Firstly, before I delve into the guts of this review, here’s a bit of context regarding the elaborate conceptual narrative San Francisco’s Giant Squid have once again crafted with their latest weird and wonderful musical trip, entitled Minoans. The Minoan civilization emerged on the island of Crete and thrived from roughly 2700 to 1450 BC. The civilization was rediscovered by British archaeologist Arthur Evans early in the twentieth century and has been referred to by American historian William Durant as “the first link in the European chain.” Singer/guitarist/artist Aaron Gregory, Giant Squid’s mastermind behind their epic lyrical concepts, further elaborates, “Lyrically, the album is a giant love letter to the Mediterranean and specifically Bronze-age Greece – a region, people and time period that deeply fascinates me and which I feel mirrors these heartbreakingly turbulent times we live in today.” I’m not here to give you a fucking history lesson, but for those seeking to get the full engagement of another carefully constructed and highly ambitious Giant Squid concept album, there’s an interesting backstory behind this mysterious civilization well worth investigating.
Not many bands in the realms of heavy music truly defy genre classification quite like Giant Squid.The wildly innovative five-piece have been churning out their oddball hybrid of sludge, doom, prog and post whatever-the-hell for the past decade, cultivating an incredibly unique sound while keeping their tentacles shifting restlessly into uncharted waters. Minoans is yet another exceptional showcase of the band’s evolving creative arc, sweeping the listener into the alternatively soothing, unpredictable and turbulent waterways in which Giant Squid resides. The songwriting is typically diverse and eclectic, conveying a wide range of moods and emotions, while also proving to be Giant Squid’s most restrained and somber effort. Ebbing and flowing through eight intricate compositions over an almost too short 43 minute run-time, Minoans contains all the quirky traits I’ve come to expect from the band. Shrouded in shadowy darkness and melancholy, Minoans never gets bogged down in its doom and gloom, allowing shards of light and rays of hope to pierce the inky darkness.
Churning sludge riffs, intricate arrangements awash with enchanting cello and keys, and the intoxicating dual vocal harmonies from Gregory and the phenomenal Jackie Perez Gratz (Amber Asylum, Grayceon) bookend densely packed and highly emotive songs. Gratz is Giant Squid’s wildcard and not-so-secret weapon and her see-sawing cello lines provide much of the album’s simmering tension. Whether functioning as an atmospheric backdrop beneath the guitars, drums, keys and bass, or taking on a lead role, her skilled use of the instrument adds rich texture and class to the material. Dual vocal harmonies work their wonders throughout the album, with Gratz equally adept on lead vocals. However it’s the tremendous impact of how her silky, ethereal singing contrasts with the strange warbling of Gregory’s tremendous voice that resonates most deeply. Gregory in particular continues to grow, shedding some of his Serj Tankianisms to develop into an accomplished and distinctive singer. The achingly beautiful duet the pair supply on the mournful balladry of penultimate track “The Pearl and the Parthenon” is particularly heart wrenching.
Like any good concept album, Minoans is best absorbed in one sitting to get the fully immersive experience. Often quietly ominous and slow building, Minoans is never dull. The intricately layered compositions swell, contort and release a myriad of emotions and epic crescendos that are impeccably well-constructed. Despite not conforming to traditional structuring, each song flows cohesively and represents a distinctive standalone chapter to the greater narrative. The earworm hooks and subtle melodies may not present themselves on the first few listens, but for patient listeners willing to persevere, the rewards are deeply satisfying. Although not without its gems, such as the epic slow building dirge of the opening title track, the first half of the album is trumped by the exceptional second movement. This is where the album’s shape shifting narrative comes to its crushing conclusion. Album highlight “Sixty Foot Waves” displays Giant Squid’s masterful grasp of dynamics. The song’s slow burning segments, shifting soft/loud dynamics and dark alluring melodies are embellished by a loose and playful central groove, before it culminates in a powerhouse climax adorned by lurching double bass backed riffs and a haunting melody that recalls the chilling theme to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.
There’s really not much in the way of drawbacks to be found here. Recorded and mixed by Tim Green (Melvins, Earthless) Minoans has an earthy, slightly muddied sound that suits the material well. Perhaps a touch more definition and clarity might have marginally improved the finished product, while the slower pacing of the album’s first half might test the less patient listener. But these are just nitpicking points that don’t really compromise the overall high quality of the album. Otherwise Minoans is a deceptively addictive album that’s another resounding success from Giant Squid, perhaps only falling short of their unheralded classic, The Ichthyologist. Sure it might be understandably too out there for some metalheads, but heavy music fans seeking something undeniably original and exotic will find Minoans, and for that matter Giant Squid’s entire catalog, a thrilling and deeply moving experience.