It’s been a long six years. Times have changed greatly since Pelican’s last record. Post-rock – as Nick, Eden and company regularly detail – has wiggled its tendrils into an increasingly diverse pool of influences, blurring things to a point where I’m not even sure where to draw the lines anymore. This being said, there’s the sense that maybe “old school” post-rock might not cut it anymore. Still, in spite of our broadening tastes, we shouldn’t be quick to forget that Forever Becoming was a solid record that was lauded by many (even some of those oft-disappointed and never satisfied folks) as a bounce back of sorts, although it wasn’t a return to the long-form version of Pelican that seems to be burned into so many people’s mind as the end-all/be-all. As luck has it, Nighttime Stories sounds like an effort to reconcile these differences.
From the onset, there’s a distinctly throwback flavor that harkens back to the slow-burning, delicate passages tucked inside colossal epics. Though as a standalone track instead of a movement within a larger piece, “WST” feels like a somber snippet from The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw; it’s undeniably moving and emotive. That is, until revitalizing lead single “Midnight and Mescaline” kicks in. It’s a jarring shift, and it suddenly feels like modern Pelican again: segmented, compartmentalized. Any awkwardness in this transition is more or less forgivable because “Midnight and Mescaline” is a clinic on the rapidly-evolving, driving post-rock that the group has been honing for the larger part of their existence. The track breathes and advances with a refreshed energy.
In the context of the album at large, it’s a sea change awakening of sorts that somehow makes the cumbersome juxtaposition becoming after repeat listens. Purpose emerges from erasure. The condensed approach championed on records like City of Echoes and What We All Come To Need returns, and each track quickly finds its footing and snaps into a new direction. Fans of their more immediate work will relish these tight compositions, and old-timers might come around to find themselves finally swayed to the short-form version of the group where songs won’t as explicitly flow into one another, but instead vibe off one another. The sequencing is keen and preserves the momentum and propulsion with a couple welcome reprieves from the tumult.
Further, this chapter-like approach allows for a lot of ground to be covered both sonically and emotionally, something recent albums have tried with less success. Where their post-rock peers have grown broader and longer over time, Pelican shifted toward tighter, quicker songs. Now, the individual tracks aren’t as rangy as they may have been in the past (the longest track here is just a hair over eight minutes), but Nighttime Stories explores emotions and textures with greater depth and a wider pool of influences, making the shortest tracks feel robust and fully formed. They seem to try to do less, and in doing so, accomplish more. The highs and lows aren’t quite as pronounced, but each song is thorough and efficient. The transitional “It Stared At Me” takes a slinky desert rock foray with slide guitar to creepy heights, perfectly paced and sandwiched between the devastatingly crushing “Cold Hope” and title track. “Abyssal Plain” seamlessly bounds back and forth between punchy rock rhythms, jangly, loose grooves, and smooth post-black tremolos with blast beats without fatigue. It makes for the group’s heaviest record to date, with an ear regularly tilted to the dark and aggressive without going overboard.
The interplay between guitarists de Brauw and Thomas is inspired and audacious as ever. Nighttime Stories marks the first record the tandem has written together, and they leave no stone uncovered. Regularly working staples like angular leads, tasty palm mutes, and weird harmonies; they’ve also honed their timing with surprising cutaways, breakdowns, and some fucking ferocious arpeggios (the close of “Arteries of Blacktop” is a ride). The rhythm section of brothers Bryan and Larry Hertweg keeps things rooted, but they’re also notably more involved and active, recapturing some of the dynamism found on early records as well as forging new paths forward. All the better, they quickly morph between passages with a smoothness and ease that contradicts the intricacies of the songwriting.
There are a few hiccups that may need some warming up to (an early transition in “Abyssal Plain” comes to mind), but the record is largely unmarred. Further, Nighttime Stories is a return to their with some of their heaviest material to date. “Drought” and “Mammoth” fans can rekindle their love for gargantuan riffage with tracks like “Arteries of Blacktop,” “Cold Hope,” “Full Moon, Black Water,” and more. There’s no shortage of on-brand metal riffing (sexy old-school Pelican triplets in tow), tectonic stomp sections, and blindsiding leads. There’s even a few moments that bring to mind fellow menacing riff masters Inter Arma at their woozy peak. Closer “Full Moon, Black Water” is an obvious standout (one of the group’s best musical achievements, no doubt), a sort of culmination of the record’s overall sonic power and emotional heft. It showcases their mastery of melancholic beauty while offering up a metaphorical break in the clouds that hits you in the feels so goddamn hard.
Pelican’s sludgy weight carries most of what they do on this outing, and it plays to their strengths as musicians as well as the overall tone of the record. Additionally, they’ve become more mindful about how to carve out room for striking calms and introspective clearings. No, it’s not as dramatic or granular as as they’ve been in the past, but instead they have become more vivid and capable of coaxing out nuance within their raging heaviness. Nighttime Stories feels like there’s real direction and motive; there’s purpose and fire to what’s happening here. They’ve long abandoned stylistic expectations. There’s no need for ruminative and painstakingly glacial deconstructions. There’s no need for minimalist threads to be tugged at until nothing is left. The patient builds and crescendo-core era is over, and this iteration of the band has long tried to detach themselves from it. They’ve just finally found the right way to prove it.
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Nighttime Stories is available wherever fine records are sold June 7 via Southern Lord.