7/17/2009 - Review by: Etiam
Until quite recently, Giant Squid was a group up for grabs, having split from The End Records after re-recording their debut in 2006. On that album, 'Metridium Fields', the band showed technical promise and visionary ambition that appealed to many members of the alternative American metal scene. But in the next couple years, the band's output was limited to a single small-release vinyl split with Grayceon, and the band's relationship with The End petered out.
Much to their credit, Giant Squid refused to sink and set about recording and releasing their sophomore effort independently. Demonstrating the same irrepressible vision that distinguished their debut, Giant Squid constructed a grand new concept album called 'The Ichthyologist', based on a graphic novel by the band's helmsman, Aaron Gregory. Regardless of the album's actual quality, 'The Ichthyologist' should be heralded for as a great DIY success: from its distinctive art and packaging to the production (Matt Bayles, who's worked with groups from Botch to Pearl Jam), guest appearances, and media- and tour-based promotion, Giant Squid have done just about everything right. Wisely, Canadian-based Translation Loss snatched up the band this Summer and already has a re-release (and partial re-mix) of the album in the works.
Of course, promotional chops has little bearing on a band's music itself, which (thankfully) is still the ultimate test of underground metal in America. The band cleared this hurdle with ease, however, and have many critics squarely under their thumbs. Indeed, after the largely ecstatic praise 'The Ichthyologist' received from diverse quarters, this second effort had as high a bar to clear as any self-released LP in the scene's recent memory. Such terms as 'haunting', 'inspiring', 'sublime', and others have been used to express the experience of 'The Ichthyologist', and from the first listen it is obvious that each superlative has its place. Bolstered by contributions from a quintet of diversely gifted women and the occasional trumpet flourish or fanfare, 'The Ichthyologist' explores the gamut of human emotion from explosive ecstasy and teeth-grinding agony to numbing apathy. Actually, it is generally when the metal is most distant, or at least reigned in to more patient progressions--'Dead Man Slough', 'Sutterville', 'Sevengill'--that we hear the band's most memorable and affecting themes. (That said, the non-metal cuts 'Mormon Island' and 'Emerald Bay' drag rather heavily.) The lyrics, while at times frustrating in their obtuseness, are nonetheless compelling for their romantic fantasy and fresh use of archetypal themes.
However, on a purely musical level, 'The Ichthyologist' just doesn't seem to equal to its aura. Through those first couple spins, though a few tracks stood out--the dainty 'Dead Man Slough' in particular--the other shoe never dropped, so to speak. Though conceptually enthralling and musically involved, this album simply felt short on actual, honest-to-goodness songwriting. There is undoubtedly much to be said for innovative song structures and unconventional part-writing, both of which this record boasts in droves, but Giant Squid can be so resistant to tradition that they left both the audience and musical convention behind. At the same time, no part of 'The Ichthyologist' is so drastically atonal or experimental as to attract hardcore avant-garde, noise, or experimental fans who don't care much for hummable themes. The result is limbo: quirky enough to merit some 'experimental' tags, but not enough to make memorable melodies or good riffing obsolete. It is here that Giant Squid can fall stagnant.
The band has touted its ability to meld the angular and heavy with the delicate and beautiful, and on some occasions this is indisputably so, particularly in their sequential voicing of augmented second melodies (the "Middle Eastern" sound). A little too often, however, Giant Squid are not so much heavy as they are simply abrasive. Especially to blame is Gregory's grating singing voice, which recalls the nasally warble of System of a Down's Serj Tankian. Much more compelling are the Neurosis-like, gravely murmurs, lilting female soprano, and Gregory's more muted singing (almost like Squirrel Nut Zippers) that, unsurprisingly, are featured during the standout 'Dead Man Slough' or in the quaintly swung groove of 'Sutterville'. The trouble is that it's difficult for any of these specific timbres to express Giant Squid's musical diversity, which leaves Gregory's full singing voice as the album's primary narrator.
Another The End-related group straddling the line between deliberately zany and musically captivating is Canada's Unexpect. Though Unexpect pursues a different literal path--frenetic tech-metal with occasional jazz flourishes--both groups utilize some of the same techniques: male/female vocal dynamic, unconventionally harsh (i.e. not growled, but still hardly tuneful) vocals, some aggressive metal distortion countered with atypical instrumentation, and so on. Where the two groups differ, aside from the obvious, is how Unexpect's catalogue makes a conscious effort to temper their madness with compelling melodies that rouse and soothe the listener at deft turns. Giant Squid, conversely, are given to oceanic swells of emotion that peak irregularly, drop precipitously, and taper off dramatically in a forgettable second half. This kind of ride is simply too jarring, too scattered, to be truly 'sublime', and reveals the band's relative inexperience. (To be fair, just about anyone would be inexperienced in this territory.)
Perhaps in 50 years, when musical boldness on par with Giant Squid's is de facto, this review will seem outmoded and close-minded; the annals of music history are littered with naysayers brought low, ranging from Beethoven to the Beatles. But for now, Giant Squid have some maturing left to do, as they are still quite a young group. Unexpect's 'Utopia' was similarly inconsistent, and it was nearly 10 years into their existence before they delivered a fully developed and satisfying LP. At Giant Squid's rapid pace, it seems unlikely that we have much longer to wait; their next album is primed to be a true success, top to bottom.
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