Reviewing back in time: 2009, the year GIANT SQUID released their masterpiece: “The Ichthyologist”
Photo credits: Taken from their Facebook page, please send me the name of the photographer, I couldn’t find that information.
Wait a minute, why am I writing about an album that’s more than 10 years old, from a band that’s been sleeping for years? There are two reasons:
1. This is one of my favorite albums of all time.
2. This baby has been hard to find at a reasonable price for years, but TRANSLATION LOSS RECORDS are about to re-release it later next year, and I thought that was a valid excuse to write about fish and music at the same time, again.
So, who are those GIANT SQUID people? They’re a doom/post-metal band from California, with a particular fancy for the sea, which has drawn me to them as soon as I knew they existed, a long time ago. The Ichthyologist is their second album, released in 2009, after Metridium Fields in 2006 and before Minoans in 2014. They also released two EPs, Monster in the Creek in 2005 and Cenotes in 2011. Sadly, they have been on hold for a few years now. But to say the musicians haven’t been active would be a lie. Three fourths of Giant Squid have formed Squalus for shark lovers, the best Jaws-themed sludge band to ever exist (if there has been any other…). Their frontman, singer-guitarist Aaron John Gregory has worked with former Agalloch members in the short-lived project Khôrada, who has released one amazing album in 2018. The band’s drummer Zack Farwell and their frontwoman cellist and singer Jackie Perez Gratz have their other band Grayceon (amazing stuff as well, their new album Mothers Weavers Vultures is going to be released next month, check out their single “Diablo Wind“).
The band’s sound is hard to define. While we could say that it has found its basis in doom-inclined heavy music, there is huge room for experimentation, considering on one hand the presence of cello, which is unusual in the metal scene. On the other hand, well, there’s so much more. The album we’re talking about, The Ichthyologist, has many guests. From a vocal point of view, Aaron and Jackie already alone use various singing styles, different levels of clean and harsh, and two guests come to add more flavor to the recording, Karyn Crisis (formerly of Ephel Duath) and Anneke Van Giersbergen (formerly of Vuur and The Gathering).
Now looking at the instruments we have the classics of guitar/bass/drums, as well as keyboards. We have cello all around, as I’ve said before, but also banjo, trumpet, oboe and flute, on some of the tracks. Conclusion: The final result is very versatile, and yet everything works together perfectly.
The release has had two different artworks, the first one, for the independent first release, featured a red starfish taken from the illustrations of German naturalist Ernst Haeckel. When it was released later through TRANSLATION LOSS RECORDS, they used a new artwork drawn by Sam Kieth, an illustrator you might know from his work on several famous comic books published by DC Comics. That same illustration will be used again for the 2021 re-release. Here’s what it looks like:
It still is a starfish somehow, but way more gruesome. While the design is that of a human hand, it has 5 branches, like the original starfish. Notice the mouth at the center of the palm, and the eyes at the end of every finger, just like with starfish (For those who may be wondering about eyes on starfish, they actually have sensitive cells akin to eyes at the end of their arms). The whole of the body is covered in something that could either be algae or anything strange one might think of if they left something rot out at sea.
Let’s get to the tracklist, which is interesting as well, as it refers to real places, events and aquatic species (more on that later):
1. Panthalassa (Lampetra Tridentata)
2. La Brea Tar Pits (Pseudomonas Putida)
3. Sutterville (Vibrio Cholerae)
4. Dead Man Slough (Pacifastacus Leniusculus)
5. Throwing a Donner Party at Sea (Physeter Catodon)
6. Sevengill (Notorynchus Cepedianus)
7. Mormon Island (Alluvial Au)
8. Blue Linckia (Linckia Laevigata)
9. Emerald Bay (Prionace Glauca)
10. Rubicon Wall (Acipenser Transmontanus)
The whole ensemble of those tracks seem to be telling the story of a person who was stranded at sea, left there alonefor along time, changed, and become a sea creature itself. I’ve always loved the lyrics of the album, so let’s get more onto that as well.
It would not be nice to tell you about all this without listening a little to what this is about. Have a try of the first song:
- Panthalassa (Lampetra Tridentata)
Panthalassa was the superocean that surronded Pangea, by the end of the Palaeozoic (250 million years ago). Lampetra tridentata is the Pacific lamprey, a parasitic fish with an interesting dentition, if anyone’s curious enough to look it up.
This first song has an eerie intro that leads us into typical doomy parts, and alternate between heavy segments and calmer ones, with cello and trumpet all around. It tells the story of the commander of a ship that appears to get lost at sea, sucked in by the chants of lampreys that act as Greek sirens, enchanting sailors to their deaths. Stranded, at sea, we follow our character into the next song.
- La Brea Tar Pits (Pseudomonas Putida)
La Brea Tar Pits are… tar pits. Located in Los Angeles, they are natural tar effusions that spurt from the ground, and over their history (they date back from the last glacial period) have trapped many animals which died in the tar, leaving bones for scientists to study. The gas bubbles emitted by the seemingly boiling tar are the result of methane evacuation from bacteria, and guess what? Pseudomonas putida is a bacteria.
This song is slower, has a great deal of banjo here and there, that is clear even through the layer of distorted guitars, still embracing doom metal wholeheartedly. There, the character, maybe after having been stranded at sea, wakes up, hungry, and witnesses the first changes at his mind and body, as he says “I carve out and deny these infections on my soul and watch as they spawn a life of their own, leaving snail trails of scars over what little of me is still pure”.
- Sutterville (Vibrio Cholerae)
Sutterville was a settlement around Sacramento, on the river. Vibrio cholerae is the bacteria responsible for the cholera disease, who thrive in brackish waters.
The song indulges more into some kind of atmospheric rock, a little jazzy, leaving the heaviness out for a while. It seems to retell the story of the cholera epidemic that struck Sacramento in 1850, as the lyrics refer to the many dead related to that event.
- Dead Man Slough (Pascifastacus Leniusculus)
Well, a slough is a marsh with muddy waters, the kind of place that Pascifastacus leniusculus, a species of crayfish, could totally enjoy.
Again, like the previous song, this one is more on the atmospheric side of things rather than the heavy side, although that latter one comes back at the end of the song.
It tells the story of a love story gone wrong apparently, as if someone found out that his partner is cheating on him, and then that someone kills the person with whom his partner cheated and leaves him dead in a slough, where, as the lyrics say “Crayfish will do as they wish with every inch of him”. Bon appétit little crayfish.
- Throwing a Donner Party at Sea (Physeter Catodon)
Out now for a heavier and more cheerful song. Hey, it’s a party ! That’s a joke, of course. The Donner Party refers to an event when pioneers bound to California were stranded on a train in the mountains in the 1846-47 winter, which ended up in a few mishaps for survival, like cannibalism. Physeter catodon is a sperm whale, the biggest toothed whale in the world.
The lyrics of the song are not referring to the actual Donner Party, but to another cannibalistic event related to the abovementioned animal. They tell the tale of a boat struck twice by a whale that slowly sinks, with its crew thinking of their means of survival, with the one arising at the end of the song being eating each other. This isn’t explicitly said in the song, but this could be a reference to Owen Chase’s real life account of how a sperm whale struck his boat in 1819, The Shipwreck of the Essex. After that, the crew had to survive for 93 days in the Pacific Ocean, and there were a few cannibalistic episodes along the story.
- Sevengill (Notorynchus Cepedianus)
Here, both title and species name refer to the same animal, the broadnose sevengill shark, a benthic species with a few archaic evolutionary features that can rise up to 3 meters long.
The song starts off with the horn of boat ringing, and leans towards more atmospheric tunes in its first half, then after a cello bridge, the heaviness kicks back in, along with Anneke Van Giersbergen’s haunting voice guesting on the track. Then alternates between her voice and Aaron’s harsh screams, to beautiful contrast.
The narrator of the song lives among the sevengills, and watches people dying (killing themselves?) in the bay. The song itself, feels very calm, though, maybe because of this deadly theme running along it. It finishes on the sound of seagulls, that may come pick on corpses on the shore.
- Mormon Island (Alluvial Au)
Mormon Island was a mining town during the Gold Rush, which is located it present time’s Sacramento. And Alluvial Au is the exception, it is not a species. Something alluvial refers to sedimental deposits along the shores, molded by erosion and water. These sediments may form huge rocky formations outside of water. And “Au” is the symbol of gold in the classification of elements. So I guess you could translate that to “sedimental gold”?
The song is eerie and atmospheric, with slow banjo playing over smooth and elongated cello lines, and talks about a man who died there, and whose corpse was never excavated. “They found gold but they never found me”, as the lyrics say.
- Blue Linckia (Linckia Laevigata)
Again, this time, both names refer to the same animal: the blue lnckia, a five-armed species of blue starfish.
This song is on the heavier side of things. It seems to tell a story of suffering through the image of the starfish. If you cut one of its limbs, they will grow again. Even better, both pieces will grow new arms. The song says that every newborn starfish after cutting arms will come haunting the person that cut them.
- Emerald Bay (Prionace Glauca)
Emerald Bay is located at the East of California, along Lake Tahoe. Prionace glauca is the common blue shark.
This song starts and generally sounds like a lullaby, with a second half fully focused on the cello. The lyrics seem to portray a person questioning him/herself on what next step to take in this life. Will it be to end it all and finally give yourself to the waters? Feed yourself to the blue sharks?
- Rubicon Wall (Acipenser Transmontanus)
One last heavy song for an amazing album. Rubicon Wall is the name given to a deep underwater precipice in Lake Tahoe, which we’ve mentioned in the previous song. Acipenser transmontanus is the white sturgeon, a large species of bottom-dwelling fish that lives around estuaries along the Pacific coast, and that migrates into freshwater to breed.
That intro. I can’t get enough of it. It makes my eyes wet all the time. The song alternates with soft melancholic moment emphasized by Jackie’s voice and heavy doom passages with Aaron singing. The lyrics tell of the horros of the deep, that only a bottom dweller could witness. Things there are otherworldy, as often in abyssal literature, the depths are the place of wrecks and monsters that none should dare to see.
Have a listen, my friend:
And so ends this tremendous monolith of an album. I can’t stress enough of great and unreal this music is. It really was back then like nothing I had heard before and still today, that remains the case. If you’re into that sort of weird music, feel free to preorder the re-release on TRANSLATION LOSS RECORDS, that should be out in April 2021.
It still is one of the best pieces of heavy music ever written, both in my fish-lover heart, and in the real world outside of personal fancies.
I hope that article got you curious about this band, and please do check the members’ other projects, which are all really great.
Next time on Skull News, well, later next month, expect me to publish a summary of the best releases I’ve listened to in 2020. Beware, lockdown and stuff made my listening sessions really extensive, there are too many albums I’d love to talk about!
GIANT SQUID on Facebook
GIANT SQUID / SQUALUS Website
TRANSLATION LOSS RECORDS’s Website
See you next time !