Pick of the Week #11
Steve Hillage: Fish Rising
By Beppe Colli
Feb. 21, 2021

For no particular reason, just for curiosity's sake, I decided to listen again to an album that I hadn't listened to in a couple of decades, at least, but that I thought I remembered quite well.

An album, and a guitar player, that I assume will be met by readers with opposite reactions: "Oh, Steve Hillage... It's been a long time!" and "Who's this guy?".

This is a good occasion as any to revisit both a time and an environment, since Fish Rising (1975) - the much-lauded, quite popular, first solo album by Steve Hillage - crystallized in a personal way that had yet to become formula a complex mix of elements into something that was both "accessible" and "of fine quality".

Here I'll just add that at the time both musicians and audience appeared to compete in a contest about who were the ones completely out of their gourd: the history of such a group as Gong - whose early 70s albums gave Hillage the perfect amount of popularity to launch a solo career - is also the story of a life lived pretty much "as it comes". While the audience attitude when it comes to "fuels" could be the "fil rouge" that links those "hippy parties" of the 60s to those raves held at the sound of "ambient-techno" where Hillage found a new, brilliant career with System 7.

Just for once, I'll play the game "what kind of music is it?", saying that the music featured on Fish Rising is without a doubt "psychedelia", the English variety. I think it's important to understand this since, with the passing of time and the changing of those standards in both the quality of the music and the playing skills, young readers could think about such tags as "prog", "jazz-rock", and so on.

While one of the main features of "rock music" from way back was the aspiration to play "to the limit" of one's ability, while "the limit" was being pushed forward. And if it's true that the scales Steve Hillage plays are quite different, it's also true that in those moments when echoes and phasing envelope the sound of his guitar it's quite easy to hear traces of Jimi Hendrix, whose influence in Hillage's formative stages must have been massive. Also, the colourful mix of various guitars with different timbres which is typical of Hillage is bound to remind one of Hendrix.

Steve Hillage was already a fine guitarist by the time Khan's Space Shanty was released (1972). The album did not sell much, and was later re-released at a time where two musicians who had played on it had become quite well-known: Hillage himself, and keyboard player Dave Stewart, of Hatfield And The North ("brilliant, inventive, and classy" is both the perfect definition for their music and the perfect explanation of the reason why they weren't more successful).

Hillage decided to join Kevin Ayers's group, and those video clips that one can watch online show him as an assured musician, technically excellent, who can fill a lot of space while never playing "too much", with a highly skillful use of the volume pedal to cancel the "attack" of the notes, and a fine, almost Zappa-like, use of the wha-wha.

Hillage plays on Kevin Ayers's fine album titled Bananamour (1973), on only one track: Shouting In A Bucket Blues (not Decadence, as surprisingly written in the liner notes to the CD edition of Fish Rising I'll talk about later).

Quite astutely, Daevid Allen asked Steve Hillage to join Gong. Hillage is featured on such "classic" albums as: Flying Teapot (1973), Angels Egg (1973), and You (1974). Should I suggest only one of those, I'd choose Angels Egg, which features the Mike Howlett-Pierre Moerlen rhythm sections yet to appear on Flying Teapot. While much-lauded, You features many exuberant instrumental parts that are fatally bound to provoke much-varied responses.

(I have to admit that I progressively developed an antipathy towards You, an album which at first I had liked quite a bit, due to the annoying habit on the part of some of my friends to always listen to the album's second side, whose "funky" track I considered as rigid and stiff due to a rhythm section that was technically quite able but whose "funky" playing sounded forced and unnatural.)

After the release of You, and after the group's leader, Daevid Allen, quit the band, the time was right for Steve Hillage to be the new star. At least, Virgin Records appeared to believe this.

On a personal note, I clearly remember that the review of Fish Rising that appeared in Italian monthly Gong was the only one I was asked to translate at the time I paid a visit to Virgin's headquarters in London.

(It was the Summer of 1975, Virgin's headquarters were in Notting Hill Gate, while I lived in Bayswater, a stone's throw. It was during that visit that I learned that Hatfield & The North had split. On a sunny afternoon, while sitting al fresco in a bar, I was offered a fried pastry rich with cinnamon that inside had some fantastic-tasting, mint-flavoured, ice cream.)

I think it can be said that the 17' Solar Musick Suite that fills most of Side One of Fish Rising is the best moment of the album. (The "suite" is really the sum of a few episodes, Hillage is not a composer of long structures.)

The suite starts with a guitar arpeggio, here come the vocals, and one is already "inside" the mood. While the guitars are obviously a large part of the whole, a very important element is the playing by Mike Howlett on bass, and Pierre Moerlen on drums - both Gong members that Hillage asked to play on the album. Also, the keyboards played by Dave Stewart, who here plays a organ solo that one can easily recognize starting with the first note, and that still sounds fresh today.

All over the album, placed quite high in the mix, the bass guitar works both as an anchor, and as a counterpoint to the action. From a "modern" perspective, the drums are a bit too low in the mix, but by simply turning the volume knob on my amplifier I had them come into focus a bit more clearly. (It's worth it: just listen to the hi-hat accents acting as a counterpoint to the clean guitar solo on the right channel in the suite's second episode.)

From Gong, we also find Didier Melherbe, on saxophone and flute; Tim Blake, on synths; and Miquette Giraudy, as "space whisper". An important presence is sound engineer Simon Heyworth, who co-produced You, and who also acts as a co-producer here. A large part of the album's appeal resides in the "ambiguous" nature of many sounds - is it guitar or synth? guitar or vocals? - with a very skillful use of reverberated elements that make one pay more attention.

Two brief tracks also appear on Side One: Fish, and Meditation Of The Snake, a "guitar panorama" which at first one is bound to mistake for synths. (Though their styles are quite different, one is bound to be reminded of Phil Manzanera, who did parallel work on his solo albums.)

On Side Two, opening track The Salmon Song is a long, varied, "rock song" featuring Malherbe's saxophone, and guest artist Lindsay Cooper of Henry Cow, on bassoon. Lotsa guitars, fine vocals, and a few "explosive" moments from Hillage.

Another long track, Aftaglid - about 15', another track made of discrete moments - is the only part of the album where one can find obvious traces of Gong (tablas, flute, acoustic guitar). These (brief) episodes are the only moments on the album that I've always found to be weak, and maybe just there in order to give listeners a "link" to the group. Funny to notice that on acoustic guitar Hillage is not as fine a player as on the electric, but this was quite common at the time, even for very fine players, the main exceptions being Robert Fripp, and few others.

Given the high quality of Fish Rising, there was great curiosity at the time about what Hillage would release next. Unfortunately, new album L - produced by Todd Rundgren and featuring his group - really let me down, and the album's good sales did not make me change my mind. It was at this time that I started losing my interest for Hillage's music.

So it was with great curiosity that I watched online quite a few live excerpts from concerts played after the release of Fish Rising and that featured some of the music off that album. (Those excerpts mainly come off the TV program The Old Grey Whistle Test, and from a concert held at Rockpalast in 1977.)

What I had completely forgotten is that the featured "live" drummer in those concerts is (former Jethro Tull) Clive Bunker. Quite interesting to see how "Mitch Mitchell" as impersonated by Pierre Moerlen is replaced by "Ginger Baker" as played by Clive Bunker. (Wonder whether this concept makes sense...)

I have to admit I enjoyed this "find" quite a lot, and the whole group - three synths, two guitars, bass, and drums - sounds like a well-oiled engine.

The copy of Fish Rising I listened to is my own, a Virgin U.K. re-release that is a fruit of the oil crisis: a cover made of lightweight cardboard, also thin, mediocre vinyl. End-of-the-70s, "all analogue", though.

While doing my research for this article, I had a look online, just to see if I could find something interesting. I found an interview with Steve Hillage by Anil Prasad from 2010, where Hillage is asked about those recent re-releases (2007) of his catalogue, and about his involvement in them.

Hillage states that he was quite involved, and - to my amazement - that he had also worked on the liner notes (what about that mistake, then?). And that he had also approved the new masters.

When asked about the style of mastering that is typical of today's music, Hillage said that he prefers the new style to the old one, but that he finds the fact of having the "new" style of mastering superimposed to material recorded in a different time to be quite questionable. "We went for a more subtle approach", he says about those re-releases.

And so, after reading this, I decided to unwrap the CD edition of Fish Rising I bought about ten years ago, and that I had never listened to. New mastering by Paschal Byrne. Two bonus tracks appear, definitely a plus.

I'll immediately say that the amount of added compression, while not scandalous, is definitely quite fatiguing after just a few minutes; that the volume is always "too much"; and that the new equalization - your typical "smiley curve" - is totally out of place in an album where the bass guitar was already way up in the old vinyl. And yes, the beautiful "hash cloud" has disappeared.

Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 21, 2021