An audience feels comfortable watching a front man. Go to YouTube.com and watch any clip of Queen performing and, more than likely, Freddie Mercury’s stage romping will overshadow any guitar prowess of Brian May. As pop culture dictates, image is everything and every popular band needs a charismatic front man to represent to the masses suffering from iPod-induced musical-ADD. Even as recent as AFI’s spin-kicking singer Davey Havok, people now seem more at ease to place a band’s entire personality in the hands of the lead singer.
But there was a time when bands could get along just fine without singers. Everyone remembers jazz (even though a lot of those acts were orchestrated by a single man: Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, etc.), right? Moving ahead, surf-rock bands from the ’60s, such as The Surfaris and The Ventures, gave us hits like “Walk Don’t Run” and “Wipeout” without singing one word into the microphone (unless you’re counting that maniacal child-voice that announces, “Hahahaha … wipeout!” before the drum solo starts). Don’t forget the mainstream techno boom of the late ’90s that spawned acts like Underworld and Daft Punk who, despite the occasional sound-bite vocals, focused mainly on the beat (the former went as far as to don robot costumes to disassociate any personal identities with their music).
And this is why bassist Bryan Herweg is so confused when people think his instrumental band Pelican is a new or novel idea.
“People act like instrumental music is a new thing. Jazz, fusion—so many bands have been doing that for a long time,” says Herweg in a phone interview. “No one in the band wants to sing. It wasn’t like this conscious decision to not have a singer; we just never found one, really. We always wanted one. If ever we were impressed by someone, we’d take them, but it never really worked out. We think the music is fine so far without it. We’re instrumental, and that’s how it is.”
Herweg’s simplistic response still may not satisfy critics and fans, mainly because it leaves Pelican’s music unclassifiable—and that makes an audience almost as uncomfortable as not having front man to watch. Rather than the easily discernable jazz, techno or surf categories, Pelican owes their style to equal parts metal, ambient, pop and hardcore. But, without a screamer to signify metal or a whiner to signify pop, Pelican sits comfortably on the fence. One thing that fans can agree on, however, is that Pelican’s music is epic.
The first two albums of the Chicago-based band Australasia and The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw found the band taking full advantage of their instrumentality, building cinemalike tension to an explosive finale and 10-minute songs were the norm, a sound reminiscent of Hydra Head labelmates Cave In. But their latest album City of Echoes replaces some of their sludgier aspects with more pop sensibilities, as well as cutting the track times in half without compromising potency. But, as if to quell claims of the band “selling out,” or making their music more accessible, Herweg insists that their new approach is for more pragmatic reasons … like being able to play more than a couple songs each night.
“Sometimes we’d only be playing one song during a show,” Herweg says. “So we decided to shorten them up, and it’s amazing how energetic that is.”
“We don’t try to make epic songs,” continues Herweg. “But there definitely is a big cinematic element to our music, and it would make sense for us to do movie music. And, being an instrumental band, we try to make moods, and we’re all avid movie watchers. We’ve always been open to doing any movie soundtracks, but we haven’t had any offers. Hopefully in the future we will.”
When questioned if his band had any particular movie scenes in mind when writing some of the more epic … er, cinematic parts of City of Echoes, without hesitation, Herweg happily responds, “First Blood.”
PELICAN with Clouds. Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East. Saturday, Aug. 18, 9 p.m. 355-4949