I suppose I’m a fan of the Chicago post-metal scene: I’ve got plenty of Pelican and Russian Circles albums, and was lucky enough to see the latter live last year (which, when you live where I do, is a minor miracle). Pelican haven’t been on the same trajectory as their cousins, though, but it’s not completely their fault. Life gets in the way sometimes, and many things happened to these guys since their last full-length, 2013’s Forever Becoming. The biggest catalyst for the writing of Nighttime Stories was the death of Tusk vocalist Jody Minnoch in 2014.1 In fact, the album title was originally supposed to be a Tusk album title, and several song titles also come from Minnoch’s notes. But that’s to be expected following tragic circumstances. Our hopes here are for the band to channel all that emotion into some compelling material.
Pelican’s last two albums have both been compelling entries in the post-metal genre, and lucky for me, there are no vocals to compare between then and now: just music.2 The music here is both more aggressive and more subtle than on the previous records. Don’t think that’s possible? It is. The bulk of the tracks are gritty and muscular. Pelican hit their ideas hard. “Arteries of Blacktop” seems doomy to start but rolls into a gloriously frantic pace. Lead single “Midnight and Mescaline” is an angry beast, with numerous stops and starts, killer bass lines, and a terrific arrangement featuring a number of ideas. And “Cold Hope” is a turgid and ponderous number that features crushing riffs and angular yet simple lead breaks.
The delicate moments are equally enjoyable. “Full Moon, Black Water” is the longest song at eight minutes (with its beautiful ending, it’s the perfect way to close the album), and is ripe with atmosphere, opening with subdued acoustic guitar and a forlorn, tragic feel until midway through, when the riffing gets heavy and the doom is real. It’s a grinding song that rewards patience with numerous riffs scattered amongst the chugs. “It Stared at Me” may have the most potential of all the material here, with its deliciously atmospheric riff and dreamy rhythm, but see the next paragraph for why this is actually a disappointment.
I’ve spoken glowingly of Nighttime Stories thus far, but there are still flaws. Not in the production: sure, the mastering job may be slightly heavy-handed, but that doesn’t take away from the percussive power and monstrous bass tone. There are dynamics where they need to be, making the album an enjoyable listen in that regard. But not every song hits the mark. Opening track “WST” is an intro, but do we really need that on an instrumental album? Not when it stands in stark contrast to the feel of most of the other songs. And “It Stared at Me” is equally short, which is disappointing because the nucleus of the song is so good we want it to coalesce into something amazing, but it just ends. These two misses leave Nighttime Stories with room for improvement.
Forever Becoming and What We all Come to Need both flirted with Very Good status in my books, and Nighttime Stories nudges just past that demarcation. This is overall an emotional, visceral, elemental album that hits the gritty post-metal sweet spot more often than not. Pelican can be proud of the end product here, knowing that with some fine-tuning a masterpiece is well within their reach next time out. They’ve always played on the gritty, dark, and heavy side of the post-metal spectrum, and the effect of losing a close friend has weighted the music further in that direction, with strong results.