4 out of 5
Label: Hydra Head
Producer: Sanford Parker
If the slide guitar and acoustics of recent Pelican stuff seems odd, take a look back at their first full length, Australasia. After the devastating slowcore thunderstorm of their self-titled EP, the group returned with cheery looking packaging (from label guy Aaron Turner, of course) and an unplugged opening strum of down-tuned guitar. It, of course, gives way to massive riffage, but in come some bridges higher up on the fretboard, as well as some structural / instrumental playfulness with the title track – the last song on the album and also one of the best songs on the record.
But Australasia isn’t perfect. It’s a stepping stone. Some songs seem to stumble at moments, the odd-timed drum fill that they work successfully on the EP doesn’t quite work here when the group is also trying to shift time signatures within the same moment, and a couple of the tracks just end, and you’re on to the next one thinking that maybe you’re still on another part of the previous track. ‘Australasia’ was learning how to meld the dark and light, the wandering scales of later Pelican plus the peeling away and adding to sludge pummeling as on that EP. First track ‘NightEndDay’ summarizes the successes and failures of this approach, and the murky recording also offers evidence that the group grew to understand what they needed / wanted from a production standpoint as well. ‘Night’ lurches forth and rocks into some great moments, but it feels both wandering and cautious at the same time, constantly coming back to check with the audience if the new tricks they’re trying sound alright. Right after that, though, you get ‘Draught,’ to my ears one of Pelican’s best ever tracks, eight minutes that builds and builds and never lets go and never becomes a disappointment. Australasia’s next two tracks sound more typical, good songs, but easily blent together, and ‘Untitled’ feels like a closer, going back to a slow and quiet sound. But greatness rears its head for that concluding title track.
I was worried, when this album came out, that Pelican wouldn’t have much room to grow from their EP. And the album definitely wasn’t as solid because it wasn’t committed to one sound. But going back and listening to it in retrospect shows how much of a turning point it was, and makes the high points of the album feel like successes worth championing, since so many instrumental bands can’t figure out where to go once they’ve settled into a niche.