This review could easily be reduced to three words--Isis without vocals--and a great many of you would raise an eyebrow, nod approvingly, and turn the City page in search of a new revelation. But in every basic, absolute truth--water is wet, the sky is blue, Fred Durst is the Antichrist--there are volumes of formula, backstory, and complication, so why not pry open Pelican's beak?
The Chicago-based instrumental quartet is only associated with Aaron Turner, the Hydra Head Records honcho and mastermind behind scholarly Boston hardcore collective Isis, in that he designs their album layouts; longtime friend Sanford Parker recorded the hefty dirges of both Australasia and the band's self-titled debut EP, released in February. Still, the Isis imprint is obvious, which is ironic given that Isis themselves have long been saddled with comparisons to the repetitive, tribal machinations of Neurosis, so much so that Turner has refused to add an auxiliary audiovisual component to Isis's meat-and-potatoes live show on the grounds that it would propagate the association. All three bands detune their rock axes until they resemble caveman clubs, but perform with preternatural patience and introspection. By eliminating the frontman--usually an interchangeable Cookie Monster growler in this genre--Pelican bravely leave what initially appear to be rudimentary grindcore compositions vulnerable to attack. The unspoken expectation: If you're an instrumental metal band, you'd better be fucking good.
Australasia's six songs--perhaps "continents" would be more appropriate--take about 50 minutes to grind by because the players are enamored with establishing a groove and methodically beating it to a pulp. "Drought" (the title's water imagery is very Isis) is built on a balls-simple, palm-muted progression. As the diesel chug advances, guitarists Laurent Lebec and Trevor de Brauw deftly insert sharp bends, behind-the-nut scrapes, and other improvisational flourishes, never striving to startle with a mathy signature U-turn. It's Metallica without the masturbation. Now, whereas Isis's and Neurosis's overarching man vs. nature/God themes are fairly obvious, it's unclear what Pelican is trying to convey via Australasia; the fourth and fifth tracks are "GW" and untitled, offering zero insight into their mythology or intent. But so be it. Instrumentals of such brain and brawn naturally encourage imaginative interpretation. This sophomore effort is a gorgeous clinic in restraint and release as ready-made for headphones brooding as blasting aimlessly down a deserted freeway.
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