Heavy Pelican: Chicago instrumentalists span rock’s wide spectrum

By Mark Guarino

Because a lead singer’s attitude, fashion tastes and vocal style tends to define the band they are fronting, instrumental rock bands pose a challenge for the label obsessed. Which helps explain the categories and sub-categories — post-rock, math-rock, grindcore — that ride the line between head-scratching and simply pretentious,

Pelican, a four-member band of instrumentalists from Chicago, were labeled alt-metal upon their 2003 debut, thanks to music’s interplay between glacier walls of heavy guitars and the generous spaces the band created for them to breathe, plus the fact it debuted on Hydra Head Industries, the Los Angeles metal label. But as the band developed over two subsequent albums, Pelican demonstrated remarkable growth.

As “After the Ceiling Cracked” (Hydra Head), a new concert DVD illustrates, Pelican is, above all else, a group of meticulous, resilient players. The footage, shot at the London club Scala in December 2005, does not bother focusing on the audience interaction or high showmanship usually meant for home viewing thrills. Instead, without a vocal microphone, the band actually seems subdued between songs. The excitement is reserved for music, which ebbs and flows without ever losing the melodic current. Maybe a reason Pelican is so difficult to categorize is that they, like Tortoise, Chicago’s other instrumental collective, play inside a wide range of styles, moods and energy. “March to the Sea” is grounded in galloping riffs but switches up continuously: from quiet moments featuring twinkling guitars to furious noise to dynamic guitar interplay to the end, an exercise in speed and control where the skyward melody keeps it from just notes and noise.

“I feel what we do is not genre-based in any respect … I’m past the point where I feel vested to fight to control people’s conceptions of what we do,” said guitarist Trevor de Brauw, 29.

An easy touchstone for Pelican is the intelligence and energy found in the hardcore scene. De Brauw, bassist Larry Herweg and guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec played in Tusk. As time passed, the songs Schroeder-Lebec was writing didn’t seem to fit the loud-fast formula of their current band, so when Bryan Herweg joined on bass (both brothers grew up in Des Plaines), they moved past their limitations and explored more dynamic sounds and textures.

De Brauw, a native of Evanston, said that even through they auditioned singers, the music appeared to move forward without one. Instead of pulling riffs from the air, the band worked to find more melodic elements that they could build structures upon. Instead of the darkness of metal, there is the twin combination of melancholy and optimism in the music. Which makes sense when De Brauw reveals his greatest influences to be Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate, two bands that played both ends of the dynamic spectrum and also are both considered early designers of the later emo culture.

Despite playing the rounds of small rock clubs in the states (including a show Thursday at the Empty Bottle), Pelican has concentrated on Europe, where De Brauw says their audience is growing in comparison to these shores, where audiences have remained steady. The continual road life (they toured six months straight last year) has meant that the band trimmed their sound of excesses and, as the current DVD showcases, has become tighter, cleaner and more pronounced.

“We are conscious of the fact that all the records we love to listen to have staying power because they cover a variety of moods,” he said.

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