Best of the Month: May 2021
Updated: Mar 15
Black Midi -- Cavalcade
A typical black midi show looks something like this. The stage is minimal, maybe even bare. Besides a couple of amps and some equipment, it’s a blank canvas. On the far right side of the stage, we see a shirtless young man sporting nothing but Ray Bans and cargo shorts and sweating profusely, beating the absolute dickens out of a drum set with two firearms coming out each side of his torso you would be understating to call ‘arms’. On the other side of the stage we see a twenty-something with the appearance of a fifteen year old who just got pulled out of Algebra 2 with an analog synth right to his right and a Rickenbacker bass across his chest that he is vigorously striking so hard, it looks like he’s trying to break it. And in between these two we see the frontman, dressed in what can only be described as “80s rom-com male lead attire”--middle part hair, trenchcoat, Italian shoes--punishing the strings on his guitar and babbling inflamed nonsense into the microphone for a sweaty moshing audience that is absolutely loving it.
From just the broad critical acclaim to the band’s eager fanbase, London’s black midi undeniably stands to be one of the most exciting and intriguing acts in rock music today. The band’s 2019 debut record Schlagenheim was a thrilling epic mix of math rock virtuoso, blood-curdling morbidity, and young unbridled creativity packed into an airtight forty minutes. Each song on the record sounded both like something and nothing we had ever heard before, melding influences across like pop, punk, rock, and r&b to make something brand new. From the freaky no wave vocals freakouts of frontman Geordie Greep, to the breath-taking mastery of drummer Morgan Simpson, to the electric chemistry allowing the band to turn on a dime, the debut’s rich tracklist shook the experimental rock scene like no other album in years.
But that was the last album, and since then the band has gone through some changes in their career that would affect their next release. Firstly, guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin left on indefinite hiatus on January 15, 2021 for mental health reasons, reducing the band members from 4 to 3 on this next album. Secondly, the band had seen a massive spike in popularity following the debut, with international tours, name-breaking feature pieces, and appearances at festivals like Pitchfork in 2019 (which I was blessed enough to witness). And thirdly, the band just got bored with their sound. In various interviews, the members talk about wanting to go outside of the box with the next album. Greep told the NYTimes in an interview: “I think it’s better to go crazy, full crazy, and fail, than just do something you know you can do.”
Like its cover would imply, Cavalcade is complex, distorted, and colorful. The album’s sound comes from a basket case of influences, from experimental pioneers like Miles Davis and Can to pop legends like Amy Winehouse and Marvin Gaye and new age rockers like the Mars Volta. Like its eclectic mix of influences, the album is all over the place, and each song explores a different side of the band’s budding sound. But while the album’s sounds are all over the place, the overarching themes of decline and death haunt each track, attaching the tracks together into a holistic work.
The album kicks off with the head-splitting “John L,” a skittering avant-prog banger that leads with an oppressive, pummeling rhythm beating on your chest like an alarm. And without indulging into hyperbole, this song is one of the wildest things I’ve heard all year. The song marries piercing guitar and saxophone leads over a punky snare march like the fanfare of some terrifying neo-fascist parade. The verses feature imperative vocals from frontman Greep and cuts between these gut-wrenching moments of silence that make my stomach churn. Greep’s vocal style matches the lyrics which paint the tale of a nationalistic cult leader drawing in followers with reactionary politics, only to be swallowed up in the second half of the song by the climate of violence he created himself. The proggy interlude is so sinister and indulgent with its violent time changes and instrumental freakouts, it feels like a modern incarnation of a “21st Century Schizoid Man.” With this opener, black midi wants you to know from the get-go that this album’s gonna be crazy.
The following track “Marlene Dietrich” is a complete tonal change from the preceding song, running with this calm and assuring jazz pop beat, matching the tone of titular 1920s German superstar the song is named after. The warm orchestral instrumentation helps build the image of singer Dietrich taking to the stage performing the best she can only to receive no applause from a tough audience. Conversely to Greep’s performance on the last track, his vocals here are operatic, exuding the belting elegance of the 20s jazz style to song calls back to. And the instrumental is warm and comforting, like something that wouldn’t sound out of place in an artisan coffee bar.
But the mood shifts back into punky territory with “Chondromalacia Patella,” a two-faced post-rocker that centers around these rhythmic motifs most reminiscent of the songwriting style on their first record. But unlike the jam-centric attitude of the first record, Cavalcade’s songs are much more deliberate, and the structures are more refined, showing the band’s greater focus on the experience as opposed to how it feels to them as performers. And this song is no exception. After the infectious intro, “Chondro” begins this 3-minute long incline of peaks in valleys teasing between jazzy delicacy and blunt trauma like a wrecking ball swinging back and forth on its chain. The song climaxes into this high octane post-punk outro that builds and builds and builds… only to resolve with the slide whistle-like synth that feels like the band laughing in your face for staying this long.
“Slow” is not titled for its tone, but for its lyrics, which certainly stand out as the darkest on the record, tackling the unbearable pain of waiting until death. Uh….yeah, this one’s a tough one. And its structure mirrors changing attitudes of what it's like experiencing this pain: stomach-churning ennui to violent anger at having to keep breathing. This song is one of two on the record that features the vocals of Cameron Picton, whose boyish, deadpan delivery sounds like a kid so steeped in depression that he can’t even muster the energy to do anything more than whisper. The instrumentation is dynamic and expertly builds up to the climax which brings back the main riff in full swing, pummeling on your head like your skull is closing in on you. Certainly one of the most powerful tracks here.
The second half of the album starts with “Diamond Stuff,” and here we see a musical shift on the kind of aspects that black midi has been accentuating on Cavalcade. While the first half of songs mainly focused on ground-shaking rhythms, the second half centers its songs more around its harmonies, firstly on “Diamond Stuff” which is a lengthy cavernous build-up of isolated guitars into the most beautiful crescendo black midi has ever made. The tenuous guitar notes linger like twinkles in a dark cave as Picton’s lamenting vocals guide it into the second half, where Simpson’s dense drum fills and warm strings instill an air of starry-eyed awe into the listener. The whirring instrumentation feels like gusts of winds that send chills of wonder down your spine.
It’s at this point that I can’t go any further without mentioning Cavalcade’s hidden hero Kaidi Akinnibi whose contributions on tenor saxophone elevate Black Midi to full-fledged jazz fusion mastery. “Dethroned” opens with Akinnibi’s warm saxophone lines which until this point, have mostly been claustrophobic freakouts, but here he exudes the tenderness and focus of a spiritual jazz auteur. This song tells the tale of a fall from grace and the victim’s struggles with accepting defeat. The song is a steady incline into this thrilling climax where Simpson’s breakbeat rhythm and Picton’s confrontational bassline make way for Akinnibi’s soaring sax lines and Greep’s overdriven guitar which shoots over the mix like a beam of light through the sky. This song’s a thrill, and certainly will be one of the best to see live.
Black midi is the kind of band that can’t go through a set without reminding you that they care, but not, like, too much. And that effort to keep things fun and not too pretentious manifests on Cavalcade in “Hogwash and Balderdash” which in British vernacular literally means “nonsense and nonsense.” The beat is urgent but silly with an unruly beat and this indecisive guitar line that sounds like jazz punk for clowns (and not the Oingo Boingo kind). Between its wild synth static, cartoony bridge melodies, and Greep’s tongue-and-cheek anecdote about two convicts in escape from the law, this song is all over the place. Yet, it works. It’s obtuse and horrid at times, but with relistens I’ve warmed up to its silly attitude and the band’s full-send commitment to make a nonsense track.
“Ascending Forth” is the epic closer to Cavalcade and might as well be its thesis statement. The song lasts ten minutes and is populated with rich harmonies between organs, horns, keys, guitars, and a string section. The song shifts through several cycles of tension and release to tell a story about a man who is condemned for creating art outside of social norms. The song is named after the ascending-fourth, a harmonic interval popularly used in many pop chord progressions and the song’s main character Markus spends his days writing kitschy material recycling this same idea over and over. The song nails this concept so hard by putting it’s verses in progressive jazz progressions while its lulling chorus is, in fact, in ascending fourths! As the song goes on, Markus is put to trial for writing music progressing out of the boundaries, artistically “ascending forth,” if you will. The matching mood of the instrumentation is cinematic, and climaxes at the final moments of the song to bookend the album in a wonderfully grand fashion.
Cavalcade is a tough record. And within the current boundaries of what we all “rock music,” it’s an odd fit. There aren’t really any four-on-the-floor grooves here. There are no pop harmonies. There are no foot-stomping arena choruses. But like any great rock album, it pushes what we consider “rock music” to its limits. It takes what was there, strips it to its bare essentials, and sees how far you can change it. These most basic concepts of rock music--guitar licks, kick-and-snares, tension and release--are both what drive this record and also what grounds it in a long lineage of boundary-pushing rock musicians who tried what they did just like black midi did here.
I’m sure that if black midi heard me say my Cavalcade schtick about “boundary pushing” and “pushing it to its limits,” they’d laugh to themselves and nervously push it off, telling me that they’re just having good fun making their own music. But I like to think that striving for your own unique sound as a musician is the most important factor that makes a rock album groundbreaking. Greatness in rock music is finding your own sound and fully committing, no matter who might condemn you. Building your own style and doing it to the max. You might have just had records and artists pop into your mind when I mentioned “greatness” because I did too. And I fully mean it that when I hear Cavalcade, I’m certain black midi belongs in that lineage.
When Markus was ascending forth in the final track, it was never mentioned what exactly he did to push the boundaries. I don’t think it's because it’s supposed to be some kind of abstract symbol or you’re supposed to imagine what it is he does, but I think it’s supposed to be something we can’t imagine. In the past, ascending forth happened when Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire in 1967, or when David Byrne decided to write lyrics in 1980 by picking them out of a fishbowl. Nobody conceived of what they could’ve done to push the needle, until long after they did it. “Ascending forth” looks different every time, and none of us will be ready for what it’s gonna look like in the future. I’m not certain of what it’ll look like, who’ll do it, or when it’ll happen. But I know this time, “ascending forth” means incessantly babbling, clownish guitar riffs, and silence so tense you could cut it with a knife.
Listen To: “John L”, “Slow”, “Dethroned”, and “Chondromalacia Patella”
RIYL: Black Country, New Road, Squid, Idles, shame
Ben Nguyen O'Connor
Olivia Rodrigo - SOUR
Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, SOUR, goes far beyond what I expected of the young Disney star. Anyone who has seen High School Musical: The Musical: The Series already knew that the promising ingenue had songwriting skill, as made evident by her breakout solo from the series, “All I Want”. Rodrigo’s first album served as a test to see whether or not she could break the mold of Disney child star and make something fresh and different -- and that is exactly what she did.
The album traverses several subsects of the pop genre, dipping into indie pop on the softer end with songs like “traitor” and “hope ur ok”, and spanned across the pop spectrum all the way up to songs like “brutal” and “good 4 u” that delve into punk sound.
Many have already stereotyped the 18-year-old female artist as yet another pop artist who only sings about a boy. I believe that this album proves the exact opposite. If there is one thing that I take away from SOUR, it is that Olivia Rodrigo is a woman with something to say, and we should be listening. I frequently hear Rodrigo compared to Taylor Swift in her overall sound and lyrical style. However, I think Rodrigo achieves a more nuanced form of songwriting that spans a wider variety of emotion and experience. Her music has a certain degree of reality and relatability that leaves listeners with a sense of awe at the level of connection and welcome the emotional intrusion encompassed by Rodrigo’s lyrics.
Her vocal technique also explores a great degree of dimension, breaking norms of the traditional pop sound heard on the radio. The restraint clinging to her voice leaves the listener feeling her pain, wondering when she is going to break, and welcoming the emotional fracture when she finally does. In “1 step forward, 3 steps back”, the restraint in her voice is made truly heartbreaking by interruptions of long vowels sung out with an entrancing and open vibrato, showcasing and exposing her moments of release and intensity.
Rodrigo’s uniquely personal writing, multidimensional sound, and nuanced voice beautifully combine to create such a truthful and introspective album with SOUR. I strongly encourage listeners to explore this album with their hearts on the table, just as Rodrigo did when creating this album.
Listen to: “brutal”, “1 step forward, 3 steps back”, and “hope ur ok”
RIYL: Conan Gray, Avril Lavigne, Billie Eilish
St. Vincent -- Daddy’s Home
[Loma Vista Recordings]
The release of St. Vincent’s sixth solo album Daddy’s Home correlates with the release of the artist’s father’s decade-long stay in prison, and naturally touches on many themes relating to abandonment, role models, and living. Along with the new cohesive tone in this album, St. Vincent has adopted a completely new aesthetic, clad in a bright blonde bob, a fur coat, and a sleeveless silk dress just on the album cover, looking like a Warhol superstar. On top of all that, the album was produced during COVID, which would definitely change the eclectic contribution style of past St. Vincent albums. Daddy’s Home was ramping up to be an ambitious project, off the beaten path for leader Annie Clark’s past work.
Like St. Vincent’s last album, Daddy’s Home is primarily made of songs written and performed by Clark and Jack Antonoff, former guitarist of indie pop group Fun. and frequent collaborator with such acts as Lana Del Ray, Kevin Abstract, and Taylor Swift. Unlike Antonoff’s other glossy high-production projects, Daddy’s Home is a starkly different beast, and indulges in vintage soul and R&B tones that both Clark and Antonoff seem to nail. And like the soul influences Clark draws from, the album’s topics are diverse and draw from all kinds of bluesy experiences from her life.
The album starts with lead single “Pay Your Way In Pain” which highlights Clark’s feelings of being down and out during quarantine with lyrics about questioning reality and seeing the world around you deny you. While the song is melancholic, the tone is anything but, riding over this synth-funk jaunt that cynically asks that the listener pays a toll in pain. Another single “Down” also uses funk wound together with sitars and synths to make one of the grooviest tracks here.
But I think the best tracks of Daddy’s Home are on it’s slowed-down and meditative cuts like on the title track, which uses a minimal soul anthem to discuss the dynamic between Clark and her father when he was last in jail. Another great track is “Down and Out Downtown” a lowkey groove about hopelessly wandering around in a state of sadness. “Somebody Like Me” is a track about Clark questioning someone’s love towards her and why they would even consider loving someone like her.
I think it’s precisely in these meditative tracks where Clark delivers some of her most raw and profound lyricism. One of my favorites is the slow pop ballad “My Baby Wants a Baby” which confronts Clark’s conflicted emotions about her partner wanting to raise a child and not feeling ready for it. Clark fears that once she becomes a parent that she has to drop much of her care-free lifestyle and much of her identity will be taken up by her child. “...At The Holiday Party” talks about Clark seeing a friend hiding sadness in a place of celebration, and empathizing with them.
“The Laughing Man” is a deeply personal song dedicated to a friend Clark lost when they were young. The lyrics and the tone of the song come from a place of deep depression, trying to find meaning during grief when all seems lost. “Live In The Dream” is one of the longest St. Vincent tracks yet, and is a hazy Pink Floyd-inspired cut with psychedelic background vocals. The long song intentionally lingers in haze and meanders slowly like a cloud of weed smoke that won’t leave the room.
My favorite track is “The Melting of the Sun,” a sunny psychedelic banger that is dedicated to famous powerful women in show business from Jaynes Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe to Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone. The song embellishes the greatest sonic elements made in the combo between Antonoff and Clark’s performances.
St Vincent’s Daddy’s Home is a successful dive into psychedelic soul and proves Clark’s versatility as an artist as well as delivering some of her most mature tracks ever.
Listen To: “Pay Your Way In Pain”, “The Melting Of The Sun”, and “Down”
Ben Nguyen O'Connor
Gojira -- FORTITUDE
Gojira has always stood out among the cohort of modern progressive death metal bands – for their creative riffs and unique musical aesthetics, yes, but also for their distinctive temperament. They’ve always maintained a mindfulness that other prog metal bands lose sight of amidst their peacock-like displays of guitar prowess. Reverential rather than angry, Gojira’s music points to subject matter bigger than themselves, most notably themes of environmental collapse and respect for nature. As they enter their third decade of activity, they have quite an impressive discography – From Mars to Sirius (2005) is in the top ten best metal records of all time, if you ask me. And although they’ve softened up on their guitar tones and vocal timbres in recent years, the atmospheric beauty of Fortitude makes it yet another jewel in the French quartet’s crown.
This is the first album the band has released since their polarizing 2016 LP Magma. Personally, I loved that album for its thoughtfulness and emphasis on atmosphere rather than sheer brutality. However, its strengths gave way to its shortcomings, as the band’s extended exercises in ethereality continuously bordered on directionless. The good news is, Fortitude offers a similarly ethereal atmosphere, but in a way that feels trimmed down, more compact, more deliberate than its predecessor. The opening track, the bombastic “Born for One Thing” establishes a vast, arid ambiance that remains consistent across the album, balancing out the guitarists’ sludgy, chugging riffs. The second track, “Amazonia” is one of the most conceptually outstanding songs on the record. Following long-standing environmentalist themes in Gojira’s music, the release of this song as a single was accompanied by a band-sponsored fundraiser for the Indigenous-owned NGO Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, which advocates for environmental and cultural rights of Indigenous Brazilians as well as the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. The song itself features a fairly radio-friendly, mid-tempo groove accompanied by jaw harps, pan flutes, background chants, and throat singing. It’s a toe-tapper, to be sure, but Gojira uses these auxiliary instruments to create an earthy, organic atmosphere. But the real value of the song is that it makes the important connection between sustainable living/conservation efforts and Indigenous cultures via the song’s instrumentation. This connection is cemented in later songs like the forlorn “Hold On,” the meditative title track, and the humid heavyweight “The Chant.” In between the crushing riffs of these tracks, vocalist Joe DuPlantier is a tortured prophet, alternating between ominous laments for the state of the planet and rallying cries for environmental justice.
For those of you who weren’t huge fans of Magma, I have good news for you too – this album is laden with the stomping groove that fans of older Gojira will be delighted to bang their heads to. One of the best aspects of this album is its ability to balance viscerally physical rhythms with expansive atmospheres on each and every song. Granted, this song form does feel a little formulaic by the end of the album, but it makes for some absolutely kickass single tracks. “New Found” is a personal favorite – this track contrasts a pummeling funk-metal riff with a melodic, triumphant chorus. Listening to this song, you can easily get immersed in the feeling of making the life-changing discovery detailed in the lyrics:
“New Found splendor in the sky
New Found land across the sea”
Further standout riffs can be found on the torrential anthem “Into the Storm,” a rallying cry for rebellion, and the ferocious closing track “Grind.” Gojira’s songwriting skills have always been in their own league, and this album demonstrates them well. The band has a knack for writing melodies that sound centuries old while maintaining their raw aesthetic, conveying a pummeling urgency that cannot be denied.
This overarching theme of anxiety, particularly about climate change and “grind culture” (as expressed in several songs’ lyrics), is expertly painted by standout band member Mario DuPlantier’s frenetic drum patterns. The status of instrumental virtuosity is attained when the player’s talent is used to augment the piece as a whole, not just to solo over the rest of the band, and DuPlantier’s deceptively complex drumming does just that. His precise, technical fills add layers of nuance to the best moments on this album (“New Found,” “Grind”) and red-hot energy to tracks that would otherwise be fairly one-dimensional (“Born for One Thing,” “Sphinx”). DuPlantier injects a controlled chaos, a disciplined instability, into this album, creating an exciting counterbalance to the generally rigid guitar lines. TL;DR: this man has mastered the art of the ghost note.
DuPlantier’s drumwork goes a long way, but it can’t save the album from its pitfalls. Upon a full listen, it seems like Gojira took the criticisms of Magma to heart and incorporated them into their writing process, attempting to ride the line between atmosphere and intensity. In the process, they failed to accomplish either to their full potential. The ambiance of the album starts off fantastic, but doesn’t change much as the record progresses. Particularly in the second leg of the album, the band rests on “tribal” instrumentation and gang vocals to create atmosphere, to the point that the intended message of these compositional decisions is partially obscured by a sense of contrivance. This momentary flatness is almost saved by the refinement of the final leg, but it definitely makes for a dip in the middle of the project.
Although this isn’t the perfect Gojira album, there’s definitely something for everyone here. I think of this album as a perfect Gojira sampling platter, something to start with if you’re new to the band and looking to get invested. If you’re drawn to the mellower, more contemplative tracks like “The Chant” and “The Trails,” you’d probably be a huge fan of Magma. If you’re more inclined towards the syncapated ragers like “Sphinx” or “Grind,” allow me to humbly introduce you to your new favorite album, From Mars to Sirius.
Despite its shortcomings, Fortitude has earned its spot as one of the most highly anticipated metal records of 2021, and Gojira righteously remains in their place as one of the most important acts in modern progressive metal. Time and time again, the band poignantly encapsulates the cacophony of the natural world, the crying out of the animals, plants, and landscapes, and artfully condenses it into a riff-laden and attention-grabbing metal album. Not too many modern acts have the bandwidth to be this committed to a single cause while also maintaining a sui generis niche within the metal paradigm. Gojira makes it look easy.
Also, one last thing: fucking recycle, you animals.
RIYL: Mastodon, Cult of Luna, TOOL, Opeth,
Listen to: “Amazonia,” “New Found,” “Into the Storm,” and “Grind”
DMX -- Exodus
[Def Jam Recordings]
The hip-hop community, unfortunately, is no stranger to seeing influential artists pass away. Indeed, the untimely death of popular rappers forces fans to analyze an artist's legacy before it truly began. Both Tupac and Biggie were killed in their twenties, and just recently young rappers Pop Smoke and Juice Wrld passed away. This makes it that much more special when a popular rapper (such as DMX) can live into their middle age. Earl Simmons had just turned 50 when he passed away following a heart attack, and his posthumous album Exodus was released on May 28th. Produced heavily by Swizz Beatz, Exodus is DMX’s eighth album, and his first true musical release in years. While Exodus was far from the perfect encapsulation of DMX’s cadence and success, it still boasted a wide variety of sound and proved DMX’s influential reach continues to have an effect on the industry today.
The main qualm I see with this album is it’s heavy reliance on features throughout. And while I must agree that I wish an album meant to celebrate DMX’s life and rap career focused more on the legend himself, I still cannot deny just how impressive this album wasー with varied sounds giving the audience multiple angles on the rapping ability of DMX.
DMX’s traditional tough-guy demeanor is ever present on this album, growling out ad-libs on songs like “Hood Blues”, where DMX boasts “I ain’t 50 years old for nothing”, a line that holds more weight than he realized at the time. “Hood Blues” is the pre-released single for Exodus, with fantastic feature verses from each member of the Griselda trio, who’s aesthetic works perfectly with DMX’s aggression. However, this song also shows Benny the Butcher, Conway, and Westside Gunn rapping circles around DMX, and this isn’t the only time DMX is upstaged on Exodus. The star power verses from JAY-Z, Nas, and Lil Wayne all outshine DMX’s own performance on those songs, which unfortunately doesn’t sit right with me given the posthumous nature of this album.
Unfortunate as it may be to see a legend like DMX overshadowed at times, Exodus redeems itself as the tracklist continues and a more personal and sincere side begins to present itself on this record. The second track featuring Nas, “Walking in the Rain” is where DMX began to open up emotionally, which is certainly appropriate as fans are mourning his loss. Soft percussion and piano infused beats provide a change of pace from the hard-hitting verses that occupied the front half of the album.
This song leads directly into the tear jerker of a track that is “Letter to my Son (Call Your Father)”. DMX extends an olive branch to his son, writing that he brought his son up challenging him to become a man, but he doesn’t want to destroy the heart to heart relationship between father and son. It is a surprisingly real moment on Exodus, where we feel DMX speaking as though he is running out of time to save this relationship with his son, which we now know as all too real. The audio clips of DMX with his son at a young age bring a nostalgic feeling to Exodus and further dive into the bittersweet emotions brought about.
Finally, the album closes with “Prayer”, a two minute prayer session led by DMX which was originally recorded at Kanye West’s Sunday Service at Coachella 2019. DMX was known to be religious, so this small insight into his faith worked very well as a closing track for Exodus. While the album as a whole may not show the best work of DMX, it certainly encompasses a diverse sound and works as a fond farewell to one of hip-hop’s biggest names. Exodus is clearly the most ‘modern’ work from DMX; and while it may not be the perfect bookend to an undeniable legacy, the album proves it’s worth as a reminder of who DMX was, and thought provoking as to who he could have been. Rest in peace, Earl Simmons.
Listen To: “Hood Blues”
RIYL: Benny the Butcher, Busta Rhymes, Method Man
Squid -- Bright Green Field
Squid’s long-awaited debut Bright Green Field released on May 7th to Warp Records, fitting in with a hot streak of colorful post-punk releases coming out of Britain throughout 2021. First Viagra Boys’s Welfare Jazz and shame’s Drunk Tank Pink in January, BCNR’s For the first time in February, Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg in April, and now Squid’s contribution. These bands share a similar origin and attitude but grouping fails to recognize the unique ideas and fusions that each group uses to expand on the changing state of post-punk. Especially Squid, whose blend of dance punk tendencies and IDM style electronics make them stand out as one of the grooviest bands in this wave.
Out of all the groundbreaking post-punk artists in this wave, only Squid is signed to Warp Records, and the decision is fitting. Warp Records, while not a label limiting itself to one genre, mostly signs artists that incorporate electronic instruments heavily into their music. That doesn’t just mean inherently electronic artists; it also includes genre-fusing artists like Danny Brown, Yves Tumor, and Battles who adopt a creatively automated aesthetic, transcending genre and sound. And it's a nice fit for Squid, a band who processes it’s groovy post-punk rhythms through rigid electronics and brittle atmospheres, especially on Bright Green Field, which is essentially a thesis statement that previews everything the band offers.
Bright Green Field starts with “G.S.K.,” an off-kilter opener named after the headquarters of the international pharmaceutical company of the same name based in London, England. If it’s your first time hearing Squid, two main aspects of the band jump out at you: the eerie ambient instrumentation surrounding the groove and singer/drummer Ollie Judge’s hardcore sreaming-singing. This combination, or rather the clashing of these two elements is what makes Squid’s sound truly unique.
The first of these two aspects--the eerie ambience--is present in every song here. Squid’s haunting soundscapes linger throughout the instrumentals in the tracklist like on the kaleidoscopic “Documentary Filmmaker” which infuses warm horns, eerie strings, and jittery percussion to make a holistically unique vibe. Conversely, the synth-laden ambience that tails the second half of the lengthy “Boy Racers” is all-encompassing, and sounds like an ancient ritual processed through a supercomputer. These unique sounds leave the biggest impact on the listener than any other part of their music, and makes even the weakest moments of Bright Green Field memorable.
Speaking of weak moments, Bright Green Field is not safe from the pitfalls that can bog down an artist’s freshman release. Squid isn’t missing in the texture department as I said earlier, but falls in how it constructs and presents these experiences--i.e. songwriting. Some songs suffer from poor pacing like on “Peel St.” where the band presents one of its most-thrilling grooves in the first half and drops it halfway through. “2010” similarly staggers in songwriting where by the end of the song, you don’t remember where the song was and where it went.
But these issues only hold back a few songs in the latter half. For the most part, Bright Green Field is a thrilling experience through and through. The second single “Paddling” is a grilling krautrock-y banger that features cacophonous explosions and charismatic chants from Judge. “Global Groove” is a trudging dirge that views the cycles of injustice around the world as a groove we all dance to. “Pamphlets” is the album’s extended closer drives with an amazing groove led by Judge’s assertive drumming that guides the listener through a tense crescendo that explodes beautifully as the end of the album.
The one song on Bright Green Field that encompasses all of the band’s best features is on its longest song and lead single “Narrator,” featuring guest vocals from singer Martha Skye Murphy.
This hulking eight-minute behemoth travels through winding synth passages and spontaneous combustions guided by a brilliant rhythm section and a waterfall of interlocking guitar parts. Despite it’s experimental tendencies, the song features my favorite groove on the album that is all parts catchy and funky. Judge sings lead vocals of being the leading man in a film, shaping it to his liking while Murphy’s progressively trapped vocals represent the sockpuppet female character stuck in this man’s fantasy. Their battling screeches build over the second half of the song into and climax into a wall of screeching cacophony that is both terrifying and satisfying. “Narrator” just checked all the right boxes for me, and stands as one of my favorite tracks of the year so far.
Squid’s Bright Green Field features some absolutely groovy and creative dance-punk grooves, and though it suffers from a few pitfalls of freshman tendencies, it generally delivers on the most exciting experiences of the year so far.