GIANT SQUID’S THE ICHTHYOLOGIST: MMMM… METAL CALAMARI
Blame it on the rigors of moving home cities yet again, or changing drummers as frequently as Spinal Tap, or trying to best their universally hailed first album Metridium Field: Giant Squid sound exhausted on The Ichthyologist. More depressed than angry. Not so overtly metal. Lethargic in their rhythms, loose in their playing. Maybe it’s all intentional, given the stark emotional terrain of the source material – based on band leader Aaron Gregory’s graphic novel of the same name, The Ichthyologist records the thoughts of a numbed narrator as he turns to the sea to escape the pain of personal tragedy and loss. Gregory’s lyrics dwell in dank, lightless places. If on Metridium Field Giant Squid were skimming the sea’s surface in search of their namesake seabeast, this one finds them sinking, pulled down into the fathomless depths.
That’s not a bad thing, as there’s a host of fantastical wonders to behold under the sea. The addition of electric cellist Jackie Perez-Gratz to Giant Squid’s ranks means all kinds of brittle and beautiful textures that you rarely hear outside of her other band, the bonerific Grayceon. Trumpets add to the Spanish feel of opener “Panthalassa,” surely the heaviest bolero fanfare ever recorded. Banjo colors “Dead Man Slough” with homey plucking and Perez-Gratz’s sister Cat brings a plaintive oboe to “Emerald Bay.” Then there’s Gregory’s ever-expanding vocal versatility, which takes him from gravelly end-time preacher to Muslim muezzin, with a couple pitstops in howling beastyville.
There is a frustrating sogginess that seeps in to The Ichthyologist, perhaps inevitable for an album of such scope and so many guest musicians. Producer Matt Bayles (Mastodon/Isis/Botch) clearly had a bitch of a task balancing Giant Squid’s natural rawness with some of the band’s more grandiose ideas – Lorraine Rath’s flute obligato gets lost in the droning opening section of “Sevengill,” and a cameo vocal by Anneke van Giersbergen (formerly of The Gathering) nearly finds the same fate. It’s no surprise that two of the album’s most affecting songs, “La Brea Tar Pits” and the bottom-feeding mood piece “Mormon Island,” are also its most stripped-down.
Still, it’s a colorful aquarium that Giant Squid are floating in, and the fact that the band’s tentacles extend to both the lazy shuffle “Sutterville” and the Neurosis crunch of “Blue Linckia” without stretching too much is mighty impressive in itself. The ecstatic peaks of The Ichthyologist aren’t as easily reached as with the band’s earlier stuff – if you’re looking for the thrilling brutality of “Sutter’s Fort” from Giant Squid’s 2007 split with Grayceon, you better go study fish elsewhere – but if you’re willing to wade through some of its murkier waters, there’s enough high-grade chum on The Ichthyologist to make the swim worth your while.
(3 out of 5 horns)