilled endlessly. This vessel was used to conjure the philosopher’s stone, which was supposed to transform base metal into gold. Furthermore, alchemists believed that actual pelicans fed their young with their heart’s blood, an act of selflessness that came to be equated with the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, which itself functioned as a metaphor for purification and wholeness.

After the Fireside show in January I asked Laurent Lebec about the guy at the lip of the stage who’d been flashing the horned hand and banging his head–what could he possibly have been thinking? “I don’t get it either,” Lebec said. His face was shining with sweat, and he was bleeding from behind one ear, where he’d accidentally hit himself with the headstock of his guitar. “We just want people to feel good.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Anderson.

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.