The sea has long been a rich source of cultural, historical, and artistic inspiration. One of the earliest – and most potent – myths is the flood recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was then later (and more influentially) mirrored in the Biblical flood of Noah. From Homer’s Odysseus and his itinerant (though ostensibly homeward-bound) seafaring adventures, and on down through a series of figures both mythopoetic and real – Ahab’s self-destructive obsession, Captain Nemo and his Nautilus, Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, and even George Costanza’s serendipitous plucking of Cosmo Kramer’s golf ball from the blowhole of a beached whale – the sea is there, beckoning, threatening, destroying, purifying.
While their name already suggests the aquatic, California’s Giant Squid has plumbed the watery depths for themes throughout its career. From the title track of the Monster in the Creek demo – which recounts the famous series of shark attacks in early 20th century New Jersey so expertly profiled here by my compatriot-in-tentacles, Craig Hayes – to “Panthalassa” on The Ichthyologist and “Snakehead” from Cenotes, Giant Squid’s music has always felt, in a way, birthed from the waves. In part, of course, that is due to the organic sound of the band’s utterly idiosyncratic style of theatrical rock, avant-doom, and chamber blues. In creating an aqueous body of work that fuses perfectly the band’s marvelous songcraft with the imagery evoked by those songs, Giant Squid has swiftly become one of heavy music’s richest and most unique voices.
With Minoans, the band’s third full-length album, Giant Squid’s talents are in peak form. While the band’s 2009 breakthrough album The Ichthyologist will likely continue to be regarded as their finest work, Minoans surpasses it in emotional weight. Giant Squid’s Aaron Gregory has described the album as a “giant love letter to the Mediterranean and specifically Bronze-age Greece,” and indeed, references to classical antiquity abound. However, what truly makes Minoans a stunning display of musical fluidity and deep, unflinchingly powerful story-telling is the way in which Giant Squid has woven the stories of these long-dead societies into contemporary contexts. Juxtaposing the hubris and presumed permanence of powerful nation-states with the all-consuming ruin wrought by nature’s uncaring judgment can’t help but resonate with the existential anxieties of a civilization heating its habitat to the point of extinction.
Thankfully, however, Giant Squid avoids turning Minoans into a screed on current events, because its sorrow runs much deeper than that. At times the album rages against the dying of the light, but just as often it acknowledges fragility, resignation, inevitability. If history is filled with the wreck and ruin of peoples, cultures, and empires whose ingenuity and self-regard quarried marble and fashioned aqueducts and invented language and music and literature and yet still succumbed to the banality of decline and disappearance, then why should we think we have mastered those same forces? Imagine your family buried in ash at Pompeii. Watch all of your petty quarrels and ridiculous, most desperate loves engulfed in flame, swallowed by earthquake, sodden in tide-swelling rains that never end.
In short: This is heavy stuff.
Still, despite the weighty subject matter, Giant Squid’s songwriting is nimble, inventive, and frankly joyful, which prevents Minoans from ever sinking into ponderousness. Much of that joy emerges from the intertwining voices, both human and instrumental, of Aaron Gregory and Jackie Perez Gratz. Gregory’s guitar and Perez-Gratz’s cello are both equally likely to play lead or support, and their tangled, tumbling lines are augmented by a wealth of unusual instrumentation, including keys, organs, horns, mandolin, and what sounds like a toy piano. In fact, because of the facility with which these songs incorporate their disparate elements, this particular listener is occasionally reminded of the French composer Yann Tiersen, whose work (on the Amélie soundtrack in particular) builds rich worlds out of similarly whimsical instrumentation.
Though it’s difficult to intuit the songwriting process of a band based on the final product, with Minoans it seems almost certain that the songs were explicitly crafted to fit the themes of the lyrics. This is because each song bolsters its narrative theme with compositional motifs that become an inseparable piece of the storytelling that emerges. “Sir Arthur Evans,” for example, plods and stalks patiently, echoing the scrape and thud of a shovel to accompany the title character’s excavation of Knossos. With its threateningly subdued lurch, the song sounds like a spiritual cousin to some of Nick Cave’s very earliest outings with the Bad Seeds.
The album’s centerpiece is the mid-album duo of “Palace of Knossos” and “Sixty Foot Waves.” The former is a counterpoint-riddled dirge, sung from the perspective of a civilization contemplating its eventual disappearance. The line “We will be forgotten / We will be lost” is simple, but potent, and only gains power with the album’s narrative continuation into “Sixty Foot Waves.” There, the guiding lyric is more elaborate, but the end is the same:
“We will be washed clean and torn asunder,
Crushed within our homes to drown in stone and lumber.
We will be washed clean and torn asunder,
Our culture swept away as we slumber.”
As the song reaches its conclusion, pummeling double bass rolls mirror the tumult of a furiously churning sea. Because of the deftness of the album’s construction, the final minute’s climax is likely one of the heaviest moments you’ll hear this year.
Perhaps even more affecting, however, is “The Pearl and the Parthenon.” The song opens as a lullaby, with Gregory and Perez Gratz singing a gentle duet about traveling with their daughter Pearl to visit Athens. When the song transitions into a dark, roiling, stop-start riff that eclipses the lullaby before it, it’s easy to imagine these two new parents holding their child tightly while touring the remains of one of the world’s greatest cultures. Though difficult to describe or appropriately represent, the movement between the song’s two principal sections captures a universal feeling — a terrifying bottoming out of the stomach when one’s brain attempts to reconcile present happiness with future sorrow.
In another context, the song would be sweet but simple; here, however, situated amidst tales of societies lost beneath the waves or relegated to the footnotes of books rarely read by successor peoples inattentive to history, it becomes a desperate, deeply sad piece. Not only because it causes one to think of the lullabies sung by equally doting, lovestruck parents in ancient marble hallways that have since tumbled to ruin, but because it casts our current joys into the same light – we, too, may only be biding time, clutching the things we love with a panicked tightness because of their transience.
Minoans is beautifully, even perfectly recorded. Every player turns in a remarkable performance (although new drummer Zack Farwell must be highlighted for the restraint and tasteful embellishment of his contributions). Each of Minoans‘s songs is a fascinating, self-sufficient microcosm, but joined as they are, they become an ecosystem of impossible beauty and emotional impact. These are not comparisons I make lightly, but the more I listen to Minoans, the more its cumulative effect feels on a par with SubRosa‘s “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes” or Neurosis‘s “I Can See You.” Is Minoans a perfect album? To be honest, that’s a question that needs the benefit of time. But friends, it is goddamned close.
The album closer, “Phaistos Disc,” opens with a supple, tumbling melody line, and in a way almost feels like an afterthought, considering the dense, affecting web of the preceding seven songs. But then, just as you’re ready to write it off as a tossed-off comedown, the band pauses, and then dives as one into the heaviest, most snarlingly massive riff of the album. It’s the kind of riff you’ll find yourself humming along with immediately, even as your body cedes control to its thrall.
The Phaistos disc itself is a clay artifact discovered in one of the Minoan palaces on Crete. Its exact meaning is still a cause of archeological debate, but in the context of Giant Squid’s album, it’s not a puzzle to be solved, but rather a lesson to be learned. This is the end of most things – to be lost, then found after millennia; to be perfectly legible to those who created it, but absolutely foreign to their descendants; to serve some function in life, only to have that purpose eroded and eclipsed by wistful speculation.
Art, too, is impermanent. Or, at least, it depends on context. We don’t know exactly how to interpret surviving fragments of Aeschylus or Aristophanes in the same way that those playwrights’s audiences would have. If it’s difficult enough, just coping with today, then tomorrow… Well, tomorrow is the question. But we are here, now. Minoans can be for us. For an album to so starkly embrace its own ultimate irrelevance with such finesse, honesty, and grace is a gift. Ultimately, this is a document of choosing to live ecstatically, even in the shadow of the valley of time.
Treasure it, and treasure this band. Life is only now.