Following 2009’s threadbare What We All Come To Need, it was clear that Pelican needed a rest. The pioneering post-metal band didn’t just seem exhausted by its own intense schedule of writing, recording, and touring over the previous few years; metal itself had mutated wildly in the new millennium, and Pelican seemed upstaged by any number of hungrier, more focused outfits. It didn’t help that Pelican circa 2009 seemed just a little quaint. The cerebral, atmospheric sound of instrumental post-metal didn’t leave as much of a bruise as it once had, at least not compared to what so many metal upstarts had begun to peddle. To its credit, Pelican not only resisted the temptation to blacken, broaden, or otherwise overhaul its signature sound, it took that much-needed break between albums. A four-year break, to be precise. The Chicago quartet’s comeback is Forever Becoming, its fifth full-length. And a comeback it surely is.
Granted, there were hints this would happen. Last year, the group released the Ataraxia/Taraxis EP, the first Pelican release built around remote file-sharing rather than in-the-flesh jam sessions. Such a methodology might kill lesser bands, but it gave Pelican some necessary distance to look at its music objectively. Whatever insights were gleaned give Forever Becoming a huge lead over What We All Come To Need. The album is drawn tight as a noose; “Terminal” cranks and creaks like the rusted architecture of some angelic torture device, while “The Tundra” twists and churns and in a balletic freefall of catastrophic riffage. There’s delicacy, too, on “Perpetual Dawn,” the nearly 10-minute closer that’s poised between slow-core hollowness and majestically distorted swells of Sigur Rós-grade beauty. That doesn’t help soften the chugging bass or torque-driven chord progressions of “Vestiges,” nor the icy, unresolved menace of “Immutable Dusk.” Nor should it. It used to be that you could set your watch by the changes in a Pelican song, the ebb and flow of their albums. Not here. Forever Becoming is all about the gradual, gracefully illogical procession of heaviness—a counterintuitive lull that’s all the more hypnotic for its tendency to jar.
There’s also more metal on the album than any Pelican release to date—as if the group was intent on exploring both poles of its post-metal globe, a world whose equator used to be where Pelican mostly dwelled. More dynamics, more extremes, more shades of light and dark, of melody and atonality: Forever Becoming embraces all of it, as well as its own newfound, euphoric renewal. Metal, post- or otherwise, hasn’t gotten any simpler or less crowded over the past four years. But by stepping back and taking stock, Pelican has reconnected with what made it a pioneer in the first place: force, vision, and soul.