Squid – O Monolith – Album Review

2021’s Bright Green Field introduced Squid, the five-piece art-punk band from Brighton, as perhaps the true standouts of the so-monikered ‘Windmill scene’.  Whereas other South London-adjacent art-punk acts, usually affiliated to one degree or another with producer Dan Carey and his Speedy Wunderground label, frequently lost themselves in self-indulgent musicianship digressions and the illusion of chaotic artiness, Squid had the bold idea of bringing actual hooks to the table.  And lo, they managed to succeed where black midi, Porridge Radio, Dry Cleaning, shame, Fat White Family, and Black Country, New Road (amongst many others) had failed in getting me to stick around for repeat listens.

OK, I’m being more than a little facetious there, but the larger sentiment still stands.  With black midi or Dry Cleaning, I’m forever stuck on the outside looking in, nodding respectfully at their dead-serious craft and technical commitment whilst being incapable of telling any one track apart or being moved to any degree.  It’s all texture, little melody, less feeling, eventually receding into the background no matter how many math-rock breakdowns or abrupt ambient left-turns get thrown my way.  But the eleven tracks which made up Squid’s debut were infused with energy, feeling and, yes, hooks that cut through the drone interludes and show-off-y contrapuntal harmonics.  Vocalist Ollie Judge’s lyrics may have been as oblique and humourless as those put forward by his scene-mates, but I could completely understand the feelings and the anxieties that infested the narrators of ‘Documentary Filmmaker’ and ‘Pamphlets’ and consequently feel them myself.  From the opening atonal note of ‘Resolution Square’ to the harsh cut-out concluding ‘Pamphlets,’ Bright Green Field always commanded my attention.

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The same cannot be said for O Monolith, the deeply-frustrating follow-up that lacks almost all of those virtues I just talked about.  Aside from a few rare instances, it’s all too easy for Squid’s latest to just blur into background noise, lacking jolting moments of real feeling regardless of the sharp left-turns the tracks can sometimes take.  Most damningly of all, far too often there’s not a whole lot separating the album from the work of bands like English Teacher; melodically inert, too hung up on self-important mood and technical chops, emotionally cold.

What’s most vexing to me, besides the fact that the band are still capable of reaching those prior highs in sporadic bursts, is that not a whole lot has changed from Bright Green Field, per se.  Squid haven’t junked it all in and become a techno act.  Dan Carey is still behind the boards.  Songs still eschew straightforward progression for distinct movements.  Anton Pearson and Louis Borlase’s guitars still jut in from jagged edges where even non-distorted notes have an audible sharpness.  It’s still more disarming to hear a 4/4 time signature appear than not, such is its rarity.  The mood is still deadly serious and pessimistic.

‘Swing (In a Dream)’ video screencap.

Much of the album was written whilst on tour after Field’s release, workshopped on-stage in seated gigs as COVID restrictions were being lifted, and the band audibly sound more continually harmonious on these songs than before; less instances like on ‘Peel St.’ where each instrument seemed to arrive on a different downbeat from the other until they magically lock together.  You could argue, for the most tangible changes, that the songs on O Monolith are a little proggier, more focused on collective atmosphere and forgoing big showstopping hooks or climaxes.  ‘After the Flash’ brings back Martha Skye Murphy, who played a memorably wailing female counterpoint on ‘Narrator,’ but refuses to try and replicate the chaotic storm of their last pairing.  The palm-muted chords and gentle drumbeats that introduce the song never give way to a proper skyward climax, despite what Arthur Leadbetter’s keys may insinuate; notably, Murphy does provide some wails, but she’s buried firmly in the back of the song’s ending.

Instead, a greater emphasis has been placed on everyone’s collective musicianship.  Tracks like ‘The Blades’ and ‘Siphon Song’ actively resist the opportunity to fully blow out in a big swerve, instead locking into immediate grooves and building or subtracting little elements from there for the remainder.  Judge sings a lot more here than he did on Field, carrying tunes for entire song lengths rather than being perpetually on the brink of wide-eyed screaming; he even processes his voice into a digital un-intelligible miasma on ‘Siphon’.  And Carey’s production and mixing is a little less overwhelming than last time round; willing to centre Judge’s voice above all else, not letting any of the surplus horn or percussion or bell embellishments push these songs out of their pocket.

‘The Blades’ video screencap.

It’s all, perhaps, technically better than the scrappier Bright Green Field.  But I honestly feel like it’s resulted in significantly less interesting music.  Almost none of these songs are grabbing me, sticking with me, moving me.  It’s good that Judge is trying to vary up his vocal delivery, but the times when he does let loose like before don’t have the special kick you’d expect from their new infrequency.  The songs surrounding him either aren’t matching his energy (‘Green Light’ which bizarrely lacks a proper low-end for most of its runtime) or simply not interesting enough to captivate (closer ‘If You Had Seen the Bull’s Swimming Attempts You Would Have Stayed Away’ which is certainly no ‘Pamphlets’ despite trying for theatrical whispers and horn interplay).  The lyrics remain as oblique as ever.  The rare appearance of a sudden ambient left-turn, as on ‘After the Flash,’ doesn’t shock or unsettle like it’s supposed to – although the rising strings on ‘Siphon Song’ that transition into ‘Undergrowth’ come close.  ‘Devil’s Den’ outright aborts before it even gets going.

And yet, there’s still evidence that Squid are capable of conjuring some magic.  ‘Undergrowth’ is arguably a rewrite of ‘G.S.K.,’ led as it also is by Laurie Nankivell’s slinky bassline and bringing in the kind of doom-heralding horns in the back-half that would cause the song to make a fine theme tune for a gritty prestige drama.  But it’s one of the few songs on the album to go on a musical journey, to properly communicate the sensation of alienation and discomfort Squid are trying to conjure, to surprise and move me as with the quite haunting bell-centric climax.  Opener ‘Swing (Inside a Dream)’, meanwhile, churns and swirls in a slow build that finally cracks open to a stomping rush come the end, crafting the feeling of falling down an endless flight of stairs beyond one’s control, in a surprisingly addictive and hooky meld.  It reads like the mission statement for Squid’s new songwriting approach, but then the rest of the record utterly fails to recapture that lightning.

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I fully cop to the idea that maybe O Monolith just doesn’t click for me.  After all, I’ve been open over the years (and in this very review) about my disdain/inability to connect with 90% of the “windmill scene”’s output, which makes me an outlier in current indie circles.  And there is always the chance that more of this album could grow on me as the year goes on; my review of Bright Green Field was actually a bit cooler than my current feelings towards it.  But, right now, on a near two-dozen spins over the course of a fortnight?  I’m nodding at the musicianship, respecting the craft, and finding myself compulsively reaching for Bright Green Field again.  I thought Squid were different from their contemporaries; on O Monolith, they’re too often indistinguishable from them.

O Monolith is out now on Digital, CD, and Vinyl from Warp Records.

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