Giant Squid let life’s waves crash down upon you on ‘Cenotes’

It’s been a particularly terrible week that, weirdly, began for me on Saturday. I’m not going to go into detail because you’re not here to hear me complain about my life, and honestly, who gives a shit? There are enough people on the Internet complaining about their lives, so why add to that confusing chorus?

But it’s important that I at least point out the particularly crappy, anxiety-filled last few days because it leads me to what I’m going to discuss today. The new effort by San Francisco’s progressive metal band Giant Squid called “Cenotes” hit me at the right time. I needed to hear it right about now. I’ve had the promo for a few weeks now, so it’s not like I just got into the thing, but it really was essential listening as I sifted through the garbage that is life this week. Odd how those things work. It’s not that when hearing the record that, thematically, it struck me like it was speaking exactly to what I was experiencing. Well, it did a bit, but it was more that the music on this gorgeous, emotional 35-minute release (sort of like a pumped-up EP) sort of led me to the water, urged me to lie down and let me float with the current. It was a release and a distraction.

Giant Squid, the brainchild of Aaron Gregory, always tackles aquatic life but in a way that it relates back to our existence as humans. The band’s last record “The Ichthyologist” is a concept album they originally released on their own (Fact: I bought mine through the band, and my copy is labeled with number 0001) before having the amazing epic picked up by Translation Loss for a wider audience. The protagonist finds himself separated from humanity and lost at sea, forced to deal with new, unfamiliar surroundings and coming to grips with this new world in which he must survive. Obviously that can be translated into so many aspects and paths in our everyday lives, whether that’s in an urban, suburban, country or aquatic setting. “Cenotes” takes those adventures of the Ichthyologist character even further, and like their last album, Giant Squid let you live along with this person.

Cellist Jackie Perez Gratz (who is a brand-new mom!) is the other star of this band and this album. Her strings bob and weave through these five tracks, sometimes taking on gentle, calm tones, other times blowing up like a storm that’s threatening any ship in its wake. Her cello play surges and excites and adds that extra element of drama that really elevates these songs. Of course, we’ve grown used to that from her work with other bands such as Grayceon, Amber Asylum, and Neurosis. When she adds her vocals, be it by herself or harmonizing alongside Gregory, the songs get an enhanced heart and soul.

Like the songs on “The Ichthyologist,” each track title is accompanied by genus/specie names that, unless you’re intimately familiar with aquatic life, likely will require some research. I totally had to do that, I freely admit, but I learned a lot of things I didn’t know and kind of got an idea of how they relate to their respective songs. At least I hope I did. But deeper meanings aside, the music on here is riveting, sometimes pulverizingly sludgy, often beautiful, and always water-colored. Opener “Tongue Stones” has a bit of a Middle Eastern feel melodically, with Gregory eventually unleashing his guttural growls, and it hits a high point with the lines, “The world as we know it will flow past their teeth/When new shores lap up at our highest peaks.” That’s a pretty deep sentiment, whether you weigh it against the story or your own journey. “Mating Scars” is mystical at points, with a darker pall over it, and at times the intricacies whirlpool around you; “Snakehead” begins feeling more like a folk song before it evolves into Rush-like progressive interplay and eventually some punk thunder; “Figura Serpentinata” is the shortest cut here, but it makes its mark in its tiny window, with Perez Gratz providing soulful, reflective vocals; and the closing title cut is destructive and delicate, with both voices contributing to the tale. It feels like both a natural ending to the record but new beginning of sorts for the character. And I have to say I gave pause at the line, “Each set of waves smarter than the last/Climbing tides never recede.” There are so many different ways to dissect that line of thought, and you can look at it both positively (life continues to regenerate and offer greater possibilities) and negatively (there’s no way to overcome what’s next, which could be greater and stronger than you). I go back and forth depending on my mood.

I just realized the themes may have had a greater effect on me than I originally thought. That’s why I like to write so extensively on records because no matter how much you prepare, sometimes at the end of the album and/or review, things dawn on you that didn’t see until that moment. I was swept away by the music, which Giant Squid always manage to do to me, and “Cenotes” provided a nice escape at a time that hasn’t been so soothing. No matter what, life continues, and those waves will crash onto your shore over and over whether you want them to or you don’t. Absorbing this record gave me time to reflect upon that, and no matter how things turn out, life will require adjustment and adaptation. It’s nice to know a band such as Giant Squid always can be depended on to move me musically and spiritually.

By the way, a vinyl edition and comic book will be released next year. We’ll let you know more when it’s available.

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