Nighttime Stories by PelicanRelease date: June 7, 2019
Label: Southern Lord
Heavy instrumentalists Pelican return after a lengthy absence with a dark and brooding sixth album. A quick scan of the track list reads like a horror soundtrack ‘Abyssal Plain’, ‘Cold Hope’, ‘It Stared At Me’. In which case we find them lost in dark woods, unable to find their way back to the creaky cabin or the road out to safety. That gives the wrong impression, Pelican do not bend to the histrionics or death panto of so many heavy bands, there’s no supernatural horror here only the inescapable pain of the world. They don’t give us much to go on either, Nighttime Stories is sullen and uncommunicative, turning its back and folding into its hurt.
If the ugly contraction in the title isn’t upsetting enough (spellcheck hates it) take a look at the sleeve. Even by their own pretty low standards it’s a shocker. It looks like it’s for a short run indie 7″ and the design didn’t quite work out at the printers. Black and red and bleak. Darkness and anger turned inwards. It fits the album well enough. Opening track ‘WST’ is an acoustic lament, played by their new (ish) guitarist Dallas Thomas on a guitar handed down by his father whose initials form the title and who passed away during this period. It sets the scene and tone for the album. It’s not always helpful or illuminating to consider the story of how bands came to make particular records, better to take the music on its own terms and work from there. If I hadn’t read these details it would just be a pleasant enough introductory piece before ‘Midnight and Mescaline’ kicks in hard with the sort of dramatic, racing, post metal chunk we expect from Pelican.
Terse as Nighttime Stories can feel they are signposting the personal issues that feed this record by opening it this way. It’s been a long hard decade for them and in a number of ways this is no longer the band that made 2009’s What We All Come To Need. This is the first album written entirely with Thomas, who replaced Laurent Schroeder-Lebec in 2012, and only their second in ten years. That last album, Forever Becoming, has just recently been re-released in remixed form as they were never happy with it. Elsewhere Schroeder-Lebec, Trevor Shelley de Brauw and drummer Larry Herweg also played in art grind band Tusk whose vocalist Jody Minnoch died suddenly in 2014. Nighttime Stories and many of the song names were originally suggested by Minnoch for Tusk as ideas from that band floated into the developing new version of Pelican with Thomas.
Were the weight of personal circumstance not enough to account for the album’s dark mood, Shelley de Brauw adds “We were halfway through writing the album when a significant portion of the country signalled that they were ready to publicly embrace totalitarianism, bigotry, and white supremacy, and the resulting dread and anger we experienced had a considerable effect on the shape of the material that followed.” None of this is really explicit in the music but the mood is consistently darker and heavier than Pelican have been for a long time. ‘Abyssal Plain’ starts choppily before some black metal drum clatter knocks it sideways. I’m not sure it quite works but it returns to unsettle an otherwise atmospheric groove. The previously mentioned dread and anger form the granite wall of ‘Cold Hope’, a little too sprightly for sludge perhaps but relentless, grinding, and admitting only the palest grey light. ‘It Stared At Me’ is great, a spacious, downtempo interlude of meditative guitar lines and slow build momentum with some lovely slide in its last half.
The title track sees a return to weighty riffing but it feels cautious. It circles and staggers like a wary, hunted thing. Even as it gets into full flight there’s something wounded about it. Like the record as a whole it feels angry, resentful and broken. ‘Arteries Of Blacktop’ is a standout, the dark clouds parting a little and a sense of urgency returning. It’s a great title too, Pelican at their best are one of those bands whose music is so evocative of driving through the landscape, of scenery and emotion fusing in the mind. For much of this record we’ve been parked in a lay-by weeping tears of frustration and despair but ‘Arteries Of Blacktop’ finds us back out driving through the night with vague but furious purpose. Finally ‘Full Moon, Black Water’ sees the fog lift and ends on a note of hope. In its last minute a bright, circling motif, like something that you might get from The Cure, emerges suggesting that all is not yet lost, light glimmers over the horizon, the long dark night might be at an end. Whether that’s true for the band or not we’ll see. Nighttime Stories is a tough record, spiky and not easily likable. It’s hard to see it winning them a lot of new fans but equally it’s not going to scare the old ones away. Hopefully it closes out one phase of their career and opens a new one.