Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
Last week the Village Voice published a scathing review of Pelican's latest album, What We All Come to Need, by critic Stewart Voegtlin, in which he takes them to task for their "pancake-handed attempts to fuse phony triumphalism with the concrete-feet prog with which Neurosis took its baby steps but eventually, wisely discarded." He then goes on to rip on Baroness, Mastodon, Torche, and other allegedly similar bands for (I guess) not being metal enough, or perhaps just not being metal in the right way.
The review hasn't been received kindly in certain parts of the metal world, but I wasn't aware of the beef until the Daily Swarm posted a link to the review and to a well-written response from Justin Foley of the Austerity Program, a band that could easily be deemed "not metal enough" by the standards Voegtlin seems to be using.
What Foley gets at—which is also my major problem with the review—is that Voegtlin's thesis is based on the bands' motivations, which is an extremely tricky and failure-prone approach for any kind of arts criticism. Of course that's not to say it's always unsound to make assumptions about musicians' relationship to the music they create and the influences that they draw from. For instance it's pretty safe to say that music delivered with an obvious wink—like much of the output of Trans Am, a band Voegtlin weirdly holds up as an alternative to Pelican—has at least a little ironic distance involved in its creation. But Voegtlin's main problem with Pelican et al seems to be that they are, in his opinion, not emotionally invested in their music. Which is a ridiculous assumption to make.
If he's trying to say that Pelican aren't connected to metal in a deep emotional way, then he's dead wrong. I've talked to those guys, and they're the type of dudes who, if you mention Iron Maiden's Powerslave, get a strange far-off look in their eyes, then try to express exactly how much that record meant to them in high school. Guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec DJed a hopelessly, chronically underattended Wednesday metal night at the Continental for months and months just so he could hang out and listen to metal with the few friends who would come out to the Continental on a Wednesday.
And if on the other hand he's claiming that Pelican aren't invested in the music they actually play—seriously, what? Only a tiny handful of acts even luck into Pelican's level of popularity without putting a lot of effort into writing, playing, recording, and the thousands of other things a working band has to do for itself, and that requires deep emotional commitment. The reason you haven't heard of 99 percent of the bands in any given practice-space building is that they don't care enough to drive to Minneapolis in January to play to seven people, or to live for weeks at a time in a van, or to go through with any of the other ridiculous shit you have to endure to get good and get noticed.
Voegtlin also uses Pelican's fans to attack the group—another dubious mode of criticism—and in this case it's way off point. He says, "The stock crowd response at a Pelican show isn't running in circles in an aimless mosh pit or cliched fist-pumping, but instead folks clutching themselves and rocking to and fro, overcome with the music's relentless emotional ambiguity." Half the dudes at any given black-metal show spend entire sets clutching themselves and rocking back in forth in contemplation of the music. If I were to use Voegtlin's favored technique and guess at his motive for going in this direction, I'd say he went after Pelican's audience, and Pelican themselves, because they don't conform to his notion of long-haired "true" metal fans.
Voegtlin is apparently in love with metal cliches, which is understandable; metal cliches can be fun. But he seems to hold them up as representations of the genre's ideal form. Fans who aren't engaging in cliched behavior are, to him, not real fans. He offers Conan-metal band Gates of Slumber as an "actual-metal" alternative to cerebral types like Pelican. Over the past decade metal has undergone an aesthetic revolution, spinning off more styles and bridging more genre and sociological gaps than arguably any other kind of music. I guess to some people this is bad news.