Squalus is made up of Aaron John Gregory, Andrew Southard, Bryan Beeson, and Zack Farwell of the much-missed by me Giant Squid (only cellist/vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz keeps this from being a full GS reunion), and The Great Fish... shares quite a bit in common with their previous iteration musically. The key difference is the complete absence of guitars, for The Great Fish... abandons them completely to set sail with two basses, keys, drums, and vocals. I will admit to not even noticing the lack of guitars on either of my first two listens to the album; it wasn't until I started reading the press release on The Great Fish... that it was brought to my attention, and upon my next listen I felt a bit silly for not noticing. I'll chalk that up to the masterful way Gregory and Beeson work the deep, rolling bass lines next to Southard's quietly MVP work on the keys. The way The Great Fish... sounds, there's really no need for a guitar riff anyway.
The title track kicks off The Great Fish... with eerie vocals semi-rasping over rolling bass lines, before Southard's lush, synthy keys come in with a flourish. The whole thing sounds incredibly like the ocean, which is obviously intentional, but combined with the lyrics about a shark swimming through the water, it creates an absolutely stunning effect. When everything kicks into gear, with roared vocals, pounding drums, dueling bass guitars, and frantic keys, it's clear the shark has entered a feeding frenzy. There's no denying the heaviness of this segment of "The Great Fish," or of any other part of The Great Fish..., but it's a heaviness rooted in disorientating dizziness, rather than bludgeoning brutality.
"Flesh, Bone, and Rubber" continues the exchange of lush, aquatic passages with truly off the wall moments of heavier tunes, and "The Town Meeting" has a positively upbeat, bouncy feel to it; while all of The Great Fish... seethes with intensity, "The Town Meeting" lets this intensity bubble over into something positively bonkers, an energy that matches the "people shouting over each other" din of its title, before wrapping things up with the first of a few vocal samples from Jaws.
They even kept his nails on the chalkboard, kinda.
The first half of "Swim Charlie, Swim" is straightforward keyboards from Southard, before the rest of the band jumps in to the fray; I could be projecting, but the bass work at the end of this song strikes me hard as an interpretation of John Williams' classic score. The piano keys come back for "Jack the Ripper," which sets Richard Dreyfuss' examination of the shark's first victim to Squalus' vibrant post-metal. The pacing of "Jack the Ripper" is sublime; the instrumental bit between Dreyfuss' "It wasn't Jack the Ripper... it was a shark" is devastatingly effective at building tension, to the point where I got chills after "shark," even though I've seen Jaws at least two dozen times.
"Eating Machine in the Pond" starts off with the weakest point of The Great Fish... The album makes a point of mixing vocal samples from Jaws with having vocalists sing words from the film, and while both certainly have their effective moments, singing Hooper's praise of the great white being "a miracle of evolution" certainly isn't one of them. That said, musically the song is as great as the rest of the album, especially the crunchy bass at the end, and Jackie Perez Gratz' guest vocals screaming for someone to do something are magnificent.
"City Hands" kicks off the second half of The Great Fish... at the point in Jaws in which Brody, Hooper, and Quint head off into the Atlantic to find the shark; just as the second half of the film is undoubtedly the best, so to is the second half of The Great Fish... "City Hands" and "The Orca" do an amazing job of keeping the tension that exists in the film during the search for, and first encounter with, the shark, and Squalus deserves all the kudos for not using Roy Scheider's "You're gonna need a bigger boat," because there doesn't seem to be a logical place for it in both songs as currently constructed.
I already mentioned that Quint's speech about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is my favorite scene in the movie, and when "The USS Indianapolis" started going into it (spoken by - I think - Gregory), I'll admit to shaking my head and calling it a misstep by the band... but then I kept listening. And my initial reaction was completely incorrect. "The USS Indianapolis" abridges Quint's monologue a bit, but with Farwell's methodical drums, the deliberate pace of the bass, and the keys as reverb behind it, it's given a unique interpretation, one that exudes the fear, remorse, and off the cuff feel of Shaw's performance in the film. I don't mean it as a slight to the band, but I'm absolutely stunned they managed to make this monologue as absolutely fucking great as they did, and the decision to have an a capella sing along of "Show Me the Way to Go Home" immediately after is pitch perfect. You'll have to ask someone who hasn't seen Jaws (if you can find them) whether these two songs work together, but to me, they're perfect.
I hope Squalus was drinking apricot brandy while recording it
"He Ate the Light" is a fantastic closing track, and probably the best written song on the album; honestly it sounds like it could be a Neurosis song. It's also a full-on Giant Squid reunion, as Jackie Perez Gratz turns in some splendid cello work. It doesn't elevate or tweak the source material the way other parts of the album do, but "He Ate the Light" is probably the best track on The Great Fish... when removed from the shadow of Jaws (even if it does use "Smile you son of a..." before its explosive finale).
The Great Fish..., despite being a straightforward retelling of Jaws, is one of the most original albums I've heard all year. While its musical stylings are clearly in the vein of Giant Squid, as is the nautical theme, Squalus has created something different that stands on its own sonically. The double bass guitar has a lot to do with that, but the real star of The Great Fish... is definitely Andrew Southard, whose keys range from sonic texturing to mournful piano melodies, rooting the album in an atmosphere that helps define its sound and serves as the throughline to their musical telling of Peter Benchley's shark tale. The Great Fish... is like nothing else I've heard this year, and I can't recommend listening to it highly enough.
The Great Fish... is out via Translation Loss on Friday, September 15th. And Jaws is currently streaming on Netflix if you haven't seen it or need to see it again.