Complexity, chaos and catharsis – sometimes it is the uneasiness and uncertainty of music that has the biggest emotional impact. If the world around you is spinning, it might be best to let the chaos flow. British quintet Squid are onto something, but there is a certain system behind the apparent chaos, that is their second studio album. Together with a new generation of rock bands like Black Midi and Black Country, New Road, the five lads put edgy, independent rock back on the radar. Only that their twisted, often improvised, and jazz-infused music has little to do with rock traditions. Their proto-math-rock-melange was hard to grasp and impossible to define yet an incredibly physical experience.

Squid‘s Berlin show in the fall of 2021 was actually the first full-capacity concert I attended after the start of the pandemic. It might have been a lucky coincidence back then (due to various other concerts being rescheduled) but it was a fitting group to remind the audience why a proper live show beats a concert live stream anytime. Squid were a furious and unstoppable force that evening. While they mostly played music from Bright Green Field there was also space for improvisation and new sounds. Little did I know that many of these tracks would turn into O Monolith, their stunning second album. It was the early, fully-seated, and socially distanced return of live shows that had a crucial effect on the record. “Without that tour, we wouldn’t have any of these tracks,” says band leader Ollie Judge. “People were so looking forward to seeing live music that we thought we could just play anything, even if it was unfinished.” And yeah, I do remember seeing these videos after eight months of lockdown without live music and being quite jealous. In some form or another, Squid played about 80% of O Monolith back then, mostly without lyrics still. Their sound has always been heavily influenced by their live energy but these eight new tracks take the ever-shifting dynamics and musical dramaturgy multiple steps forward.

The lead single (Swing) In A Dream opens the album with playful heaviness and changes its form various times within only four and a half minutes. “To live inside the frame and forget everything”, the lyric by Judge remains stuck in my head as the track builds up towards a mighty climax, including wild screams and a brass section that reappears throughout the record. The songwriter explains that the piece was inspired by a dream he had involving the Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting The Swing.

“In my dream, I was in the painting, but it was flooded and everything was floating away.”

Abstract inspirations like this, dominate the entire record. Take Undergrowth, one of the slightly more accessible tracks on the record which sees lyricist Judge dive deep into the idea of animism, the idea that spirits live in inanimate objects. “I was watching Twin Peaks, and there was the episode where Josie Packard’s spirit goes into a chest of drawers. So ʻUndergrowthʼ was written from the perspective of me being reincarnated as a bedside table in the afterlife and how the thought of being reincarnated as an inanimate object would be dreadful.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but that is definitely a first for a song lyric, isn’t it?

Group Effort

While Judge’s lyrics tell the obscure tales of the album, there is never any doubt that O Monolith is a group effort. This is the sound of five, highly skilled musicians and friends who know how to play with each other. There are no fixed roles and no hierarchy, potential ego adventures are sacrificed in favour of the music. Following their live debut, the songs came together in rehearsal rooms around Bristol, where the band was based at the time, eventually moving to Peter Gabriel’s iconic Real World studios in Wiltshire. This further pushed the development of the band’s sound from claustrophobic post-punk to something more free-flowing and spacious. Acclaimed producer Dan Carey, who was already in charge of their debut album, was on board again and so was John McEntire of legendary avant-garde rockers Tortoise who mixed the record. Even elements of British folk music and field recordings from the studio’s surroundings found their way into some songs.

Each song remains an adventure of its own. Devil’s Den is a quiet start that reminds me of late Talk Talk moments before sudden noisy outbreaks disturb the peace resulting in a noisy finale. Siphon Song follows a similar pattern but its chaos unfolds differently. The Blades, on the other hand, shows the vulnerable side of the group and features one of Judge’s most impressive vocal performances. He explains: “Dan [Carey] and I were talking about vocal delivery and how it would be good to not completely let myself go, and to not fall back on shouting because it’s more instantly gratifying.” The track does not end in noise, instead, the singer delivers a soft and tender performance. “I don’t think we’ve done something like that before.” Singer Martha Skye Murphy also makes a return on After The Flash, like she did on 2021’s Narrator.

Photo by Studio UJ

O Monolith might only include eight songs but don’t let that number fool you. It is enough for now. There is only so much of Squid one can take. Their dense and twisted music demands full attention, contrary to the contemporary understanding of music consumption. Squid make uneasy music for uneasy times. “There’s a running theme of the relation of people to the environment throughout,” says guitarist Louis Borlase about the musical and lyrical themes of the record. “There are allusions to the world we became so immersed in, environmental emergency, the role of domesticity, and the displacement you feel when you’re away for a long time.” As a society on the brink of extinction, we are reaching new levels of ‘lostness’ these days. In many ways, Squid deliver a fitting soundtrack for that. There is an old-fashioned understanding of musicianship in their sound, yet the absence of linearity challenges listening conventions. This isn’t music for playlists and “New Music Fridays”. It is music that forces the audience to listen closely and rethink their understanding of rock. Ollie Judge puts it best when he says:

“We’re quite a musically stubborn band, and in an endearing way, it’s a stubborn record.”

You might not get this album after one spin, maybe not even after two. But for those of you who get a tiny bit of it: Hold on to that piece, grab it tightly and let it lead you deeper down the rabbit hole and into a math-rocking wonderland. Squid tame the chaos and noise into an order that might not make much sense at first, but that can be extremely satisfying once you catch the vibe. O Monolith showcases the talents of a restless band, one that might already be working on the next chapter. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have this record fully processed by then.

O Monolith by Squid is out on June 9 via Warp Records. Get your hands on it right here.