When people ask me why I like metal, I rarely know what to say. Often I give them an answer that’s true for a lot of the metal I enjoy: it’s basically fun, rock-out music. Many of my favorite metal acts are pretty silly, despite their badass riffage and sick drumming, so pointing to that silliness as part of metal’s appeal is both true and convenient. But, like any metal fan, I find some heavy bands deeply and genuinely affecting. Sure, any good metal act can make you bang your head, but a select few can reach you on a more fundamental, emotional level. Most outsiders find the idea of emotionally viable heavy metal hard to swallow, so I prefer to simply play bands that fall into that category for them and grin as their eyes bug out of their heads. Giant Squid is one of those bands.
Despite frontman and songwriter Aaron Gregory’s claims to the contrary, Giant Squid definitely fall into the general metal ballpark, albeit uncomfortably. The band’s first release, 2006’s Metridium Fields, constituted a bizarre but innovative take on fuzzed-out stoner doom. Rich in exotic melodies and arrangements, Fields nonetheless felt cluttered and occasionally drifted into directionless jamming. Since then, Giant Squid has shed most of its members and relocated from Austin, Texas to San Francisco. Only Gregory and bassist Bryan Beeson remain—even Gregory’s wife Aurielle, who formerly contributed vocals and guitarwork of her own, has departed. Since the move to California, the ever-prolific cellist/vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz (Grayceon, Amber Asylum, Asunder, Neurosis) has stepped in to fill the void. Along with hard-hitting drummer Chris Lyman and a host of guest musicians, she’s helped complete a Giant Squid lineup capable of fulfilling Aaron Gregory’s complex vision.
The Ichthyologist is about as thematically unified as albums come, not least because its title neatly describes Gregory. The man’s fascination with the sea extends far beyond his band’s music; he’s actually a professional scuba diver by trade who works for San Francisco’s Bay Aquarium, cleaning equipment and feeding sharks (drummer Lyman also works there). Further, The Ichthyologist serves as an accompanying piece to a Gregory-penned graphic novel of the same name.
I normally have little patience for metal bands who engage in pretentious literary antics, but Giant Squid are worthy of an exception. Gregory’s lyrics carry The Ichthyologist’s narrative thread of naturalist isolation and lovelorn despair while still remaining impressionistic enough to work as verbal poetry rather than prose. His words speak sparsely but truthfully of man’s experience with oceans. Despondent in the face of its power, terrified of its weight and native monsters, and yet still drawn to it, The Ichthyologist is so preoccupied with all things pelagic that Gregory and Gratz often engage in roleplay, standing in for sea creatures, their victims, or the sea itself. In short, Mastodon can eat their fucking hearts out.
Of course, none of this would matter if The Ichthyologist wasn’t an incredibly compelling listen. Clocking in at a solid hour of spectacularly dense material, this album has so much going on that I’m almost afraid to analyze it. Giant Squid’s sound still focuses on juxtaposing brooding, quirky textures with heaving psychedelic doom, but their fresh lineup has greatly focused their songwriting. Chris Lyman’s drumming propels the band with infinitely more dexterity than his predecessor, especially during the band’s heavier moments—his abilities lend The Ichthyologist forward momentum where it might otherwise bog down under its own weight. Jackie Gratz, for her part, plays a vital but unobtrusive role. Her cello adds a wonderful x factor to the band’s already multifaceted sound—she’s brassy and percussive on marvelously-titled crusher “Throwing a Donner Party at Sea” (also featuring the agonized voice of Karyn Crisis and a searing trumpet solo [!?]) but fluid and ungodly gorgeous on slow burners like “Dead Man Slough” and “Sutterville.” Still, she never commandeers center stage with her playing, and she uses her voice only when its ethereal quality will work most effectively (more on that later).
In fact, The Ichthyologist’s strongest feature may be its uncanny balance of so many competing elements. Never have I heard a single album that incorporates bludgeoning doom guitars, wailing Arabic vocal melodies ("Blue Linckia"), hoarse Tom Waits-ish whispers, cello, violin, flute, oboe, trumpet, and fucking banjo without sounding like an irredeemable mess. Giant Squid have done an unbelievable job of reigning in all the elements of their sound and squeezing them into coherent songs (no 20-minute jam number here), though master producer Matt Bayles deserves a great deal of credit for his work in streamlining the band’s catholic instrumentation. These tracks border on orchestral at times (as during Anneke van Giersbergen of The Gathering’s appearance on “Sevengill”), but somehow never become overbearing.
Even more importantly, The Ichthyologist strikes an emotional equilibrium as well as an instrumental one—a virtue absent from most metal albums. Whether it’s because of the album’s storyline or the softening influence of so many female contributors (six all told, including two Amber Asylum members and Jackie’s sister Cat Gratz), Giant Squid never seem driven by blind aggression or machismo. As devastating as heavier songs like “Throwing a Donner Party at Sea,” “Blue Linckia,” and “La Brea Tar Pits” are, The Ichthyologist does just as well or maybe even better during its more reserved moments. “Emerald Bay,” for instance, features Gregory’s bone-dry voice telling a tale of alcohol-fueled delirium over eerily benign strumming, accompanied by a cello/oboe siren song befitting of the song’s delusional topic. Perhaps the album’s highlight, though, comes with “Mormon Island,” The Ichthyologist’s quietest cut. In perhaps the best vocal performance of her career, Jackie Gratz channels the spirit of a murdered woman whose body has been abandoned to an encroaching tide. Her reedy voice weaves flutelike over an incredibly unsettling tapestry of violin, cello and subdued banjo plucks. The song builds vast amounts of tension but never resolves itself—after a dozen listens, “Mormon Island” remains haunting.
Unfortunately, this pressing of The Ichthyologist probably won’t reach a store near you—because of the tragic death of publicist Adrian Bromley and the ensuing collapse of his promotion firm Ixmati Media, Giant Squid has only managed a thousand-copy first pressing of the album. That said, I expect that it won’t be long before this slab of distilled awesome gets snapped up for distribution by another label (I’m looking at you, The End), and if you’re still reading at this point you won’t be surprised when I recommend that you rush out and buy it as soon as possible. The Ichthyologist is, for lack of a better term, a grand fucking slam. Sublimely textured but crushingly heavy, deep as the ocean at its heart and yet instantly approachable, this is more than a great metal album—it is a beautiful work of art, by any standard. Even after writing this review, I can’t wait to listen to it again, and I’ll consider it a gift from the heavens if I hear another album even close to as good as The Ichthyologist this year.