Album Review: Squid – Bright Green Field

[Warp; 2021]

Though now based in London, Squid formed in Britain’s South Coast haven of Brighton. While this could be a mere detail in their story, the quintet’s paranoid missives have always had a slightly different angle on them from those of the other capital city-dwelling post-punk bands they are invariably lumped in with (black midi, Black Country, New Road, Shame). It’s almost as if, having come in from a sunny seaside setting, Squid are less wholly enmeshed in the fabric of the Big Smoke; they see its grit, darkness and relentlessness from a slightly more removed position, which has yielded both more terrified and more empathetic visions of the people living within it. 

After a couple of releases where they were finding their feet, 2018’s “Houseplants” more or less set the template for the Squid we see and hear now: charging, reckless, full-throated post-punk that rallies against the status quo that has quietly but perniciously settled on all of us. In order to do this, Squid have built up a fictional world that reflects the harsh realities of the real one. Their 2019 EP, Town Centre, expanded on “Houseplants”, pairing glimpses of mundane existences with manic guitarwork, effectively evoking the cognitive dissonance between the peace in people’s outward appearance and the raging uncertainties and stresses within them. 

If Town Centre was their ‘proof of concept’, then debut album Bright Green Field is the culmination of everything they’ve been building towards: a full-on Metropolitan packed with anxious and confused everyday people. The inhabitants of their Metropolis are reminiscent of those in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; trapped in a system so large it can’t be defined, their dreams alternating between nightmares and escapist fantasies. Sonically, they often stick to their ‘let’s start full throttle and see how manic we can get’ formula, but, with the assistance of uber-producer Dan Carey, there are enough innovations and textural additions to make them sound grander than anything that’s come before. 

Bright Green Field’s first proper song, “G.S.K.”, gives us our initial wide-angle view of Squid’s Metropolis. With singing drummer Ollie Judge’s opening lines: “As the sun sets on the Glaxo Kline / Well it’s the only way I can tell the time,” we’re presented with a city that lives in the shadow of the pharmaceutical factory, a concrete slab so massive that its shadow dwarfs everything else; it is the centre of power and truth – and is a comically simple way of evoking the way the modern world bows to globalisation and industry. Amid the flood of imagery in “G.S.K.”, Judge also points out to us buildings covered in mosquito nets, bright neon bikes and unfriendly businessmen, all of whom populate this “concrete island” where he’s been for “far too long”. What seem like prosaic observations on paper are blown up into distorted monsters as Squid imbue the song’s imperial bounce with disembodied samples, spidery sax and sudden bursts of noise. 

Zooming in from the overview of “G.S.K.”, “Narrator” brings us face to face with Judge’s conduit in this Metropolis, who admits that he’s “Losing my flow / And my memories are so unnatural.” Who better to guide us through the capitalistic horror of Squid’s Metropolis than a paranoid schizophrenic? Especially one so effusively keen as this one, who, amid waves of propulsive post-punk, yelps defiantly “I am my own narrator!” It’s an affirmation he has to cling to as the sonic waves get wilder and guest vocalist Martha Skye Murphy joins the fray, adding a second voice to his confused psyche and spending the latter half of “Narrator” simply screaming her lungs out as the electrifying chaos mounts. As seems to become somewhat clear later on, this “Narrator” is stuck on a psych ward in the Metropolis, but, despite their limited mobility, there are still plenty of reflections on Squid’s world – and, by extension, our own – that can be garnered from such an uncertain viewpoint. 

The additions of sax, trumpet, trombone and racket give extra vibrancy to “Boy Racers”, which is a squelchier take on Squid’s usual build to the cathartic finale. These extra textures effectively add to the song’s positing of an inner city Mad Max-type scenario, where the titular “Boy Racers” rule the streets and strike such fear into its occupants that they appear in nightmares. These dreams are evocatively brought to life by the song’s extended ending where a chasmic drone yawns imposingly and Judge mewls “you’re always small… there’s things that you’ll never know… I’m flying.” We remain in the brain but pick up the pace on “Paddling”, which, while more or less by-the-numbers Squid in its gradual build to a frenzied finale, is another thrilling glimpse at the Narrator’s split psyche. It finds Judge trading off lines with dual guitarists Louis Borlase and Anton Pearson, reflecting the myriad consumerist impulses provoked through the endless advertising that is rife in this Metropolis.

They eschew the guitars in favour of a jellyfish bob and weave of brass and synth on the following “Documentary Filmmaker”, which is not in fact about the Louis Theroux-type figure for which it’s named, but again is told by the Narrator who remains on “the hospital ward” after the documentarian’s departure. He’s observing life’s mundanity from his window, and perhaps allowing the fear of global warming to creep in as he effuses: “It was warm in the summer… but SNOwy in FebrUaRY,” Judge punching every other syllable in his characteristic voice.

If one is wont to follow Bright Green Field as a narrative journey, then “2010” would be the song in which the Narrator escapes the ward – or it could just be seen as the creepy mid-point of the record. It’s an atmospherically disorienting piece that lures you in with overlapping voices and tendrils of synth, a sudden surge of searing noise and then a return to the swirling cauldron of crackling instrumentation, once again effectively evoking the information overload of modern city living. Judge repeats “I’m upside down, you’re upside down / The wrong way round, and inside out,” like the subconscious thoughts of the forlorn minds inhabiting Squid’s Metropolis, which emanate out of high rises into the Narrator’s mind as he makes his departure – an on-foot scamper that is continued in the instrumental breather “The Flyover”.

Unsurprisingly, life outside the ward is no less anxiety-inducing than what’s come in the first half of Bright Green Field. The zipping “Peel St.” reverts to Squid’s usual frantically-building freneticism and finds the Narrator realising “now I’m free / There’s no warden following me,” and yet the very streets he walks on fill him with despair as memories rise from the dirt.

This paranoia follows him home to roost on the album’s final two tracks. On “Global Groove”, the Narrator is no longer trapped on a psych ward, but, while he’s outfitted for a rave (lycra suit and sweatbands), he instead finds himself cornered by the horrific images he sees on his TV. Judge sounds lobotomised as he sings “we’re still dance, dance, dancing today / to the global groove,” while the band craft a stately slow-build from skeletal stomps to seasick sax-and-samples crescendo. By the time we reach the album’s rollicking finale, “Pamphlets”, he’s unsurprisingly become a full-on agoraphobic, admitting he doesn’t go outside and only gets updates from the propaganda pushed through his mail flap. It’s a dark way to end Bright Green Field, but more or less the only way this dystopian vision could end for the anonymous Narrator in Squid’s unkind Metropolis.

Considering the amount of fear, paranoia and despair on display on the album, you might be wondering why it’s called Bright Green Field. It seems that the Bright Green Field is a symbol of hope; a story that the people in Squid’s Metropolis tell each other about a world outside the endless city, one that can be reached, even though nobody has come back to confirm its existence. Because, what is humanity without hope? And that’s what Squid’s music is full of: humanity and the inherent hope within it. It’s what makes Bright Green Field a joy to return to time and again; the innovative sonic mayhem of their music is both an acknowledgement of the despair of our existence – and a reminder that nobody is alone in feeling it. It tells us that, while innumerable pernicious forces linger, we need not give up on ourselves or our fellow human just yet.