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Squid Is a Band with No Rules

The British band Squid keeps testing its limits—and the limits of those who would try to define it. Since 2017, the group has released a string of new songs, each a bit weirder than the last, up through last month’s “Pamphlets,” another in a growing constellation of oddities. The band is composed of five musicians, each of whom has multiple roles: the singer and drummer Ollie Judge, the guitarist and vocalist Louis Borlase, the guitarist and vocalist Anton Pearson, the bassist and brass player Laurie Nankivell, and the keyboardist, cellist, and percussionist Arthur Leadbetter. The project originated with Judge, Pearson, and Nankivell playing together in a soul-and-funk covers band. They also shared an appreciation of the German Krautrock band Neu! From these disparate influences, Squid has built something protean and compelling.

Squid values an egalitarian approach. Every idea is considered on its own merits, which may be partly why the songs sound so unorthodox. The band doesn’t have an official lead singer, although it is most often Judge’s shout-singing that erupts from the tracks. When the members write songs, they do it separately, and then fit the pieces together. “The way we compose is much more about listening to each other musically,” Nankivell said earlier this year. In 2018, this listening led the band to follow the direction of the producer Dan Carey, who had worked on unconventional albums for the London bands Goat Girl and black midi. The song-making of Squid grew ever stranger with Carey in tow. Two singles released in 2019—“Houseplants” and “The Cleaner” —expanded on the band’s interests in funk, electronic, and experimental music. “Houseplants,” a rollicking jam with a pop sensibility, deflates into chaotic jazz near the end; “The Cleaner” is continuously rearranging itself into self-contained sections. Both songs refuse to settle in one place. Pearson said that the only theme of Squid is “inconsistency”—rule-breaking, or, rather, not having any rules.

Because of that, there has been some confusion over what, exactly, the music is. The band is often labelled post-punk, a catch-all genre for punk rock inspired by nearly anything else. Recently, the critic Matthew Perpetua, writing for NPR, grouped them with other “post-Brexit” U.K. bands, such as Dry Cleaning and Sleaford Mods, but wrestled with what to call the burgeoning scene that might encompass these divergent artists. The band members understand this desire to categorize, though they find the attempts unproductive. In 2019, they laughed at being labelled “crank wave,” in NME: “Our music’s not that angry,” Judge told the Quietus. More recently, they’ve come around to the idea of their listeners simply trying to wrap their minds around something that is nearly impossible to define. “I remember Punk-Funk was a good one I saw somewhere,” Borlase told BN1 magazine. “Everyone needs to make something into an object in order to understand it, so it’s no surprise genre is important to lots of people.”

Squid’s début album, “Bright Green Field,” which was released last week, cannot be pinned down. Many of the songs split apart to reveal uninhabited and uncanny worlds within themselves. On the eight-and-a-half-minute single “Narrator,” the band presents an unreliable male narrator who is “losing the distinction between memory, dream, and reality.” The vocalist Martha Skye Murphy complicates this inner monologue, playing a woman whose truth is overwritten by the male narrator’s unsubstantiated account. Dissolving borders of materiality and lucidity is a recurring bit on the album. These threads are sometimes pulled so hard that the music itself begins to unravel into wondrous mayhem. The first proper song, “G.S.K.,” presents a doomsday vision that was triggered by a Megabus ride from Bristol to London on the day that England was supposed to withdraw from the E.U.; as the news came in, Judge was reading J. G. Ballard’s “Concrete Island” and gazing at GSK House, the headquarters of the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. The resulting suspense on the track comes from the way these signifiers give shape to anxious musical grooves.

That underlying anxiety—the surreality of not being able to tell real life from dystopian fiction—powers the unstable, sprawling orchestrations on “Bright Green Field.” The tangible and the imagined blend together, constructing an unidentified yet familiar cityscape. (“It leaves more for the imagination. It could be 2021. It could be the year 3000,” Judge told Stereogum.) Throughout the album, the songs evoke tension. There is an intensity to the heavily rhythmic parts that feels unsustainable—and often any sense of regularity is eroded, until the songs completely break apart and reform. The second half of the track “Boy Racers” swells into the haunting sounds of buzzing drone music produced by a medieval wind instrument interacting with a synthesizer. The dread slowly builds all through “Global Groove,” in which an unending news cycle and the entertainment-industrial complex overload the brain with images, to dehumanizing effect. “Watch your favorite war on TV / Just before you go to sleep / And then your favorite sitcom / Watch the tears roll down your cheek,” Judes cries out. Like the best episodes of the sci-fi horror series “Black Mirror,” the album envisions a nightmare world that reflects the real potential of our own to become even worse.

Despite the sombre tone and the sense of unease, “Bright Green Field” is far from joyless. The songs themselves are too catchy and lawless not to bring thrills. Even as the band surveys the sad state of the workforce (“Paddling”) and right-wing propaganda (“Pamphlets”), the feeling of being on edge produces a delirious immediacy that gives the music an energy boost. The album isn’t even all that political. It’s about coming of age amid crisis, and falling prey to the punishing reality of young adulthood. This isn’t pandemic music, but, in the wake of one, the convergence of fantasy and fidelity—the conceptual and the experienced—is nearly impossible to ignore. As Squid drifts into a grim world of its own making, the one outside draws a little closer.

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