In the comprehensive and appropriately spacey Amazon documentary Long Strange Trip, Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart meditates briefly on what made his band such a transcendent musical act for three decades. Except he disagrees with the premise. He doesn’t see The Grateful Dead as being in the music business. Famously, he considered the Grateful Dead to be in the “transportation business”, which is to say that the music, the tours, the image and the alternative lifestyle that all fall under the band’s name act as a vehicle for something larger that can take you to a completely different place, physically or metaphysically. This might sound a bit too much like the burnt-out thoughts of an ageing hippie, but he has a point: good music can be enjoyable in the moment, but great music can take you on that fantastic voyage that he seems so in tune with.
In that way, London-based experimental rock band Squid might just be in the transportation business themselves. Through three EPs and a number of singles, the boys in Squid have pushed the genre-limiting boundaries of the rock scene to the edge, breaking any rules that they might see as limiting their scope of ambitions. Songs can very easily reach beyond the eight-minute mark, or perhaps stay compact to less than a minute. Melodies and earworms are all over the place, but they never come from the instruments you would expect. Genre terms like “free jazz” and “krautrock” come closer to accurately describing the Squid sound than more traditional monikers like “post punk”.
It’s an eclectic stew, but it all coalesces on their debut studio LP, Bright Green Field. Whether it’s the rock-solid funk rhythms, chromatic guitar work, wonderfully peculiar horn and brass arrangements, or off-kilter vocal lines, the album makes a strong case for finding sublime nirvana out of chaotic elements. Singer/drummer Ollie Judge can do a lot of things with his voice: convey quiet intimacy, scream his brains out, recite poetry, move you with both opaque imagery and hyper-specific references. One thing he does not do, however, is sing melodically.
If your bare necessities for enjoying a band include having a singer who can traditionally sing, then you’ll have a tough time with Squid. But if you enjoy the stylings of Dry Cleaning or Fontaines D.C., where the voice acts in unique opposition to the other instruments by specifically refusing to add harmony to the proceedings and, in somewhat unlikely fashion, becomes as much an instrument as anything else in the band, then you’re in luck.
Oftentimes, Bright Green Field is too oblique for its own good. The marvellous thing about experimental music is that it can open new windows to appreciate sounds and ideas that you maybe wouldn’t have before. The detrimental aspect of experimental music is that if the experiment fails, you’re left with something difficult and cumbersome and ill-conceived.
Squid certainly get credit for being restless in their ambitions, but you should also know that there are plenty of moments on Bright Green Field where the jagged guitar riffs, spoken word yelps, and jarring horn lines simply don’t work. They go on too long, they never sit well to begin with, or they grate to the point of exhaustion. The album sometimes feels like a marathon when it doesn’t transcend, like on the back half of ‘Narrator’ or the rudderless ‘Global Groove’.
Thankfully, those moments appear to be few and far between. On tracks like ‘G.S.K.’, ‘Peel St.’ and the first half of ‘Narrator’, Squid act as energetic ambassadors to a weird sonic world that could only be made by these five individuals. As Judge’s voice convulses with frantic urgency, Laurie Nankivell’s arrangements always add fresh nontraditional colours to the band’s palate, while guitarists Louis Borlase and Anton Pearson face off in a constant battle of angular one-upmanship, only for the textures provided by keyboardist Arthur Leadbetter to fade the group in and out of fresh new ideas. Squid are a band that are greater than the sum of their parts, so much so that by taking one away, you would end up with a completely different sounding band.
At their best, Squid are a band that can take you anywhere you want to go, as long as you’re open-minded enough to take that trek with them. There are plenty of bumps along the way, as there will be on any long strange trip, but Bright Green Field justifies its rockier moments with blissful detours and brazenly bizarre left turns that reward the listener as they sometimes furiously, sometimes pensively gallop towards catharsis.
If you believe that the destination isn’t as important as the journey, then Bright Green Field will excite and enthral you. Squid make for a fairly mind-blowing journey.