ALBUM REVIEW: Squid, Bright Green Field
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, post-punk and it’s father genre krautrock has been used by various bands to convey a sense of paranoia or unrest. This Nation’s Saving Grace by The Fall used that tense sound to critique British politics on tracks like “Spoilt Victorian Child”, using the unconventional, off-the-wall song structures and ambience as a means of venting frustration. Public Image Ltd. and bands of their ilk whipped up discomforting dark moods and sang in strange vocal tones over steady drum beats, a juxtaposition of order and chaos that felt like a much more organized and accurate picture of what punk wanted to do. It was like punk for nerds who toyed with synthesizers and read philosophy. Former thrashers studied Can and Kurt Vonnegut and tried to filter their scrambled thoughts into music that felt both danceable and autonomically compromising.
Like Anthony Fantano and myself said in our respective reviews for the excellent Genesis Owusu album Smiling With No Teeth, debut albums are an extremely difficult task for a new artist. The first album has to make a bold statement and have a lot of classic songs in order to get an audience hooked and waiting for a sophomore album. They often feel very scholarly, studied and heavily influenced by great art that preceded it. In Owusu’s case, breakout conceptual albums like Kendrick’s good kid, M.A.A.D. City and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill served as a backbone for his art, which he did his own thing on. Enter Squid out of the U.K. They’ve been making music for quite some time, but have never released a proper debut until 2021, a year that is extremely unpredictable.
There is a loose concept here, more like a series of themes expressed in different ways. The U.K. and the world at large is a dystopian, post-capitalist nightmarescape, the government has us under their thumb, and everyone is becoming bipolar because polarization of everything is occurring on a massive scale. The band has clearly done their homework on krautrock and post-punk; I can tell they are fans of Talking Heads, Public Image Ltd., Neu!, and Wire. Not only that, but they’ve done their actual homework by reading novels. The opener, a send up of one of the most corrupt pharmaceutical companies called, “GSK”, references J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island to portray how overtly corporate and desolate Britain feels. It’s fitting that the band decided to rag on GlaxoSmithKline in the opening moments of the project considering their long history of billion dollar fines paid for bribing doctors and promoting drugs for improper usage, it really hammers home the idea that the forces we attempt to rebel against are routinely exposed for corruption but are improperly punished while individuals are jailed and slaughtered for doing so much less.
The literary reference points don’t stop there, and neither does lead singer Ollie Judge, whose voice is a mix between Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but just like fellow Warp Records signee Danny Brown, his gnarled growl adds so much depth to his pained perspective. Standout tracks like “Paddling” and “Peel St.” utilize his talents to drive forward the herky-jerky electronic grooves on songs about post-apocalyptic writings. “Paddling” was the single that initially got me into this band, it’s instrumental density with cold drum machines, slide whistles and Latin vibraslap alongside bass, rhythm and lead guitars give it this overwhelming but constrained nose that sounds like it's ready to pop at any moment. The lyrics like “patient, in control” become ironic as the guitars and laser synth blasts rapidly begin to take over the song and throw it off course. There is this real feeling on this song and the rest of the record that someone is attempting to control these guys and that makes them extremely uneasy. The rigidity of the drums and bass on these songs coupled with the wacky soloing guitars and vocals points to this constant battle between the controllers and those resisting that control.
The paranoid closer “Pamphlets'', feels like a man in a house surrounded by political vampires. He wants to step outside, but he knows as soon as he opens the door, he invites the symbolically bloodsucking patriotism (''flag pole”) into his sight. By the end of the song, it becomes hard to tell whether this is an unreliable narrator or not, with the chorus “pamphlets through my door, pamphlets on the floor” reading more like a psychotic episode than a well-crafted safety measure. Post-punk really is just the perfect genre to elicit that kind of feeling in a narrator, and speaking of, “Narrator” is an absolutely beastly track at eight and half minutes that feels like a struggle to gain autonomy. From the jump, Judge is screaming over these alternating punk and Real Estate calm guitars and dueting with the flat-voiced (not an insult because she’s doing this purposefully) Martha Skye Murphy about being his own “narrator”, “losing my flow and my memory system” he confesses. As the song drags along, it just gets more tense and regimented, with the guitars changing patterns at the three minute mark to stap in intervals of 1, 2, 3, 4...1, 2, 3, 4….until the music stops, the dripping electronics take over, and Judge can say nothing but “I play my part, I play mine, I play mine, I play mine, I play mine, I plaaay mine”, as if rebelling by ironically conforming. At this point, his vocal counterpart Martha Skye Murphy is no help, as her voice begins to shape-shift into this horrifically ugly horn sound that's like Hellfire raining down to Earth. Bloody brilliant, as the Brits would say.
I can certainly get down with the high production value of this album, and how tirelessly this band has modified these songs from their much simpler original versions to extend them out and create this true sense of sonic diversity. However, I must say, the band’s bombastic qualities are juxtaposed effectively with quieter moments within songs, but the interludes and surrounding tracks that are less ambitious are the ones that drag the record down. While I’m content to try and solve the Mulholland Drive-like puzzle on the car crash anthem “Boy Racers”, I am less inclined to do so on the drab, horny (it's got lots of horns) “Documentary Filmmaker”. The track feels like a light experiment that doesn’t go far enough viscerally or on the songwriting front. The same can be said about the atmospheric, mild-mannered “Global Groove”, on tracks like this I appreciate Ollie’s voice and repetition much less without all the distractions. Nevertheless, these are minor criticisms, and I think this band deserves heaps of praise for risking sounding pretentious and long-winded in the pursuit of this driving post-punk force. While other bands would sound like they're doing way too much at such an early stage, the band pulls it off because it truly feels like they’ve been preparing for years for this moment, because they have. The band has been playing these tracks live for a long time and has distilled all the crowd and band favorite elements to make this final product, a smart and ground-level market research strategy that most acts simply don’t have the patience to pull off. Don’t judge these guys by how inpatient they may come off, this is a focused, studied and extremely methodical exercise in rock that is just what the stagnant genre needed.