In a sea of similar UK art-punk outfits, Squid’s debut makes its impact via cohesive unpredictability and greater hooks than its contemporaries.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a review link provided by Warp Records.
You may have noticed that there’s been a bit of an influx of decidedly similar UK art-punk bands on the buzz machine in recent years. Fontaines D.C.; black midi; Black Country, New Road; Dry Cleaning; Porridge Radio (to an extent). You’ve probably also noticed a bit of a formula to them, as well. Terse impressionistic lyrics repeated in an often-barked fashion ad nauseum, tracks which alternate between short sharp blasts of energy and drawn-out rolling grooves which find a breakdown or three, song structures and left-turns which owe more to jazz and math rock, and inevitably some degree of association with Speedy Wonderground’s Dan Carey. This isn’t entirely meant as a dig, to be clear, but it is a scene I have found myself appreciating like a painting in a gallery more than I’ve actually enjoyed listening to for the most part and, therefore, the inadvertent formula does take the shine off a bit for me as a result.
Squid, the latest kids on the block formed in Brighton but now based in London, slide right into that movement snug as a bug in a rug. Five multi-instrumentalists, ostensibly a confrontational post-punk act citing Neu! as a key influence but taking just as much from jazz and avant-garde, repetitious vague lyrics, tracks that are almost exclusively over the five-minute mark, and oh hey it’s Dan Carey on the production boards and modular synths! I even had a very similar first-listen experience to debut album Bright Green Field as I had with the records made by their contemporaries: destabilising, moment-to-moment seeming-unpredictability (it’s only when you step back and examine the movement as a whole that you realise there may be a formula going around), sometimes thrilling, and being shut out a bit due to the denseness of everything going on.
So far, so seen-it. Except, here’s the twist in the tale. Normally, I’ll find myself finishing these art-punk records making a mental note to return to them later to fully unpack, only to either never be compelled enough to do so or find that my efforts to penetrate these boxes don’t yield the returns I was hoping for. All that controlled chaos and repetitious confrontation obscuring there not being a whole load of songs there, at least to me. Not only did I want to go straight back into Bright Green Field after first listen, for reasons not just related to professional obligation, but repeated listens after that thrill of the new faded revealed a mostly strong collection of songs I kept finding fragments and full-on hooks of getting stuck in my head long removed from listening.
It probably helps that Field is significantly more inviting and easier to get into on early listens than most of its sisters. Tracks often shift on a dime: “Boy Racers” rumbles along the comedown highway for three-and-a-half minutes before careening suddenly into a kinda menacing THX-reminiscent drone for the last four; “2010” explodes with a math-rock breakdown which tips the track on its head; “Paddling” abruptly cuts off several measures early just as the tempo begins picking up. Instruments and some vocals can sometimes feel as if they’re in contest with each other, particularly thanks to the mixing which goes hard on designating left and right channels in opposition whilst the steadying grooves try their best to hold everything down in the middle. Oliver Judge’s vocals can go from a murmur to a fraying screech on a per-line basis, rarely conforming to concepts like ‘tunefulness’ in service of portraying characters going out of their minds.
All of that is true, but even on initial listens each song has at least one melody or hook that instantly jumps out as a steadying force to help the listener orient themselves whilst waiting for the rest of the song to click. Single “Paddling” has maybe the most immediate hook of the entire album, the opening verse first played in relatively common time only for a repeat to see the tempo pick up and the time signature memorably shift in a manner which enhances the potency of said hook. “G.S.K.”’s rolling groove is kinda irresistible; particularly once the brass and orchestra flourishes come in in the second half, it feels like the opening titles to a seedy spy drama. Lead single “Narrator” effectively builds up to a cacophonous freak-out with the aid of guest vocalist Martha Skye Murphy. Standout “Peel St.,” meanwhile, has a fantastic moment during its intro where the synths and bass are both playing the same line but a single measure off from being synced up only for the drums to finally crash through and lock those instruments in simpatico with each other.
These are moments that remain enticing and exhilarating long after the initial discovery lurch fades, and they provide gateways to the other hidden hooks and nuances of each track. “Paddling”’s actual chorus only gets stickier with further exposure and the channel mixing allows the guitars to rocket along on distinctive complimentary paths during the outro. The criss-crossing vocals of “2010” which can overwhelm at first start to paint a picture of stifling corporate hegemony that makes the aforementioned sudden math-rock breakdown more obviously fitting and those processed tremolo guitars on the outro are sonic candy. My first few listens through to “Documentary Filmmaker” were fixated on the tempo-switch fake-out at the track’s middle, but now I’m more enamoured by the mixture of synths and brass through the first half prior.
It’s endemic of a band who have worked really hard to create the believable illusion of songs capable of flying off the rails at any moment but without being pretentiously showy about the fact or having them occur without adequate reason. Although, this isn’t to say every track or experimental swerve hits the mark. The drone of “Boy Racers” isn’t quite as impactful on repeat listens, especially since “Documentary Filmmaker” pulls the same trick more effectively in a third of the time two tracks later. “Global Groove”’s spoken-word second half still feels rather aimless compared to its first half. And lyrics on the album overall range from ‘good texture but too vague and fragmented to carry moving meaning like I think the band want’ (“Narrator,” “Pamphlets,” “Documentary…”), to ‘clangingly obvious and a touch too self-seriously delivered to get away with’ (“Global Groove” and its diatribe against passive British living is especially guilty of this).
But Bright Green Field works a lot more often than it doesn’t and makes a better impression quicker, which greater compels a listener to stick around and dive for those additional pleasures. It’s the first record of this years-long art-punk movement that I’ve managed to get close to actually loving instead of merely appreciating. More hooks than Fontaines, more cohesive than Black Country, and less show-offy than black midi. Squid may not yet have fully earned all of the enormous hype on their shoulders, but to my ears they’re already doing a lot better than most. Check it out.
Bright Green Field releases this Friday on Warp Records. Buy physical and stream on Bandcamp.
Callie Petch has got flagpoles firmly in their sights.