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Beneath all of its year-zero, I– hate– Pink Floyd bluster, the original punk scene included more than a few fans of—wait for it—progressive rock. On a summer 1977 radio show, Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten, perhaps the most famous of all punks, dusted off brainy, art-rockin’ tracks by the likes of Can, Third Ear Band, and Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill. Keith Levene, an original member of the Clash and Rotten’s six-stringing sidekick in post-Pistols act Public Image Ltd., said in a 2001 interview that Yes was his “absolute godhead band.” And Captain Sensible, the guitarist for the Damned, admitted to stalking his favorite members of Soft Machine; his band later recorded its second album with Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason at the helm.
As we now know, the leather-jacketed rank and file bought into the rhetoric, not the reality. And, thus, progressive rock was banished to the margins. Granted, the mythos served a worthy purpose, yanking rock ’n’ roll back from the wizard-capes-and-string-sections precipice of the mid-’70s. But a new wave of DIY types doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Either too young to remember the aforementioned excess or too open-minded to care, these folks seek to reconcile punk’s brass-tacks mentality with progressive rock’s damn-the-torpedoes ambition.
One such group is Chicago’s Pelican, an instrumental quartet that is most often identified with an uncomplicated brand of metallic punk. In a recent issue of Decibel magazine (a publication to which this writer contributes), guitarist Laurent Lebec said that the band was originally formed as an outlet for his minimalist, “stoner rock” workouts, a style of songwriting mastered on Pelican’s half-hour debut, 2003’s Pelican. Nowadays, Lebec finds inspiration in “stuff with really complex arrangements.” It is a listening habit that no doubt informs Lebec and his bandmates’ desire “to make our songs longer.”
Relax: Nothing on Pelican’s second and latest full-length, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, sounds anything like Jethro Tull or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, two much-maligned prog outfits that Lebec has been enjoying of late. But neither does the midtempo Fire sound overwhelmingly metal. The band’s first full-length, 2003’s Australasia, showed signs of evolution amid the Black Sabbath– esque pummel: longer songs, more melody, and an acoustic ballad complete with singing saw. Fire, on the other hand, only briefly revisits Lebec and guitarist Trevor de Brauw’s highly repetitive and heavily percussive riffing (in “Autumn Into Summer”)—and then only after an extended and sometimes ambient intro.
That’s not to say that Fire is riff-free; the album is actually quite full of them. In contrast to past recordings, though, Lebec and de Brauw now take full advantage of the guitar’s tonal range, rather than just its lowest frequencies. On the shimmering “Aurora Borealis,” for instance, the two ax men leave their distortion pedals off as they pick and jangle their way through the song’s many movements (think the Byrds or R.E.M.). And even when the amps are roaring full blast—on, say, psych-folk opener “Last Day of Winter” or shoegazing anthem “Sirius”—the chords pack more melody than punishment (à la Hüsker Dü and My Bloody Valentine).
The progressive-rock part of all of this is not the playing itself, which is seldom busy or improvisational enough to suggest Lebec’s ’70s faves. Pelican’s guitarists eschew solos, and its rhythm section—brothers Bryan and Larry Herweg (bass and drums, respectively)—is heavy-handed, for sure, but relatively simple and efficient. All things considered, the album’s debt to progressive rock is most explicit in its song arrangements. Spanning the gamut from Fugazi to John Fahey to the Fucking Champs, “March to the Sea” contains no less than 12 distinct sections in just over 11 minutes. (April’s March Into the Sea EP tacks on an acoustic-guitar-and-flute coda that just about doubles the song’s length). And, actually, March is pretty much typical of Pelican’s new approach to its craft: Of Fire’s seven tracks, all but three exceed the nine-minute mark.
To Pelican’s credit, little of the new album comes across as long-winded or self-indulgent. The band never dwells or wanks; it just keeps the riffage flowing in a way that is, structurally at least, unlike the progressive rock of yore. As such, Fire is less a revved-up rewind of Pink Floyd or Soft Machine or Van der Graaf Generator than a steady stream of great, hard-rockin’ hooks. Lebec & Co. have always had a knack for that sort of thing. This time around, Pelican is simply more productive, more generous—not to mention more memorable. And that, in and of itself, is progress enough.
Seattle’s Kinski, like Pelican, is another instrumental four-piece that has just released an hourlong disc. And this one, too, contains some rather longish songs. According to a recent interview in Seattle alternative weekly the Stranger, the band claims that its fourth proper full-length, the largely up-tempo Alpine Static, is something of a departure from its earlier sound, which guitarist and primary songwriter Chris Martin describes as “ethereal” and “moody.” Kinksi’s newer, more direct approach, says bassist and kindergarten teacher Lucy Atkinson, is meant to convey a “really deep and full ’70s rock feel.”
What Atkinson means by that can be more or less divined from an earlier Seattle Weekly piece in which Martin professed a love for all of the German “Krautrock reissues, stuff like Ash Ra Tempel, Can, [and] Faust.” Or from the band’s Web site, where Kinski claims allegiance to minimalist composer Terry Riley and art-blues act the Groundhogs. The above names are a bit more hipster-friendly than Pelican’s recent playlist, yet all of them fall within the ’70s prog-rock canon—even Riley made a record with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and influenced many a bearded rock virtuoso.
Static, by contrast, is hardly a showcase for chops. On austere opener “Hot Stenographer,” Kinski spends most of the track looping a single, Southern-fried progression—one that most bands would consider a great starting point rather than the basis for a whole song. (Now, what comes after that wicked A-section, my man?) Several cuts are similarly lean and Wire-y (see: “Hiding Drugs in the Temple (Part 2)” and “Edge Set”). And, even when the band lets rip with some unanchored improv, Kinski’s guitar solos are more kinetic than prolix. “The Wives of Artie Shaw,” in particular, features a burst of scrappy guitar work that could’ve emanated from either the Strokes or the White Stripes.
Martin says that Kinski’s music requires a lot of attention from the listener—a typical progressive-rocker boast. Yet this statement will ring true only if you have trouble getting through, say, Dark Side of the Moon. With the exception of some random noise on “The Snowy Parts of Scandinavia,” nothing on Static makes for a difficult listen; its proggier moments are less demanding than its somewhat math-y punk. Take, for example, “All Your Kids Have Turned to Static,” a soothing guitar-and-flute ballad that evokes concept albums and giveaway roach clips without so much as breaking a sweat. Or “Passed Out on Your Lawn,” a freakout track that sets the controls for the heart of the sun but arrives on another green world.
In truth, Kinski’s attempt to capture that “’70s rock feel” ends up being more schizophrenic than the band probably intended. There is a lot of music here and quite a few ideas at play. The strongest impression, however, is that of musicians torn between the artier, agit-funk elements of ’70s punk (which they do well) and the looser, more wasted impulses of post– Sgt. Pepper’s experimentation (which they also do well). It would be a mistake to say that Kinski reconciles the two—to say that Static is true fusion. Instead, the group’s latest is kind of like one of those old Marvel What If… comic books: What if Johnny Rotten had tossed some Pink Floyd tracks in between songs on Never Mind the Bollocks? Obviously, we’ll never know. But, now, we’ve got Kinski to dream it up for us.CP
Kinski performs at 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, at the Warehouse Next Door, 1017 7th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 783-3933.