Pelican was one of the first metal bands that I really got into. Their instrumental post-metal was a pretty easy addition/transition from the post-hardcore bands like Thrice that I was listening to in high school, and their huge riffs and intense sonic landscapes were, ahem, instrumental in getting me into other types of metal as well. 2005's The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw is in my All-Time Top Ten, and each of their albums has had some kind of effect on me upon its release. That said, 2007's City of Echoes is the last Pelican album I unequivocally love; 2009's What We All Come to Need and 2013's Forever Becoming certainly have incredible moments ("Ephemeral" and "The Creeper" from the former are easily two of the best songs the band has written). So when word reached that the newest Pelican album, Nighttime Stories, would be released on June 7th, I was excited, but perhaps not as excited as I would have been a decade ago. Was I just growing apart from one of my favorite bands, one of the bands who shaped my tastes in metal, performers of some of the best concerts I've ever attended? Or has Pelican lost a step, losing whatever alchemy the band had in the first decade of the century and replacing it with something lesser?
I'm not even going to pretend to bury the lede, because the answer is neither; Nighttime Stories absolutely rips from front to back, completely packed with riffs, atmosphere, and energy straight out of vintage Pelican. Trevor Shelley-deBrauw, Larry Herweg, Bryan Herweg, and Dallas Thomas have emerged from their six-year album slumber with an absolute beauty of a record, one that, despite its title, feels as though it's going to be perfect for the sunshine and warmth of the fast-approaching summer.
Ah, summer. Water on your feet, breeze in your hair, and deafening riffs in your ears...
"WST" begins with a central riff that reminds me a bit of a more foreboding take on Mastodon's "Joseph Merrick," before exploding into the frenzied amalgam of guitars, bass, and drums that is a hallmark of Pelican's best work. "Midnight and Mescaline," the first track to be released from Nighttime Stories, is an excited, upbeat romp sure to instantly get heads banging and toes tapping, and then, like many Pelican tracks, it's two minutes later and you feel like you're in a completely different song, unsure of how you got there. Re-listening to this band, and finding those subtle moments of transition is one of my favorite things about Pelican, and Nighttime Stories absolutely does not disappoint on that front.
"Abyssal Plain" kicks off with an immediate earworm of a riff, the kind of riff that's poppy and danceable and so much damn fun that I'm sure some trve kvlt assholes are recoiling into balls of pretentiousness just because it exists. "Fun" is a good word for Nighttime Stories, and "Abyssal Plain" is perhaps the best indicator of that. There's a moment toward the end of the song, when the band has left the first riff behind, and has entered a mix of different riffs and feedback. And in this moment, solitary guitar notes begin emerging, frolicking like deer through the morning fog. It's an exhilarating passage in a song that has no shortage of them, and while I wish it went on a little longer, it's probably better that it doesn't, so that it remains perfect.
"Uh, frolicking like what now? We will fuck up your car SO hard!
"Cold Hands" is probably the best track on an album full of great tracks (which is probably why they named their brand new beer after it), an icy slow burn that more than lives up to its title. There's a moment in the song (which is embedded below) that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it; listen to it and I'm pretty sure you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. "It Stared at Me" is a relatively quiet, introspective little ditty; while it's probably the weakest pure song on the album, its placement is perfect, and makes for a stunning transition from "Cold Hands" to the album's title track.
"Nighttime Stories" is Pelican at their best: thick, crunchy riffs surrounded by crashing cymbals, lots of ambient feedback, and swirling guitar licks that emerge like slow motion lightning strikes in a hurricane. For all their moves toward tighter, more concise songwriting that began in earnest on City of Echoes (moves which reach their apex on Nighttime Stories), it's refreshing to see that Pelican has not completely abandoned the more drone-focused roar of sound that made Australasia and The Fire in Our Throats... so incredible to me all those years ago. "Nighttime Stories" could easily be twice as long and I'd probably love it even more than I do now. That said, "Arteries of Blacktop" could very easily be seen as the second half of the title track; it's definitely a different song, but the two tracks' DNA couldn't be more similar, and it's not hard to envision a musical bridge connecting them into one long, throwback jam.
Speaking of throwback jams...
"Full Moon, Black Water" continues Nighttime Stories exemplary sound, but is my least favorite song on the album because of a metallic screeching that comes into the track out of nowhere and always makes me worry something is wrong with my car when I hear it while driving. I realize this is my own stupid fault, and should not be put upon Pelican or Nighttime Stories, but seriously every time I hear it I turn down the volume, mutter "...the fuck is that?" and then remember I'm an idiot. Album closer "Darkness" is perhaps my favorite Pelican album-ender; a driving track of pure momentum, Bryan Herweg's rumbling bass line providing the high wire for the rest of the band to dance and jump around, all the while moving forward toward the song, and album's explosive, cathartic finish.
Performance-wise, Nighttime Stories finds Pelican's members at or near the best they've ever been. It's still darkly funny to me that Larry Herweg was once the subject of a ridiculous review attacking his drumming, because I've always enjoyed him, and he's once again stellar on Nighttime Stories. Bryan Herweg continues to be whatever the band needs him to be moment to moment, adding weight and subtle depth to some tracks while emerging as the driving force in others. And guitarists Dallas Thomas and Trevor Shelley-de Brauw continue to be nothing less than one of the most talented, underrated guitarist duos in modern metal, every riff or shred or pluck working in perfect tandem with the rest of the band. And it should be said that for as much feedback as Pelican drown their songs in (especially live), it continues to be a tool for them, another instrument with which to craft their songs, and not a crutch. The moments on Nighttime Stories - and most Pelican albums, honestly -where the feedback drops away leaving nothing but the instrumentation, are crisp and proficient. As encompassing as the music of Pelican is, and with the way it completely envelops you and draws you in, it can be easy to miss, but make no mistake: these guys are really fucking good musicians.
Any band is lucky to have a single great album; bands that stick around for nearly two decades are bound to have some albums resonate less with listeners than others. And while the fans will always have their favorites, Nighttime Stories proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pelican continue to be inspired, and able to turn that inspiration into incredible, powerful music. Nighttime Stories is easily their best album in twelve years, and is very possibly their second-best release overall. In a year that is seeing no shortage of AOTY Contenders, Pelican have now emerged to stake their claim. Whether you're a longtime fan who checked out, an avid fan that's been there all along, or brand new to the band, Nighttime Stories is a rewarding, engrossing listen that is sure to entertain.
Nighttime Stories is out tomorrow via Southern Lord. They're also hitting the road for a couple short summer tours (which I sure hope adds a Boise date) in June and September, before heading overseas.