At this point, the select bands associated with Brixton’s “Windmill” scene, each led by the fruits of Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground studio, have become flagbearers for an umbrella of style-diverse guitar music: sonically adventurous, dynamically wild, and thematically sprawling in their own capacities. They’re all, let’s face it, picking up the guitars Radiohead put down in the late 1990s, translating Thom Yorke‘s anxieties about technology-derived interconnectedness directly into the very real future he dreamed of.
Demarcating between them in writing remains tenuous; true to music in the 2020s, it’s not the genre that matters but the vibe. When compared to the frantic Grimm Brothers’ extrapolations of Black Midi and the razor-sharp interpersonal drama of Black Country, New Road, Squid‘s vibe is kitchen-sink progressive rock decorated with lyrical abstraction. Their newest, O Monolith, is a tighter, leaner, more refined version of what predecessor Bright Green Field brought to the table. Like their debut LP, O Monolith has a discernible topography, with quiet parts building into loud parts that then drop back into gulfs of atmosphere.
The five-piece remains a mercurial sonic collective, cramming in textures and colors as if Voltron were a Michelin-star chef. Many of them are breathtaking, like the poignant twinkle of synths over “After the Flash” or the angst-ridden guitar strums breaking down “Swing (Inside a Dream)”, and they reiterate how good Squid is at using these textures in ways unique to their music. Maturation may have dimmed some of the passion present in their previous work, but the experience is still a thrill, at least on first listen.
Squid’s songs vibrate with social consciousness, though the commentary in Ollie Judge’s lyrics seems less an intentional focus than a side-effect of the music’s innate nerviness. Judge, however, does a better job here than on Field in conveying through abstraction. His best work here is on “The Blades”,” a track about surveillance and power in which Judge treats the title as a double entendre. As Squid drop out after building to their usual cacophony, Judge removes himself from the picture as if pulling himself out of a mental spiral. His voice is far more diverse too, settling less on Field’s performative octave jumps than on a general dynamic restraint. There’s nothing quite like the extremeness of “Narrator”, but a greater breadth of range highlights Judge’s noticeable improvement as a vocalist, one of O Monolith‘s handful of revelations.
It’s unfair to write off the record as “business as usual” when Squid’s business is taking guitar music – something utterly depleted of new ideas – and trying to carve new pathways through it. In our current industrial-nostalgia complex, you have to give kudos to anybody doing their best to circumvent blueprints and well-trodden paths. They’re really good at it too! So if this album doesn’t resonate quite like the one before, blame it on the difficulty of the assignment than the execution. It’s hard to be unpredictable for long, and for a group that benefits from unpredictability, O Monolith can’t help but suffer from the weight of expectations. When you’re always looking ahead for the left turn, it’s hard to be surprised when the band frequently takes it.