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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Fish

A Feast Of Consequences

Review by Jason Hillenburg

Renowned novelist John Irving once remarked that the stereotype of the American writer, extravagant talents flaming out their skills and lives in a blast of illness and addiction, struck him as terribly misguided. Writers, unlike athletes, don't reach the peak of their ability in their late twenties or early thirties followed by inevitable decline. Irving believed that creative artists should improve with age, gaining in scope and depth what they lose in youthful exuberance. Fish, onetime enfant terrible of the progressive rock scene, decried as everything from a shameless Peter Gabriel impersonator to an overwrought merchant of sentiment, has essayed some strong work since his departure from Marillion over twenty years ago. He has survived critical obituaries, professional setbacks, and personal struggles that decimate less determined individuals. This album should have never happened. By the rules of our modern world, Fish should have faded into trivia long ago. It is our good fortune that this never happened and, nearing sixty years old, Fish's talent has increased its scope and depth enough to deliver his finest work as a solo artist.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Perfume River
Placing a mini-epic featuring a variety of lyrical and musical moods as the album's opener is a bold, audacious move. Or it is one of enormous confidence. It is apparent the gamble and confidence alike are justified when Fish's husky vocal emerges from the mix with the song's dramatic opening lines. Though the nominal setting of the song is rooted in geographical fact, the locale becomes something more in Fish's hands. He uses it as a physical manifestation of isolation – the narrator not returning calls, seeing “fire breathing dragons. . . in sweltering skies,” wandering “. . . the dark alleys of the citadel,” all of these figures seeking the same sweet oblivion promised in the chorus. Fish's longtime writing partner, bassist Steve Vantsis, clearly understands these songs and the backing they require. There are no instances of lavish musical self-indulgence, but instead an accumulation of artistic choices resulting in a transformative experience. The tight connection between musical movements and Fish's vocal is exciting. His phrasing demonstrates absolute mastery of nuance and enhances the listening experience.
All Loved Up
This is a bit of an “Incommunicado” rewrite, but there is an appealing retro vibe in the arrangement and sound that recalls Fish’s first two solo efforts. The guitars and drums push the proceedings along at a brisk pace while tasteful keyboard work provides additional color. I kept waiting for a brash, attention-grabbing chorus akin to “Big Wedge,” but the song doesn't suffer for its lack. It is a sharp piece of satire that virtually writes itself. Ultimately, however, Fish casts no judgments. He characterizes the speaker and their desires without ever skewering them too deeply. This welcome lack of mean-spiritedness, another strong vocal, and the striding rock backing unite in an entertaining listen.
Blind to the Beautiful
The stark simplicity of this song provides an ideal forum for some of Fish's finest writing on the album. It stands as one of his best vocals from the last twenty-five years – a beautiful phrased, haunted invocation of personal and environmental desolation. Some of the verses and couplets have startling focus and haiku-like clarity. “The ice retreating, mountains exposed in the sun / The earth is baking, raindrops precede the floods /And hurricanes with children’s names write our history / Signatures tracked by satellites on high” ranks high among the finest depictions of a failing natural world in popular song.
A Feast of Consequences
The title song promises big results from the opening salvo and delivers on every front. The hard-charging arrangement strengthens another dramatic Fish vocal and, like the greatest storytellers do, Fish's talents for writing a deeply personal story that touches upon universally resonant emotions infuses this nominal “kiss-off” song with added layer of meaning. The vocal aids this process – by turns theatrical, unvarnished, bellowing, and aching with sensitivity, Fish's ability to inhabit a song is unsurpassed and compels your attention. The lyrics leave themselves open to a wide variety of interpretations. It isn't difficult, for perceptive and knowledgeable listeners, to hear bridge lyrics like “We were running out of words, running out of lines / Running out of things to say / We were running out of heart, running out of love, running out of reasons to stay” as hinting at larger leave-takings looming in Fish's future…and our own.
High Wood
This composition kicks off a “mini-suite” devoted to events from the First World War. The lyrical content convinces me of two important points. The first is that this ranks among Fish's finest writing. It is witheringly objective, never deigning to inject ego into a narrative rife with its own historical drama, and grounds itself in specific physical details. Fish's supreme skills as a storyteller transport the listener in full to the Battle of the Somme. Fish's co-writer on this track, keyboardist Foss Patterson, deserves a special mention for his superb arrangement.
Crucifix Corner
Fish and Patterson strike again here with an outstanding track divided into two distinct sections. The first has a spare arrangement driven by keyboards and tasteful shading from percussion and stringed instruments. Fish's writing is, again, terrifically impressive: “Through this wall of smoke and flame / this lethal iron curtain / to gain the slope, the woods beyond / where hunting will be certain”. The second section has a distinctly Jethro Tull feel, sans flute, with Robin Blout's slashing guitars, and generates tremendous atmosphere as Fish sings about the advancing soldiers.
The Gathering
I welcome any moment when circumstance allows me to say I've heard something truly new. This is one of those moments. In this song, Fish pulls off a tour de force depiction of the elation and fear sweeping over a nation gripped in patriotic war fever. The lyrical content conjures an effortless contrast between the celebration and horror to come. The use of brass like the flugelhorn and tuba is a masterstroke that gripped my attention and complemented the subject matter well.
Thistle Alley
This is the horror to come. In this song, Fish takes us to the front lines and never flinches an inch while describing the death and hopelessness pervading a hellish landscape. The esprit de corps of the preceding song disappears in distorted banks of angry guitars and thunderous drums that match the lyrical mood perfectly. It has a strongly theatrical quality, but the dramatic vocals and brash music never cheapen the experience.
The Leaving
The final song of the High Wood “mini suite” is the only part where Fish consciously interjects himself into the narrative. This composition plays as an exhortation to remember the sacrifices of war dead, but the attentive listener should glean from the music that this exhortation lacks any celebration. Instead, this is a final lyrical look at the blood-stained earth burdened with the knowledge that our world often consigns these deaths to history books rather than memory.
The Other Side of Me
This is a fragile, moody piece ending with a real note of hope. In this sense, it is an effective counterbalance to the weightiness of the High Wood songs. It isn't a light-hearted affair, by any means, but the lyric's exploration of self-awareness and rediscovery will speak to many. Fish turns in another confident, yet thoughtful vocal ably supported by co-writers bassist Steve Vantsis' and Robin Blout's nuanced arrangement. A final glorious touch comes from backing vocalist Elisabeth Troy Antwi's lilting harmonies.
The Great Unraveling
In a perfect closer for the album, Fish explores the theme of loss and sustaining ourselves in its wake. Hearing the song as a reflection on the death of one's parents resonated with me profoundly and the guiding metaphor is perfectly embodied by the music's unwinding feel. I saw it like a ball of yarn shrinking as it rolls downhill.
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