By Theo Belci
The Empty Bottle had Squid, one of the most promising of the South-London “post-punk” multihyphenate-genre bands across two nights in November. I went to the Saturday show, along with a few other DJ’s, expecting nothing less than the best sort of show at the bottle -- all rungs of the Chicago social ladder converging in one place to see the imported band of the moment, everyone on the same page, drinking the same beer.
It, of course, did not disappoint. Squid are an incredible act, and were supported by Sharkula and Muqks in one of the best opening sets I’ve ever seen.
The night begins with Sharkula and Muqks playing above white noise from the crowd. From the bar, the lyrics were unintelligible, and the beat was too noisy to make out any defining rhythm. After pushing through a little, it all began to click, and the magic of the act revealed itself.
Sharkula raps in an unconventional style, sticking mainly to what sounds like freestyle couplets of whatever happens to come to mind (I need a bandana / I like to drink Orange Juice Vitamin C Tropicana). After hearing the recorded versions of his newest songs post-show the freestyling aspect is put in question, but it’s all so tenuously lucid and hilarious that the preparation becomes irrelevant. Between loose verses he prods the crowd with full strength “oh yeah’s” and reminders that he loves them, on-stage banter so meandering and warm hearted that the full crowd is onboard by 10:30. His final goodbye of a call/response for a chain of freestyled 4 syllable words (irrigated, allocated, masturbated, unrelated) is a wave of sound on both sides of the mic. I hope to see him again soon.
The crowd smoking outside may as well be a magazine spread for western Chicago. It’s workwear and keychain carabiners as far as the eye can see, and the friendly faces seem to still be in a state of collective joy from the Sharkula ten minutes before. WHPK joins in and secures a lighter before returning to the show.
Squid starts, and it becomes immediately clear how tight their act will be. The actual mechanics of the band on-stage are difficult to write on (due to the frequency with which musicians switch instruments) but the general effect is something similar to looking into the back of a watch, seeing each small piece rattling or humming without ever suspecting any amount of imprecision. The illusion was only broken in trivial moments, like when Singer/Drummer Ollie Judge’s hat came off, or when guitarist Anton Pearson’s abstract and shimmering interludes would rise too loud above the rest of the organized din. Speaking of Anton Pearson, I doubt I’ve ever seen a player so competent and shattering in person, much less in a band which fits them so well. While attempting to avoid the “compare a guitarist to another to avoid real description” pitfall, he seems to have the same aluminum and steel swagger as Andy Gill, perfectly adapted to an age when the best guitar players must re-assert the necessity of their instrument alongside synthesizers and looped presets.
The trio of Louis Borlase, Anton Pearson, and Laurie Nankivell, the band’s rotating bassists, guitarists, and brass musicians, is so precise and so innovative that watching the three becomes a challenge to keep paying attention to the components and not fall into a trance by the combined sound. Their pieces overlap and swirl around Arthur Leadbetter’s keyboard, and give the ornament which colors the band’s most ecstatic movements. Even in the moments between songs and verses which move into noise / percussion, the three excel at achieving layer and momentum -- the two qualities which differentiate a good noise act from a great noise act.
This all leaves Ollie Judge, the main voice and glue of Squid -- a drummer whose percussion melts into the song, and only reappears when the composition allows it to receive foreground attention. It never overwhelms, and is so exquisitely arranged that it accents as well as organizes. When live, his playing seems even more important to Squid’s sound, perhaps because of the position of the drum kit on stage -- front and center. While breakdowns and frenetic noise breaks happen behind, Ollie churns away, and it’s a challenge not to watch his hands and center yourself in his rhythm while participating in the show.
Leaving the Bottle, WHPK talks amongst itself, and starts planning on forming a band. It’s all meaningless effervescence and beer talking, but Squid is certainly good enough to get the conversation started.
When thinking about “post punk” today (or whatever you can call the amorphous blob of young, mostly British, guitar based, slightly avant garde indie bands) the challenge is separating new acts from the bands which began the movement 40 years ago. Just as there were NME bands in the early 80’s, there are 6 Music bands now, and the platform has become a byword for the style, sound, and presentation of the act.
No violinist or saxophonist alone provides anything fresh or exciting by virtue of their inclusion, they just signal that the band is an “experimental” outfit within the narrowly diverse sound. The difference between a Black Country New Road and a James Chance is superficial, and the insistence that their impact is significant lies solely in rock media highlighting any new band they see as fitting the “progressive, abrasive, or saleable” categories.
While Squid is progressive, abrasive (at times), and saleable, I do think they break from this blob of acts and assert themselves as worthy of real and lasting praise. Their production and use of sampling is fresh and never overused, and the inclusion of each instrument seems more based on the necessity for producing a sound than the visual impact of the musician on stage. For a band touring its first album, each piece in the act is perfectly organized, tastefully arranged, and surprising in its originality. I’ve never seen most of Anton Pearson’s techniques before, nor have I seen a synth player with as much sonic presence as Arthur Leadbetter. All I hope is that their template becomes a point of reference for future material, and that their experimentation continues -- if any of the “post punk” bands can break the cycle it will be them, pushing on into whatever the next round of guitar based experimental music is.