More like four-and-a-half stars
This album is blissful metal from second one to second last. There are two things that hold this back from a five, both of much-less-than-catastrophic import: 1) The drummer and bass serve as back-up to the brilliant guitar interplay of Laurent Lebec and Trevor de Brauw, serving to make them something of an afterthought (still, certainly not the only excellent band to operate on such a template); 2) Nothing quite manages to approach the invigorating breath of Odin to the synapses that is “March to the Sea,” which is a career-defining opus by any honest critic’s account.
And really, I adore the rest of this album. The album starts out bristling with “Last Day of Winter,” a refreshing blend of doom chords, serious guitar harmonizing, and melodic (!!!) feedback. Every song on this album is quite strong. Little can prepare a listener for “March to the Sea,” even after the cajillionth listen. It starts out dirgey, perhaps the best instrumental approximation of Nordic hordes marching to battle where the fjord meets the ocean I can envision in my ear. And then it continually morphs into something else and something else and something else. Really, in the end it might be a good thing that the drums and bass lay back a little. It’s not as if drummer Larry Herweg comes close to resembling any sort of slouch. Around the seven minute mark of “March” he does some very evocative cymbal work, making them sound as if they are being played backwards, though they are not. This isn’t the kind of rock where everyone shows off at once. Indeed, nobody really ever shows off at all (the album has no true solos). It is all an ambient adventure. Done with the instrumentation of a traditional metal band. Sounding not in the least traditional. Indeed, sounding quite radical.
By the end of “March to the Sea,” everything rushes into an absolutely unpredictable and thoroughly musical frenzy. As opposed to other bands who rock out “without structure,” these guys certainly know what they are doing. E.g., some other reviewer here compared them to Metallica. Metallica can’t do free form noise with anything resembling this kind of proficiency. Listen to any live Metallica song with “free form” sections and you will hear what I mean. They sound like people randomly hitting different parts of their instruments. Pelican very conscientiously deconstruct metal and rock, making it sound beautiful, uplifting, and menacing as they do it.
This is simply a stunning record on many important levels. If you want rock that suggests so many things at once that you can barely handle it, this is the album for you.