Three-armed blue men, hyper-intelligent fish, Gaian vengeance and a surprisingly educational apocalypse, all set to a progressive, semi-sludge metal soundtrack. These are the reasons that Giant Squid’s 2011 release Cenotes is one of the albums I can’t stop listening to. You can listen to it on Soundcloud here.

I’m going to start with the education. How many words do you know from the following list:

  • Cenote
  • Cetacean
  • Baleen
  • Nictate
  • Thermocline
  • Halocline
  • Rostrum

Not many? Maybe one or two? I was in the same boat until I looked at the lyrics for the album and went to the internet to find out what these were. Because it’s the title of the album, I’ll give you the first one. A cenote (pronounced either ‘see-note’ or ‘senate’) is a natural well. Think of it this way: a cave is horizontal, a cenote is vertical. You’re learning already. Feel good? Well, what if you were watching the world drown while you were learning? You can.

Cenotes’ biggest strength is its imagery, and only half of that comes from the lyrics. The album opens with a cello-and-drum combo setting up the calm before the storm. The sitar brings a little bit of rain. Narration comes in with an environmentalist sub-text, asking what caused the goddess to take her vengeance on the inhabitants of the lands. Then the storm hits: guitar burdened with distortion, bass that rolls along underneath like a tide, and the drums are all splashing cymbals. The winds rise with the energy of the cello. The mixing of the album tends to give prominence to the drummer, which is, in my opinion, one of the best creative decisions in this production. The booming drum track permeates all strata of imagery throughout the album: from the sands of the ocean floor shifting under benthic currents, to the mountainous swells of the Panthalassic Ocean, to the crashing storms of the ever-grey skies that now blanket the Earth.

That is not to say there aren’t moments of wonderfully calm textures of deep water, I think the second track, ‘Mating Scars (Isurus Metridium)’ has some of the better examples. Here the ‘sludge’ tag of the band really comes through. The slow, heavy pace of the track brings to mind the tail of a shark sweeping back-and-forth, while the lyrics provide guidance for the violent images that contrast the music. Halfway through the track we have a quiet sense of isolation, of wonderfully calm, blue-grey waters, trails of blood behind our mako protagonist. The last line of the track “unfathomable reward now breathes and grows” is queer to say the least, a hint of the strangeness to come.

‘Snakehead (Channidae Erectus)’ brings us above the surface of the ocean, into one of the last human settlements. In what will turn out to be a leitmotif, the “unfathomable reward” from ‘Mating Scars’ has washed up on the windswept beach (formerly a mountain) among the sounds of the cello and distorted guitar, a man with wondrous powers of limb regeneration. This man’s gift-slash-curse could save what is left of humanity from the violent, super-intelligent species of ichthyoid-overlords that wait patiently beneath the slowly rising tides. Here is where the story becomes less environmentalist and more examination of human nature. A philosopher could read a lot into this album.

In ‘Figura Serpentinata (Pycnopodia Sapien)’, we see another subject shift to the half-man-half-sea-star that adorns the disc (for those of us who have the CD). The track is one of the turning points in the story of The Ichthyologist (which begins with the previous album The Ichthyologist, and concludes with Giant Squid’s latest (and final) release Minoans). Our semi-human hero is rescued by beings that are probably the walking snakehead fish who fed on his limbs in the previous track.

If you are going to listen to this album and really interpret it, you should start with the titles. Those little bits of bracketed Latin make a big difference to the images that spring from the cenote of the mind.

Speaking of cenotes, the final (and titular) track shows us the world as it ends, the last pockets of humanity crowded onto “the highest peaks” where the Great Flood didn’t reach, thirsty witnesses to archaic creatures thought long-extinct, springing from the strangest depths of the cracked crust of the planet. The track leaves us to follow the protagonist through these fissures as he searches for his father, kicking with powerful legs into the abyss. The final musical phrases give life to his struggle through the flooded cracks and into the lightless chasms between aeons. I’m not even being poetic (at least not overly so) there. This story is part ichthyo-sci-fi, which is hard to avoid when the sole lyricist is a marine biologist, and part fantasy. The meshing of the two and the progressive-metal soundtrack that drives the story makes this album one of the strangest, one of the most idiosyncratic and one of the best albums that I have heard.

For the sake of balance, I will throw in a paragraph of things I didn’t like. Despite my current brain-boner for the words that I didn’t know (but now do) in the album, to a first-time listener these can be a bit much, but with that said, the album wouldn’t be the same at all without them. And as much as I found it refreshing for the drum track to be more prominent in the mix, I wasn’t crazy that I sometimes found it difficult to hear or make sense of the lyrics. I also would have liked the cello to be exhibited a little more, but this perhaps shows a comfort with Perez-Gratz’s presence rather than it being a novelty, as it seemed to be in the previous release The Ichthyologist.

Given my admitted bias towards the album (indeed, to the band), I think it would be unfair to give this a rating, but if I did, it would be 4 out of 5 semi-human sea-stars.

Review by S. Hooley