I Worry in My Sleep

A review of "O Monolith" by Squid

Around four years ago, the ever-excitable British music press started proclaiming the emergence of the newest new wave of rock bands, mainly from South London and from Dublin. None of these articles quite managed to give this scene a name, despite valiant attempts like “crank wave” and “post-Brexit new wave.” Regardless, the general idea is that this new movement was a reimagining of post-punk, characterised by anxious guitar and unhinged-sounding vocals. The post-punk influence is hard to miss in most of these bands -  and indeed, a lot of them don’t do much that hasn’t been done by earlier artists in the genre.  I’m thinking here of groups like shame, Algiers, Fontaines D.C., Yard Act and the Murder Capital. Strikingly, though, the scene’s two most interesting bands—black midi and Black Country, New Road—abandoned that lane altogether and veered off in eclectic directions, ultimately putting out some of the best records of the decade so far.

Squid are a five-piece, originally founded in Brighton—, a hip, coastal town in the southeast of England. From early on, they became involved with this new British scene, releasing their breakout EP Town Centre on Speedy Wunderground, the record label it’s most associated with. Their first album, Bright Green Field, already made it pretty clear that they had more in common with the experimentalism of black midi and Black Country than with the less interesting groups. While that album made its post-punk stylings pretty clear, there were enough hints of musical influences from further afield filtering in to make it clear that they didn’t intend to stick to familiar ground. Note that bassist Laurie Nankivell also featured on cornet on that album, and that Arthur Leadbetter is credited on keyboards and cello. Those non-rock instruments, ambient moments, and some pretty bold songwriting choices (“Narrator” off that album is eight minutes) made it clear that this was a group who had ideas.

O Monolith doesn’t change things quite as much as one would have expected based on Squid’s contemporaries. There’s been a shift from Bright Green Field, but the progression is logical and preserves a lot of their fundamental vibe. It’s noisy, anxious, artsy and punky, with a lot of screams from the guitars and vocalist/drummer Ollie Judge delivering his lines with a kind of teeth-gritted irony. But it’s less straightforward; a lot of the time, the screaming and distorted-guitar wailing shows up just for the song’s climax, rather than throughout its runtime. The presence of electronics and woodwinds has been ramped up, and at times their wandering songwriting finds them sounding little like a rock band.

The album’s opener and lead single is “Swing (In A Dream),” a track which absolutely deserves its prominence in the marketing. This one sees Squid operating in the mantra-rock tradition of krautrock, the Fall and (most pertinently) a lot of Radiohead. The song locks into a polyrhythmic groove throughout, using both electronics and percussion. But thanks to a simple, catchy guitar riff in the chorus, it also works as a pop song. This is a great prog single, but it shouldn’t lead you to expect “music student Talking Heads” as a persistent style. 

“Green Light” is the other high-energy song on the album, but it takes a more traditional indie rock approach. It channels the Dismemberment Plan’s 1999 end-of-the-world anthem “8 ½ Minutes” through the frantic riff in its paranoid, apocalyptic verse. Squid’s take on it, though, is much more cryptic, opting for a series of vague and menacing optically-focussed lyrics rather than a direct story. The mania is broken up with an off-kilter melodic section and a melancholy, droning, 90s-style outro.

Aside from those two songs though, O Monolith has little in the way of the kind of uptempo attacks. These other songs are largely fairly slow and exploratory, with dissonant guitar playing and a variety of different instruments building up and falling out, interacting with the melodies. Often, these are electronics, most prominently on the quirky synth-funk track “Undergrowth.” This is most extreme on “Devil’s Den,” “Siphon Song” and “After the Flash,” which get very progressive in their poly-sectioned structures and enormous variety of sounds. “Devil’s Den” works pretty well, capturing something like the feeling of a scary rural folk-story, but I believe the other two falter a bit, not having quite enough melody to support the amount of weirdness they have going on.

Ants from Up There and Cavalcade saw two of Squid’s contemporaries make the leap from one discrete sound to another, but O Monolith’s stylistic shifting finds no particular centre. They meander from place to place, never quite giving the listener anything. Squid was always an unsure sort of band, and this is the flipside to that more confident form of eclecticism, fitting for this group of nail-chewers. It’s hard to say where Squid will turn next after this album, but that’s what makes them, and the rest of these restless new British bands, so interesting to keep an eye on.