Review Summary: There was a time when the Earth was young, and the skies were clear and the oceans calm, and Giant Squid wrote songs that you could almost hum along to.
Way back in the Romantic era, there was a style of songwriting called the tone poem. Like a mini opera, the objective of a tone poem was to convey a story, image, or idea through music. It could be as simple or elaborate as the artist felt necessary, from short piano pieces to entire symphonies. By the 20th century, the tone poem had fallen out of favor with audiences, presumably due to evolution away from Romantic ideals and composers’ fascination with reinventing the basis of music theory. I mean…music as a means of expression? Using your imagination and your intellect at the same time? Who does that anymore?
Look no further than Giant Squid’s debut EP, Monster In the Creek. Whether they meant to or not, Giant Squid channeled a very old idea in creating their first major recording. The album is composed of six songs, at least half of which were inspired by the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks and the ensuing monster hunt. In the idyllic town of Matawan, New Jersey, 12-year old Lester Stillwell and his would-be rescuer were mauled by a rogue shark that had wandered into a swimming hole in Matawan Creek. Despite frenzied efforts to identify and kill the man-eater, no one knows for sure what killed Stillwell or if it was ever caught.
“Monster In the Creek” begins with a melancholy guitar and synthesizer riff, while Stillwell’s mother (sung by Aurielle Gregory) mourns for her son and wonders aloud, “Has the devil caused this hellish heat to lure our children down to the creek? / Eleven miles from the nearest wave, what manner of beast has swam in from the bay?” Piano and drums slowly enter as the song increases in urgency before returning to the original line. Aurielle repeats her plea as the villagers learn of a second death, this time sounding more desperate and out of tune as a foreboding guitar solo brings the piece to its climax. The monster hunt then ensues over a distorted guitar riff, the drums entering in double-time. Aaron Gregory cries out, “Bring your guns and dynamite, the monster in the creek dies tonight!” as the town descends on Matawan Creek for revenge. The drums and bass pound the riff like gunshots while the guitar wails in detuned agony. Everything falls silent as an ominous synthesizer enters, quoting the song’s beginning as the dust settles. Once again, now almost in a whisper, Aurielle sings her heartbroken plea…for the monster lives, and the nightmare will continue. The band turns a simple lyric line into a motif for fear, mourning, and then panic, and its reiteration at the end of the song is a more haunting conclusion than any fierce-sounding finale could be.
While indie rock is a genre known for its emotional overtones, Giant Squid also employ lyrical and musical motifs to tell their story. “Dead Man’s Fog” is a chilling first-person narrative about being lost at sea. Where many lyricists would use clumsy metaphors, Gregory implies the gravity of their situation though vivid imagery: “Our bow cannot be seen from where we stand on the stern; the men’s faces show their concern…this beacon’s light has burned for as long as I’ve known, but tonight the horn must bring is in, for the tower ceases to glow.” Light is a signal of hope – so what happens when even the light is gone? And if there is any sound less welcoming than a fog horn, I have yet to hear it. Indeed, Giant Squid have a rare and unsettling ability to use your own imagination to send a chill down your spine.
The album takes a more abstract turn with “Age of Accountability”, which flows along on lazy organ swells and keyboardist Andy Southard’s dreamy falsetto singing. The lyrics leave much interpretation to the listener, and lines such as “Sketch me a picture; use only your mind / My imagination will make it turn out just right,” make for somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The band then launches into “Throwing a Donner Party”, a rollicking tongue-in-cheek affair about the western settlers who were forced to eat each other to survive (“With the snow up to our knees, all I can think is how you’ll be the first to be eaten!”). While the humorous nature of the lyrics is a nice tangent, the song itself is composed of several elements that don’t quite mesh – the growling guitar, doodly organ sound, and awkward vocals often make for an unpleasant combination. In the bigger picture, however, this song is notable for being reworked into the much more successfully realized “Throwing a Donner Party at Sea” two albums later. “Dare We Ask the Widow” follows with a mellow counterpoint duet between the guitar and synthesizer, once again serving as the melodic foundation of the album. The final track, “Lester Stillwell”, is an energetic, almost danceable, jam fueled by galloping guitar and delay-laden synths. While it sounds somewhat out of place considering the deceptively doomy nature of the rest of the album, it’s hard to get upset about ending the EP on a lighthearted, upbeat note.
While not all the songs on Monster in the Creek are essential, the title track and “Dead Man’s Fog” stand as harbingers of Giant Squid’s creative explosion that would come four years later with The Ichthyologist. Without indulging in the exotic elements that would characterize their more current releases, Giant Squid create a surprisingly fresh-sounding album despite remaining mostly within the boundaries of traditional songwriting. Monster In the Creek is, at the very least, an interesting foray into an accessible sound that produced two excellent tracks. At best, it is the first entry in an astoundingly diverse discography that has seen Giant Squid rise from an underground curiosity to a creative powerhouse -- and a case study on how truly great ideas always make themselves heard.