Bristol band Squid have just followed up their debut album with a masterpiece of paranoia, inspired by folk, computer music and post-punk, and telling tales of rats, plane crashes and being reincarnated as beside cabinet
On Squid’s second album O Monolith, the band’s avant-garde leanings serve a work of thrilling complexity and emotional range, exploring themes of paranoia and displacement. Presenting more expressive, inventive writing than their debut album Bright Green Field, it also takes place on a grander scale, featuring extra percussionists, woodwind players and a choral ensemble. Whilst Bright Green Field professed to take place within an imagined cityscape, O Monolith sends us hurtling through different settings, as well as far-ranging textures and moods. As guitarist Anton Pearson says self-deprecatingly: “It’s a mess, is what it is!”
Throughout O Monolith, Squid present an unstable relationship with their environment. Settings change dramatically, from a pre-industrial village in ‘Devil’s Den’ to a claustrophobic aeroplane in ‘Green Light’. Vocalist and drummer Ollie Judge imagines the world’s destruction in ‘Swing (In A Dream)’, and looks beyond Earth altogether in ‘After The Flash’: “Staring into the stars.” Guitarist Louis Borlase links this to the band’s “feeling of displacement” amidst the international touring following Bright Green Field. “There were times when it was intense being away, focusing on live music, then coming back and reconnecting with friends and family,” he explains.
At the heart of this shifting environment is a striking interplay between rural and urban imagery, demonstrated in ‘The Blades’ where crowds of people are imagined as blades of grass. Judge ascribes this to O Monolith’s creation at Real World Studios, nestled in rural Wiltshire, immediately after a tour of major cities across the US. “I think that’s the biggest culture shock I’ve ever had going abroad,” he says. “Everything’s amplified, and so in-your-face. Coming back to Wiltshire to record the album, it was like we wanted to be quite British and pastoral.”
Musically, this is reflected in the album’s mixing of cold, industrial electronics with sounds from folk music: woodwind, vocal harmonies and simple, warm guitar arrangements. This contrast is demonstrated by sections of ‘Siphon Song’, where group vocals and folk-facing guitars support a heavily processed lead vocal, singing “plastic in the wind.” Bassist and trumpet player Laurie Nankivell notes Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s soundtrack to the 2017 film Arcadia as a reference point in this. “In that piece of work, they draw a line between old Pagan folk traditions and modern hedonistic traditions of partying and stuff – I think that influenced the record somewhat.”
This complex presentation of environment forms the basis for striking insights in O Monolith, particularly in the closing track ‘If You Had Seen The Bull’s Swimming Attempts You Would Have Stayed Away’, which explores our relationship with rats. “Wherever there’s large human populations, there’s large rat populations,” explains Pearson, who wrote this song’s lyrics. “I was thinking about that in a British context, and how they probably arrived when the Romans came.”
The others break into a chuckle at this, clearly still bewildered by Pearson’s level of rat-based knowledge, but he presses on with a grin. “There’s grey rats and black rats in the UK: one of them came with the Romans, and the other came with the Normans is what they think. Today, black rats are pretty rare but grey ones are everywhere.”
“It’s interesting that it’s grey squirrels and grey rats that prevailed,” Judge chimes in.
“I think they’re actually called brown rats,” Pearson corrects himself. “It’s interesting that they arrived when the Romans did, because Celtic languages would’ve started to decrease at that point.” This is presented in the fragmented lyrics, which describe the “death of the language.” While this enthusiasm prompts some gentle teasing, with Pearson’s bandmates calling him ‘Rat Boy’ later in our interview, it produces one of the album’s highlights: a towering slow burner, led by chilling whispered vocals.
Feelings of paranoia or fear might not necessarily be evoked by rats, depending on one’s sympathies for them, but certainly loom large throughout O Monolith. ‘Devil’s Den’ presents a witch-trial, while ‘Green Light’ centres upon fears about a plane crashing: “Where is the best place to sit if this all goes wrong?” When asked about this, Judge playfully gestures around the table to his “band of five anxious men.” However, he acknowledges the weight of these feelings in the years around the global pandemic, when O Monolith was being written. “It’s kind of impossible in the years 2020-2023 to not be afraid or paranoid about pretty much everything. I feel like you’re not normal if you’re not anxious,” he grins. “And if you’re not anxious, you’re a liar! Which is bad!”
While the witch-trial and plane crash present fears of death, in O Monolith there are fates that are even worse. ‘Undergrowth’ presents the idea of being reincarnated as a bedside cabinet, inspired by Josie Packard’s absorption into a cabinet in Twin Peaks. “In the third series, there’s a high-pitched whistle in the Great Northern Hotel, and there’s a theory it’s her,” Judge says. This prompts his bandmates to call him a ‘nerd’ in chorus. “You have to do a lot to get called that in this band!”
Judge relates this fear to his feelings about performing in Squid. “Me and Louis were chatting about album reviews, and I think your art being received as mediocre is far worse than it being panned. I thought the same of the afterlife: if the afterlife is boring, that’s so much worse than being whipped and on fire.”
These weighty themes are supported by O Monolith’s remarkable scale relative to their debut album, realised with a cast of additional musicians. O Monolith features woodwind players, the choral ensemble Shards, and guest percussionists Zands Duggan and Henry Terrett: enriching the album with more complex, colourful arrangements than heard on the comparatively austere Bright Green Field.
“We were really keen, for the first time, to make the record sound like something that we wouldn’t be able to achieve with just the five of us,” says Borlase. “By bringing in Shards, the woodwind ensemble, Henry and Zands, we were trusting the amazing musicality of other musicians. When you’ve finished the songs, and this barrage of people come running at you to contribute, it also injects an element of unpredictability at the 11th hour.” The whispered lyrics on ‘If You Had Seen The Bull’s Swimming Attempts You Would Have Stayed Away’ were, Borlase tells me, still being written the morning Shards arrived to record them.
One important element in the record’s palette is the Fairlight CMI: a pioneering synthesiser and sampler, adopted in the early ’80s by the likes of Kate Bush, Devo and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Keyboardist Arthur Leadbetter was introduced to this synth by Real World’s in-house programmer Roger Bolton, after the group befriended him at the local pub.
“It looks like a filing cabinet. It’s not got a screen built in, so you have to plug in a monitor, and the screen is all black and white – like Pong or something,” Leadbetter explains. “We used the bank of factory sounds: the odd marimba, some choir sounds, and the string hit at the beginning of ‘Undergrowth’. It sounds so Kate Bush – you can get sample packs, but it just doesn’t sound anything like that,” he says. “You’re working with something that’s had such a huge part in the history of sampling, which we now just take for granted with computers; it’s nice to go back to basics.”
The Fairlight’s use supports a strange presentation of time in O Monolith. These warm, breathy textures are powerfully evocative of the early ’80s when this synthesiser was ubiquitous, interleaved with futuristic electronics and elements of the spidery post-punk dominating UK guitar music today. The lyrics also lurch backwards and forwards in time: in ‘Green Light’, the speaker is recalled from their aeroplane seat to memories of “Cracks of the door / Where the sunlight hits my skin.” Borlase attributes this sensation of time-travel to the album’s disjointed writing process. “This album is track-by-track more disparate than Bright Green Field, and I think that’s got a direct relationship with the different places and times we were writing in. The music was written over a really disparate series of timeframes.”
This unusual depiction of time is nuanced by Squid’s embrace of ideas from folk music, which – by virtue of being disseminated, duplicated and modified through generations – might be seen to exist outside of time. “If the folk tradition is about the passing on of stories through word-of-mouth, that’s like the experience we had with Roger,” Judge suggests. “It all worked around the local pub, and him chatting with us about the Fairlight: it’s about as ‘folk’ as computers can get,” he grins. “Cyber-folk!”
Beyond its scale and expanded palette, O Monolith also presents some hugely inventive songwriting, like album-highlight ‘After The Flash’. Featuring guest vocals from Martha Skye Murphy, its marching 5/4 arrangement builds towards a euphoric ‘Shepard scale’ performed on the Fairlight. This is an auditory illusion, in which a Shepard tone (a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves) moves up a scale while the higher octave’s volume decreases, and the lower octave’s volume increases: played in a loop, it gives the impression of a continuously rising scale, like a sonic barber’s pole.
“When I was younger, I used to play in an orchestra,” Leadbetter says of its inspiration. “One of our warm-up techniques was to play scales in harmony, going up and down. It ends up like an escalator, where everybody’s getting on but missing out a step,” he explains. “That section’s also an example of ‘black MIDI’, which is music you can’t play without MIDI.”
“You’d need a lot more fingers,” Borlase laughs. “Dan Carey’s take was that it was like the camera tool of a dolly zoom, where you’re panning forward but zooming out.”
“I really wanted to re-do the vocal at the end of that track” Judge adds, claiming the take that appears on the recording was insisted upon by Carey, who produced the album, as he did Bright Green Field. “He said it sounded desperate, but in a good way. It’s definitely the most vulnerable thing we’ve done.”
This points to Judge’s adventurous use of his voice in O Monolith, leading the album with more varied, melodically-driven and open-hearted performances than heard on Squid’s debut. While Judge’s fevered sprechgesang style from Bright Green Field makes its way into tracks like ‘Undergrowth’, other performances range from the inquisitive, intimate delivery on ‘Devil’s Den’ to the gentle, wearied croon on ‘After The Flash’.
“I just got tired of shouting really; cosplaying as a post-punk singer,” Judge claims. “It’s not really who I am, or we are. We’re not really shouty people.”
Borlase ascribes the band’s previous use of sprechgesang vocals to contemporary trends in UK guitar music. “There was a moment, when we were making music in 2018 and 2019, when that was exciting. [Whereas] when we were making our first music, Ollie’s vocal was the most melodic aspect,” he says, in reference to Squid’s lesser-known 2017 EP Lino. “It’s not an arrival – it’s more like a return.”
Most songs on O Monolith are sung from a first-person perspective, in which the speaker is trying to assess or make sense of a situation, from the cabinet in ‘Undergrowth’ to the dreamer in ‘Swing (In A Dream)’. However, these characters and situations prove to broadly emerge from secondary sources – in these two tracks the respective sources are Twin Peaks and Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing. Asked how much O Monolith reveals of Squid themselves, Judge suggests the record presents a degree of subjective experience regardless of what else fed into the writing. “My lyric-writing tends to be very oblique, and you don’t really know what it’s about at first glance, but I always know how I felt in the moment when we wrote something.”
“I can’t speak for everyone here,” Leadbetter adds, “but I put all of who I am into what I do musically. It’s a very emotional, invested part of my life – it means so much to me.”
This underscores the overall impression given by O Monolith: that in pursuing their experimental ambitions more fully, the group have produced an album of greater emotional depth. From the trepidation of ‘Devil’s Den’ to the yearning desperation of ‘After The Flash’, Squid’s avant-garde sensibilities have been used to express a range of sensations. In this, O Monolith is not only thrillingly inventive, but wonderfully alive.