Album Review: Squid – Bright Green Field (Warp)

Bright Green Field | Squid

To start writing an album that subconsciously screams 2020 in 2019 is the work of black magic – I don’t care what anyone says. I could probably be coaxed into believing it too from the sheer amount of genius coming from The Windmill in Brixton – a place where Squid frequently hover. ‘Bright Green Field‘ is a thrilling debut album and one of admirable scope. It may be more of a mood piece than an every day listen, certainly hitting home in the most sensitive places, but damn is it a good one? Lead singer and drummer, Ollie Judge tells me on a zoom call that his girlfriends dad found the album ‘very emotional’. He seems surprised, but I can sense exactly why.

Following a crestfallen drive through London on the eve of Brexit, Judge started penning a song called ‘GSK’. A modern take on Concrete Island (1974) by J.G. Ballard, a novel that was passing through his hands at the same time. In an uncomfortably ironic way, the lyrics now sound more like a diary entry about 2020’s coronavirus universe than a dystopian future, with lines such as ‘Mosquito nets, they cover the buildings‘ delivered in high oscillation. Reminiscent instrumentally of great avant garde late 60s music – namely Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa – it is nothing short of a feat. Most likely this impression was conceived in my brain thanks to the wonderful brass arrangements on this track. The bass too. One that dominates the track, stalking all other instruments like a serial killer. The other instruments wrap themselves around it helplessly, while he in predation swallows them up. Judge’s vocals are mixed right up in the face (a smart mixing choice Dan, given the claustrophobic nature of the lyrics), before strings and frgagments of trumpet attack the listener like an unstable shelf falling on a workman’s head.

The genesis of Judge’s lyrics – not just here but on multiple occasions – may seem prophetic, but they are often put into his mouth somewhat at one remove. Other occasions prove just as chilling. Right now, Ice (1967) by Anna Kavan is top of my reading list after hearing Peel St. A track Judge will say is subconsciously based on our generation’s global warming issues, but really is about the aforementioned novel. There’s a lot in here about a future not so far away from our own and it’s genuinely a little frightening. The fact it was written entirely in a barn certainly helped it’s disassociated delivery. Sonic choices are again, picture perfect. Towards the end of the track in a highlight moment, Judge is playing his drums like a metronome, and it sounds like a watch ticking off the hours of life.

‘Global Groove’ follows, giving no sense of rest to it’s listener. In fact it’s the tensest track on the album. Judge’s vocals only rival Roger Waters (The Wall era) in his maniacal vocal delivery. ‘WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE WAR ON TV, JUST BEFORE YOU GO TO SLEEP?’ he screams in question, addressing terrorist attacks on the news and his personal insomnia following.  Reverb heavy trumpet lines follow, sounding like a homage to a Miles Davis song in my head (maybe something off sketches of spain), but the name wont come to me. The ambience of this track paired with the heavy lyrical topic is a spectacle in itself. Just when we think it can’t get better it does. By the end of the song we are given a chilling piece of spoken word minimalism. Judge reads an account of his anxiety as a child following the 9/11 attacks. He reads it through a dictaphone in detail. There’s passages about how he’d reassure himself that the people in every plane flying overhead are just families going on holiday. The way it’s delivered however sounds more like a news report from a plane crash victim. It’s fragility is completely unsettling.

The small details like this dictaphone spoken word passage or the single metronome on Peel St take Squid’s (already) anxiety ridden world to a more real place. They push the boundaries in their instrument choices through the record on numerous occasions, often making these small details their medium. Documentary Filmmaker has a bassline that sounds so numbing that it’s easy to mistake it for the backing sounds to the game Space Invaders. Later, slowed down piano drones drop in, producing a thought painting of mood, rather than the hard hitting post punk instrumentals people may expect. Some of the lyrics are a little ambiguous, but we learn through interviews that it is about a loved one being hospitalized with anorexia.

It continues in aware fashion. Zooming in on British citizens, the group present 2010. A track about the evergoing housing crisis affecting London right now. They do a direct character study on an individual slaughterhouse worker affected mentally by this. Cycles of washed out guitar noise pierce the ears, sounding reminiscent to a no wave album from the early 80s (Glenn Branca’s ‘The Ascension‘ keeps popping into my head) or for newer listeners, the last black midi album. This is conjoined dynamically with some very melodic sections including what sounds like a cabassa and a flute. This one again is an album highlight.

Lead single Narrator is still as potent too. You’ve all heard it. The musical thunderhead and the eventual turn coat breakdown from Martha Skye Murphy giving the epic scream solo. Backed off with off kilter guitar riffs, synths that sound more like phone interference, and sections of the group in unision delivering atonal musical door slams. The dynamic range between Judge’s oscillating yelp and Martha Skye Murphy’s weakening submissive whisper is such a great representation of the songs power exchange themes. Other single; Paddling is also great. The band play in the pocket of Judge’s locked drum groove, making it sound akin to a Talking Heads record spearheaded by Brian Eno. The lyrics take on a literary exercise of writing their modern fable, Wind in the Willows style. 

Arrhythmic guitars open Boy Racers continuing this Radiohead meets Swans fashion, becoming a tense track of perfectionist anxiety. One of the closest to what one will expect from Squid in it’s first half. The second half is an otherworldly soundscape, like anything from a music concrete album from the mid 70s. Led by an antique rackett, meshed with masked vocoded voices. This is one of many times the group experiment with calling friends during the lockdowns and asking them questions to throw on the record. A Dark Side Of The Moon type of idea, just a tad more disconnected. Something that again and again occurs on the short interlude tracks that form something that sounds like a disconnected radio. More can be read about this in an interview I conducted with the band during lockdown III.

Pamphlets is the one track I haven’t mentioned at this point, being so in awe of what the band is doing. A raucous closer, continuing the locked drum groove tradition of Paddling. A lyrical clenching of the throat about not wanting any more right wing pamphlets appearing through their letterbox. Though many would get rid of these pamphlets, Judge presents a world where he is locked inside and has only these pamphlets as an unreliable news source. The instrumental is playful like a hyperactive kid, before the lid is shut in the face sharply, culminating the album in a punky bang. Despite the band fearing bad reviews on this album, it really is something quite special. If for some reason you weren’t taking Squid seriously, now is the time to start doing so.

Key Tracks: GSK, Narrator, Boy Racers, Paddling, 2010, Peel St, Global Groove, Pamphlets 

Bright Green Field is released via Warp Records on Friday May 7.