Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Idiot's Guide To Fish

I've never written one of these before, but I've seen other people do them - so here goes. Fish is an artist I have suddenly rediscovered - through serendipitous circumstances I won't bore you with - and that's always an exciting experience for me.

Like many people I suspect, I was familiar in passing with Marillion before lead singer Fish left the group, but the reputation for concept albums, Fish's weird stage make-up and - let's be honest - an unhealthy obsession with harlequins, put me off. So when I discovered that I liked several singles from the new Steve Hogarth incarnation of Marillion, I kind of shrugged off Fish as being the weird one, a belief which seemed to be reinforced by firstly seeing a maniacal character on the single cover for "Big Wedge" and then seeing what appeared to be Jessie Rae's younger brother on the cover of Internal Exile. While Marillion seemed to edge closer to commercial acceptance, Fish became something of a cult figure, a strange cottage industry removed from ordinary music channels.

I rediscovered the singles "State of Mind" and "Big Wedge" back in 2001, and briefly tried to catch up with what was going on in the Fish-world. But the back catalogue was too large, too diverse, and - in the USA at least - too difficult to get hold of. So my interest waned.

But here we are in 2007, and this time around, I'm finding a lot to like in the lanky scot's myriad solo efforts. Hence a reappraisal is definitely in order.

By Fish's own admission, his debut solo album Vigil In A Wilderness of Mirrors (which quite easily could have become the next Marillion album) just took too long to come out. By 1990, Marillion has received positive plaudits for the Season's End album (and rightfully so, it's still firmly in place on my CD shelf) and Vigil in some ways seemed like an afterthought or, even worse, an anticlimax. The problem was that while Seasons had a clutch of radio friendly tracks, all of the songs on Vigil needed a little space to grow, to subvert the listener by stealth. Frankly, the album was about 15 years too early. Listening to it again in 2007, the themes seem remarkably prescient. "Big Wedge", the closest thing to a hit single, berated corporate America, pay-as-you-pray religion, and dubious foreign policy. Tellingly, the single sleeve also featured an aircraft approaching the twin towers. "State of Mind", the first single, also had its charms, "a clarion call for a gentle uprising", as I believe Q Magazine put it at the time. (Incidentally, it amazes me that I can forget where I parked at Wal-Mart but can still remember lines from CD reviews written 17 years ago about albums that I didn't even care for until much later) But other tracks on the album also had something to offer. For a more well-rounded assessment of what really was a pretty decent debut (in some quarters considered a prog-rock classic), you could do worse than listen to "A Gentleman's Excuse Me", "Family Business" or "Vigil In A Wilderness of Mirrors" itself.

One of the first clues I had that I was going to need to reappraise Fish's work was the sudden realization that not only had I never actually heard the title track to Internal Exile before, but that when I did hear it, it sounded great and completely different to what I expected. For reasons that I will explain in another post, my tastes lately have been running towards the so-called "celtic fringe", a range of artist from the borders of Britain who make passionate, lyrically rich music. Hence the jaunty reel and singalong style resonated with me in a way I didn't expect. The album itself was somewhat disjointed, as Fish wrestled with the direction he wanted his music to take. When you listen to the back catalogue as a body of work, you can't help but be impressed by the honesty, soul-baring, and sense of perennial bewilderment that Fish conveys in his compositions. When he addresses the romantic, he does so with a combination of abashed hopefulness and bruised naivety that is easy to identify with. Other highlights from the second album are "Credo" (analyzing the first Gulf War) and "Just Good Friends".

The third album Songs From The Mirror stalled Fish's solo career faster than a cinderblock meeting a Maserati. In retrospect, it was unclear just who would be interested in covers of Argent, Pink Floyd, Sandy Denny and others. Fish hit the nail on the head by pointing out that some would have been better served as B-Sides. Looking back, the album remains pleasant but nonessential. Try "Fearless" and "Apeman", but don't get your hopes up.

Having been dropped by EMI and then Polydor, Fish re-booted creatively by working with outside help and beginning his own record label, Dick Bros. The first studio-based fruit was Suits, a fairly conventional set let down by poor mastering. Fish was learning as he went along, but highlights include "Lady Let It Lie" and "Fortunes of War". Be sure to track down the remastered version if you want to add this one to the collection.

The next studio effort was Sunsets On Empire, which was effectively the death knell of the Dick Bros label. In the days before the internet, MySpace, and file-sharing it was incredibly difficult to sustain a truly independent record label and as Fish's music, and muse, suffered it was clearly time for a fresh direction. Nonetheless Sunsets is widely regarded as potentially Fish's best album overall, and the first one to try to recapture some of the progressive rock legacy that had earned such plaudits back in the early Marillion days. Much this was due to a collaboration with Steve Wilson (from Porcupine Tree) who brought in contemporary ideas as well as being a long time fan. Highlights include "Sunsets On Empire", "Goldfish & Clowns" and "Tara".

The creative (if not monetary) rejuvenation then led to 1999's Raingods With Zippos, a curiously balanced album which included both some highly commercial work and a conceptual suite "Plague Of Ghosts", which proved that Fish could deliver progressive ideas in an attractive and creative way. Interestingly enough, this critical renaissance coincided (in my own personal opinion) with the period when Hogarth-Marillion went off the rails slightly. I had enjoyed 1997's ambitious This Strange Engine but 1998's Radiation seemed forced (and unnecessarily derivative) and then 1999's seemed to promise much but fell flat. Back to Raingods, there are several highlights, including the ballad "Incomplete" and the rockers "Mission Statement" and "Faith Healer". Very worthy of reevaluation.

I will be honest and say that I have not spent a lot of time with the successive albums, Fellini Days (2001) and Field Of Crows (2003). Both projects are obviously thoughtful and point towards a more commercial sound as well as the exploration of very personal ideas. Some jumping off points include "So Fellini" and "Moving Targets". I would welcome comments from others who have spent more time with these albums.

All of this really leads me to the latest Fish project, 13th Star. Until a few days ago, I had no idea that a new album had been released. Currently, it is only available from the official website, in a limited edition package with a DVD. Retail versions will be available next spring. As well as being an attractive visual package, all the early reviews, and my own personal impression, is that this is a very strong album, possibly the highlight of Fish's career to date. I may produce a more thorough CD review in the near future, but in the meantime I have to say that this album grabs you by the throat from the first track. There is a consistency and evenness to the album that many of the previous solo works did not have. Much of the credit can go to Calum Malcolm, previous producer for the Blue Nile, among others, who has coaxed a massive sounding album out of the enigmatic laird. There are a lot of highlights, but I particularly enjoyed "Circle Line", "Arc of the Curve", "Zoe 25" and "Openwater". Could be one of the best albums of 2007.

I would be doing Fish a disservice by drawing attention to his output without mentioning where to go and get them. The Official Website is the place to find all these CD's, and in many cases the prices are very reasonable, particularly when most of the albums have been recently remastered with bonus tracks.

Fish is rightly perceived as a tremendous live artist, and as such there have been several live albums and other compilations, which I will not include in my review here. Suffice it to say, the official live albums are the place to start, but others do have their good points.

I'll finish by mentioning the source of much of my information - an extensive 90 minute interview with Fish produced by Voiceprint [Update: the interview was excellent but the mp3 no longer seems to be available. I'll upload a new link if and when I can find another one]

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