It was funny to notice that about four years had passed already since Phish released their last studio album, Joy (2009), the five years' lapse after the release of Undermind (2004) coinciding with the time the group had ceased operation. Meanwhile, live reports told of a group firing on all cylinders, as the audio-video "combo" Live At Alpine Valley, 2010 easily proves. With just a couple of (far from exceptional) solo albums (by Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon) released in the interim, in 2013 the group celebrated their 30th anniversary embarking on a Summer tour.

Then came the news about a new album, to be recorded soon, titled Wingsuit. The producer of choice: Bob Ezrin. Ezrin's CV is long and quite diverse, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd (both pre- and post-Roger Waters), and solo David Gilmour being the first names that come to my mind.

Phish debuted (most of) their new album in the course of the "musical costume" set they played on Halloween night at the Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I read about some people in the audience being puzzled when confronted with a set of unreleased compositions, instead of the group performing a "legendary album from the past", as it had been their custom on Halloween.

Opinions about Fuego will vary according to one's expectations and desires, of course. With the sole exception of my perceiving the absence of those "knotty rock" compositions (think: Tweezer, from A Picture Of Nectar) that in my opinion are an integral part of the mosaic that is the music of Phish, as being a fault (though I'm aware this could be a minority opinion), I regard the new album as being quite good, but beware: I was really able to focus on the music only when I listened to the album at respectable volume, in perfect silence - something which is not always possible nowadays. This not because the album is terribly difficult - the opposite, in fact, is true - but because Ezrin's production work makes great use of echoes and placements in the stereo field, with gorgeous choir vocals (discussed below), those being timbres that need to be listened to with great clarity.

One could say that Ezrin succeeded where others have failed, but this would imply not taking the material that the group brought to the table into consideration. On Round Room (2002) Bryce Goggin brilliantly recorded four musicians getting back into their conversation. Though he maybe overdid the effects, on Undermind (2004) Tchad Blake skillfully managed to come to terms with the group's imminent meltdown. While Steve Lillywhite had a good part in making comeback album Joy a success.

Fuego shows the group sounding just the same as before, but quite different at the same time. Paradoxically, given the "studio" nature of the work done here by Ezrin, it could be said that this studio album portrays the group as it is when playing live - that is to say, as equals in sound: something that modern amplification makes it possible to achieve, if one so wishes (just check the aforementioned Live At Alpine Valley, 2010). It's easy, at first, to be puzzled by what, when compared to the past, one obviously perceives as Phish featuring Anastasio less. In fact, there's lots of Anastasio (some excellent, at times quite moving, guitar solos, and vocal performances), but here the focus of the music changes a lot.

The album is quite varied stylistically, with Anastasio's recent predilection for "pop" climates featuring horns and vocals, and group creations made of multiple parts - think of a few episodes off The Story Of The Ghost - easily appearing side-by-side. It goes without saying that Ezrin's accurate production work showcases each episode at its best. I'd also like to stress those great instrumental parts the group arrived at in pre-production.

Recording sessions took place in a variety of studios - nice surprise, also world-famous Fame Recording Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama - but especially in Nashville, which for a long time now, thanks to the crisis when it comes to the financial conditions of those historical studios located in New York and Los Angeles, has become the perfect place to record music that's "performed". The album makes great use of Ronnie's Place and Anarchy Studios, the latter being also the place Ezrin used to mix the album. Lots of featured engineers, also guest vocalists, and horn players.

At more than 9', opening track Fuego is the only long composition here. Its role appears to act as a bridge between the concerts one attended after the release of Joy, and this album. Recorded the day before the Halloween concert, at the same hall, this is a track that sounds as having been recorded almost completely live - here and there, one can hear some cuts, and a few vocal treatments - with great emotional impact.

Fuego starts with a "mysterious-sounding" melody featuring bass and piano, then drums, with a "martial" pace. An almost "metal"-sounding progression, "a cappella" vocals, then it's double time - check those drums! - Hammond organ, then... 'm-waaaah..., a "throaty" guitar solo, with a fine bass crescendo. Then it's back to the "mysterious-sounding" melody, guitar, and multiple vocals with echo. The second guitar solo is what one would expect from Anastasio, but here it's presented at a lower level than expected, with excellent counterpoint from the piano. It fades out, with fine piano, bass, and snare drum.

The Line opens with fine bass, Hammond, rim-shot and hi-hat, Anastasio's vocals, a Fender Rhodes electric piano, the whole sounding halfway between reggae and calypso. Fine multiple vocals as counterpoint to the chorus. Soft instrumental coda.

Devotion To A Dream has a start that reminded me a bit of Chalk Dust Torture, with piano, bass, Anastasio's vocals; there's an almost-bluegrass choir acting as a counterpoint, a very appropriate guitar part, the Hammond playing chords. A song that's quite reminiscent of those "west coast" times, with more than a pinch of Jerry Garcia in the closing guitar solo, with fine backing from the piano.

A Page McConnell composition, Halfway To The Moon is a fine song, with an excellent (closed/half-closed) hi-hat part, bass, piano, and a fine chord progression the group has used before, here sounding surprisingly fresh. There's a fine piano solo, great vocals on the reprise. Quite appropriately, the guitar sits in the background. Fine, intense coda.

Winterqueen features subtle filter modulations from the synthesizer, a clean guitar arpeggio, a chord progression, and Anastasio's relaxed vocals. There's a fine horn interlude over a ride cymbal, plus bass, acting as a counterpoint to the guitar. Listen to those trumpet mutes!

Sing Monica is the album's single, sounding a bit like The Kinks, quite fun, with fine backing from the Hammond. The bridge speeds up, then an uninhibited guitar part explodes.

A song penned by Gordon/Murawski, 555 is a funky-soul with horns with heavy traces of New Orleans sounding halfway between Little Feat and Steely Dan. Mike Gordon on vocals, the song - a mid-tempo - features the Clavinet, "call and response" vocals, wha-wha guitar, Hammond organ, and horns. There's a fine guitar solo, the "wha" sounding quite similar to one of those VCF by Oberheim that Frank Zappa played through in the mid-70s, the solo engulfed by Hammond and horns. Check the "smear" on the Hammond keyboard (a real one, of course) at the track close.

Waiting All Night starts as a "bossa", with liquid keyboards, bass, a fine rim-shot/ride figure, a "soul ballad" of great beauty. Guitar in the background, then it's Anastasio's vocals, going quite high. Fine slide guitar and keyboards, then a vocal coda.

Wombat is a classic smorgasbord, like some tracks off The Story Of The Ghost. It's funky, with complex time signatures, intersecting lines, multiple vocals, a funny guitar, and a "scratching" effect. The song ends with female vocals, a very strong horn section, and Page McConnell's "space" Clavinet.

Closing track, Wingsuit is quite a surprise. Sounding quite hypnotic/opium-scented, it features keyboards, guitar, and an elegant piano. Ride cymbal, bass, snare drum, Anastasio's vocals, and a quite Beatles-sounding choir. Back to the hypnotic mood, Anastasio, the piano, some synth effects, the "Beatles" again. Cut, and Pink Floyd-sounding voices are added to the "Beatles". Fine bridge, that's repeated, with synthesizers coming to the fore (I wonder if the polyphonic synth here is still the group's old Alesis Andromeda). There's a pause, then piano, "fat-sounding" drums, guitar... then a majestic "tutti", the guitar solo here obviously indebted to the David Gilmour/Phil Manzanera school of drama. In closing, a mysterious-sounding synthesizer, with different LFOs producing beatings.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2014 | July 15, 2014