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Calamari Volta

The first time I heard of Attack of the Giant Squid, I was drinking whiskey with my friend Rob Birmingham, a.k.a. Fun Bobby, who used to bartend and book shows at Hollywood Alley in Mesa until he left to raise his son in rural Oregon. Rob told me that the band sounded like the Mars Volta, except for being completely instrumental, and I was immediately intrigued.

That's a tall compliment to live up to — being compared to what's probably the most complex, intricate, experimental rock band making music today. I scoped it out, though, and for the most part, Attack of the Giant Squid lived up to the comparison in many aspects. The band, which consists of guitarist Tony Patino, bassist Dave Gramp, and drummer Noah Tallman (as well as occasional contributions from horn players Shea Marshall, Kevin Tagney, and Jeff Giroux), makes psychedelic, often improvised, jazzy math-rock that definitely approaches the Mars Volta's intensity, but without the paranoia.

But the thing about the Mars Volta, which is one of my favorite bands, is that the members are so distant from the audience when they play that you feel removed from what's happening onstage. It comes off as pretentious, while during the Squid's shows, the musicians are completely engaging, and encourage the audience to get down with them. Until now, the live show was all you got from the Squid, but within a few weeks, you'll be able to hear how the guys translated that energy and improvisation into a full-length album.

I'd been bugging Patino, who I drink with occasionally, to let me hear what the band had together for quite some time, but he only recently obliged, since the album (tentatively untitled) is nearing completion. Sitting in Patino's room, with his speakers blaring, I listened to the 20-minute-plus "Red and Purple Stars," the live staple "Rocketship to Thundera," "Lunchbox 5000," which features the Lymbyc Systym's Jared Bell on a Fender Rhodes, and a few as-yet-untitled songs.

The album is a cacophony of dissonance, jazz-influenced improvisation, squelches, distortion, and layers upon layers of white noise. It's a phenomenal listening experience — the best description is drug music, full-on psychedelia. Without vocals or a lyricist, every bar has to be interesting, complex, and dynamic, and the Squid's made that happen. I don't even think there's space sonically for vocals or lyrics; it would only distract the listener from the complexity of the music.

"Most of it was improvised on the album," Patino tells me. "I just overdubbed it to hell and tried to make it sound good. There were ideas written, but some stuff goes on longer than 32 measures — it might be 64 measures — then I've got all this space I've got to work with and make interesting and not make it just basic instruments. All of a sudden, it's a buildup of something else. The biggest challenge with the album was to make those parts sound good."

Originally, when the core threesome of Attack of the Giant Squid started jamming together back in late 2003, it was just drums, bass, and guitar. But they still felt it was missing something, and that's when they began soliciting other artists, in particular the horn players, to supplement the sound.

"We always wanted to have other instruments on stage, and, of course, we're really into jazz fusion and all other forms of jazz. When we first got together, we played a couple gigs with a trumpet player and recorded a few things with him, as well," Patino says. "It didn't really work out, so we searched for a keyboardist, but met [saxophonist] Shea Marshall, who also plays the organ on the album. He recorded one song with us, and didn't do anything with us again for almost a year, [until] he randomly called me up to jam an improv set at Hollywood Alley with us. It fit, so we got him all over the album.

"I love the fun of improvising and stealing licks from Shea Marshall," Patino continues. "He plays some crazy stuff with guitar pedals, and always surprises us with something new every show. He doesn't ever want us to tell him what key it's in. He says it's not his style to ever play the same thing. He's a prodigy."

The AotGS album is one of the most intriguing records to come out of the 'Nix that I've heard; it's hard to be this experimental and still be listenable, and to also avoid being pretentious math-rock elitists. But Attack of the Giant Squid has managed all of that. And now the members just want this album out of the way so that they can focus on the next recording project.

"This first album we're about to release is one big experimental jam for the jazz-fusion nerds out there. It's not a concept album, because we haven't thought of one yet," Patino says.

The album ought to be out sometime in March; the band's waiting to book a date for the release party. Meantime, they're working on the new material, practicing in Patino's living room and trying to one-up themselves with their new compositions.

"We're always trying to impress each other with entirely new ideas in songwriting and improvisation that may fall below or above the radar of an otherwise scrutinizing live audience," Gramp says. "When we're practicing, we arrange ourselves in a circular sort of shape where we can draw from each other much more readily and react accordingly, rather than facing one direction, as in a stage setting. It's much more intimate and mentally stimulating.

"Studiowise, this debut album is a larva," Gramp continues. "Our next release will be a full-grown and bloody unicorn. I promise."

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Brendan Joel Kelley