Off the South African coast, a seal dives into the water, its movements emitting an electromagnetic field that carries through the ocean. Far below, a shadow moves silently toward the enticing beacon. Water churns, a plume of blood spreads, and the attacker vanishes into the depths. Millions of years in the evolutionary crucible of the sea have led to this predator and its deadly adaptations. It’s this supremacy in a realm so different from our own that frightens and fascinates, ingraining Great Whites in our contemporary myths, our Hollywood blockbusters. On their debut album, The Great Fish…, Pacifica (CA) sludge metal band Squalus pay homage to the most popular shark tale of them all, Peter Benchley’s (and later Spielberg’s) Jaws.
The unorthodox use of two bass guitars (Aaron John Gregory and Bryan Beeson) provides a fitting immensity for a story that takes place mostly on the open ocean. Shimmering phaser effects mimic the movement of the waves on the title track, followed by a crash of distortion as Chrissie Watkins is dragged into the crushing depths. Compositions with an overload of low-end run the risk of sinking under their own weight, but Andrew Southard’s keys slice through to the surface like the telltale dorsal. Initially, the atypical absence of guitar is somewhat jarring, although any reservations are quickly laid to rest by Southard’s versatility. From campy synths in the “Rock Lobster”-meets-hardcore punk “Town Meeting” to the funereal organs of “He Ate the Light,” Southard fleshes out the higher registers, adding sounds seldom heard in the sludge genre.
Gregory proves himself an equally versatile member of the crew, guiding the story with a variety of vocal styles, the most frequent being a melodic bark reminiscent of a grittier Marilyn Manson. In songs told from the perspective of the salty shark hunter Quint (“Town Meeting,” “The Orca”), he adopts a drawl so soaked in brine, you’d think he grew barnacles on his vocal cords during the recording. Elsewhere, oceanographer Hooper’s less grizzled personality comes through in clean-sung sections of “Eating Machine in the Pond” and “…the Light.”
The rest of Squalus lend their voices to the album as well, in scenes reenacted directly from the film script. In less capable hands, songs like “Jack the Ripper” and the latter half of “The USS Indianapolis” could’ve been clumsy transition pieces, begging to be skipped on repeat listens. Instead, these spoken segments add a dramatic flair to the album that deepens immersion in the narrative. The chemistry between bandmates heard in these dialogues, in the tightly-knit performances, stems (at least in part) from their time playing together in their previous band, Giant Squid. Much like the Squid, Squalus excel at bringing disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, with emphasis on the minute details that add texture to an album.
Moments where the source materials bleed into the songwriting are of particular note: Quint’s fingernails scratch down a chalkboard to introduce “Town Meeting,” and Hooper’s breath hitches in his throat as he lifts the shroud to view Chrissie’s remains in “Jack the Ripper.” Even background extras from the film are spotlighted in “Eating Machine…” with the unnamed girl’s exclamation that “It’s going in the pond!” (sung by Giant Squid cellist, Jackie Perez Gratz) and the offscreen shouts of “Anybody have a gun?” becoming integral to the lyrics.
Whether thrashing toward prey on Zack Farwell’s double kick drums or sinking slowly to the ocean floor, Squalus never sound like a fish out of water (sorry about that). The shifts between piano rock, doom metal and other genres flow naturally throughout the album’s course, and the lean run-time lends itself to repeat listening. On The Great Fish…, Squalus capture the humor, suspense and fear that propelled the story of Jaws into the public imagination and never let go. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is riff.