It seems as if when instrumental rock bands get underestimated by critics--and the listening public, for that matter--it's simply because not all of us are musicians, but we all use words to one degree or another. So we can relate more easily to the immediate message contained in lyrics than we can to minor and major keys, time signatures and melodic structure.
So some of us just throw instrumental bands into the same pot. For instance, the amazing Chicago four-piece Pelican plays dramatic, monolithic rock music (sometimes likened to heavy metal) filled with shifting dynamics, gorgeous melodies and harmonic invention.
But they are often lumped into a group of other bands--Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky and Tortoise, for instance--simply because they all play music that is, at least partly, instrumental.
This kind of bugs Laurent Lebec, guitarist and leader of Pelican. "It's an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as some of those bands," he says, and you can hear the "but" coming before he says it.
"But in terms of comparing us to bands like Godspeed and Explosions, I think our sound has very little in common with those bands. We're all instrumental bands in which the action grows and then recedes, and there's an emphasis on guitar, but other than that, the songs are very different."
Lebec's on his cell phone, traveling in a cramped van with his band mates to Miami, where they will play with their friends in the Japanese group Mono. The current two-month concert tour will bring the co-headlining bands to Tucson this week for a gig at Plush, on Friday, May 26.
In the opening slot will be the local band Early Black, which plays music that can be described as "alternative/experimental/shoegaze," according to their page on MySpace. The folks at Plush tell us that Early Black "will resonate with fans of Mogwai, Slint, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mono, Isis, Codeine and June of 44."
Although Lebec, 29, is extremely affable and polite, he isn't afraid to unload on writers or listeners who would confine his band to a certain style. For example, Pelican's widely revered second album, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, has been praised for daringly including acoustic guitars among the clarion call of guitarscapes.
"They were always there," he says politely but defiantly.
"There's more acoustic guitar on (the band's 2003 debut) Australasia, under the music, than there is on Fire in Our Throats. There's always been acoustic guitar. We write all our songs on acoustic guitar to begin with. I do appreciate that people listen so closely to the music to hear that we are bringing the acoustic guitars out front now, but it's really not a big deal."
At the risk of further defining Pelican by what it is not, we moved onto the subject of whether Pelican is actually a metal band. Certainly, their music resembles that of popular alternative metal acts such as Mastodon, Old Man Gloom and Isis, groups with which Pelican's members are friends and share a kinship. And metal media outlets love to claim Pelican as theirs.
Lebec is ambivalent about such a categorization, though. "We consider ourselves spiritual partners with Enya. Heh, just kidding.
"We consider ourselves fans of metal, and we have a lot of friends in bands who play metal. And often we play shows with metal bands. There are some metal parts in our songs. But we're not a metal band. That's not to say other bands that define themselves as metal are better or worse than we are."
When asked in past interviews to describe his band's sound, Lebec has said, "We're a fucking triumphant band."
This time, though, he says simply, "I usually wind up just thinking Pelican is doing what other bands aren't, and that Pelican is trying to make music that is challenging and is also accessible."
It's easy, though, for Lebec to compare Pelican to Tusk, the grindcore project that has released two albums and gave Pelican three of its members--Lebec, guitarist Trevor de Brauw and drummer Larry Herweg.
"With Tusk, there is a lot more rage in the music. It's a little more antagonistic, and there kind of has to be that element in grindcore, I think. Pelican aims to connect a lot more with audiences. ... We feel Pelican's songs and their titles provide a subtle message about cycles of nature and reasons to be hopeful."
The extended songs on Fire in Our Throats boast titles that call to mind the elements, the heavens and the seasons, such as "Last Day of Winter," "Autumn Into Summer," "March to the Sea" and "Aurora Borealis."
Says Lebec, "This was significantly a block of songs that have certain similar characteristics. We intended the album to be about environmental changes. We recorded during what was really one of the coldest winters in Chicago. You ride out the worst periods, and you bring something of it with you. We knew that we wanted this body of songs to be about those changes."
The members of Pelican have in the past said they'd never rule out using a singer, if they found the right one. Lebec says he and his bandmates--who include bassist Bryan Herweg, Larry's brother--are comfortable right now expressing themselves without vocals.
"It's about presenting the personality of the band as a whole as opposed to the personalities of its individual members. What you're presenting is the music and not the images of the band. That's why there are no pictures of the band members on the albums."
As for the band's adamantly nonmetal name, Lebec says, "We always sort of had an affinity for naming our bands from the names of animals. It's sort of a nonrestrictive way to suggest characters. It's also a way to suggest a sort of behavior without even having heard the band. When I think of the word Pelican, I think of the ocean, wingspan, the act of flying, the vastness of the sky and space. Those are things that first come to mind for me."
The name of a band is important, he says. "It becomes a question of 'Can you live with this for a period of years?' We definitely can live with Pelican."