Giant Squid - The Ichthyologist
There are no two ways about it - Aaron Gregory, frontman of the Sacramento-based epic sludgers Giant Squid, should very definitely not give up his day job. But this is no poorly-veiled way of saying he has no hope of making a career in music; rather, where the average non-professional musician will tend to mope away their days locked in torturously dull employment out of the necessity to pay the rent and fund the medical bills for crippling Gear Acquisition Syndrome, Gregory clearly has it sorted. Aside from crafting conceptual metal-masterpieces in the styling of a folklore-influenced Mastodon, the man earns his keep as a professional scuba diver and shark-feeder for San Francisco's Bay Aquarium. The man feeds sharks... for a living! Even better for us, he and the rest of the band still find time to write and release a killer record where Gregory's passion for all things aquatic could not be more apparent.The Ichthyologist marks Giant Squid's second full-length, following 2006's Metridium Fields (actually a re-recording of the album they self-released in 2004 as Metridium Field). A concept album based on Gregory's yet-to-be-published graphic novel of the same title, in the words of the press release, it tells the story of "a man stripped of his humanity and left with nothing but the sea in front of him" who is reduced to "adapting in inhuman ways to survive the shock of human loss and total emotional tragedy, becoming something else entirely in the process." Add to that some ferociously pounding toms, swishing cymbals and the filthy, High on Fire-esque scuzz of baritone guitars, Big Muff pedals, and Orange amplifiers and you could be forgiven for thinking "so far, so Mastodon." Unlike Brett, Brann, Bill, and Troy's latest efforts, however, the concept is clearly followed and, remarkably, reads considerably less like the creative writing notebook of a stoned twelve-year-old. But more importantly, the music itself actually lives up to the grandiose nature of the story it tells. Further to this, Matt Bayles' production job actually takes the band's style into account, unlike the increasingly clinical sound Mastodon have burdened themselves with.The narrative rides upon the back of a wonderfully fresh take on the type of post-metal typified by Neurosis, where annihilating riffs and gloriously-distorted basslines (see the middle section of "Throwing A Donner Party At Sea (Physeter Catodon)") mesh seamlessly with Jackie Perez Gratz's ever-tasteful cello and vocals. This gives way to moments of singularly eerie beauty, with the whole of "Mormon Island (Alluvial Au)" being a particularly strong example, before these then segue seamlessly into sections that wouldn't sound at all amiss on a Picaresque-era tune by The Decemberists. The sheer variety of styles and influences displayed by the band is fairly staggering, and even moreso for the fact that it never becomes overwhelming or difficult to follow. Each song acts as a unique and comprehensible entity in a manner which I have yet to hear on any other post-metal record. No doubt this is at least partly helped by the way they all represent individual episodes of Gregory's story, but the way in which they make it all sound so wholly effortless is nonetheless a powerful indication of the band's songwriting abilities.The vocals on offer show a similar degree of diversity, ranging from frenzied screams to half-whispered, half-growled segments, via an unexpected and unmistakably Serj Tankian-tinged nasal twang, most evident in the intro to "La Brea Tar Pits (Pseudomonas Putida)." On paper I can't think of a formula that sounds more likely to crash and burn in a spectacularly over-laboured manner, but believe me when I tell you it couldn't possibly work much more effectively. If a better-structured, better-executed and more suitably-produced song in a similar style to "Dead Man Slough (Pacifastacus Leniusculus)" is released before next January, 2009 truly will be a spectacular year for music. I cannot recommend this album highly enough - I defy you to tell me when you last heard a mariachi trumpet solo glide over a sludge riff as though there couldn't possibly be a more obvious pairing!