Before we get rolling this week, I want to direct your attention to a couple Kickstarter campaigns you may want to support.
Kickstarter has been getting a lot of flack for essentially providing a platform for rich people to avoid risk. I get that. But to me, that’s a small price to pay for what Kickstarter does best – it helps small, independent artists create music that would otherwise not exist, and get that music into the hands of their fans. It fosters community around creation, and that’s an amazing thing. Trust me that neither of these artists I’m about to mention are rich, and both of them create wonderful work that’s worth supporting.
Longtime readers no doubt know that The Choir is pretty much my favorite band. For more than 30 years, they’ve been making stunning spiritual dream-pop, the kind of thing that bypasses my brain and touches my soul. They have 14 albums, and they’re hoping to make a 15th early next year, in addition to their first live album in some time. They’ve asked for $25,000 to make those two projects happen. I hope they get three times that, and are able to keep on going for many years to come. If you haven’t heard The Choir, here’s a link to a Zip file with 15 songs from their recent albums. If you like what you hear, you can support their Kickstarter campaign here.
My friend Andrea Dawn is a remarkable singer and songwriter. Two years ago, she released her first full-length solo album, Theories of How We Can Be Friends. Now she’s gearing up to make her second, and she’s looking for $5,000 to launch that project. Andrea writes baroque, dramatic piano pop, and sings it with a voice that seems to have infinite depths. You can hear all of Theories here. If you like it, support her Kickstarter campaign here.
Also, if you haven’t seen my new project with Andrea, you can check that out here. I’ve somehow convinced her to watch all of Doctor Who with me – all 800-some episodes – and record her reactions on video. We call the project Doing Doctor Who, because we really like innuendo. Comments are most appreciated. Thanks!
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In 1989, one of my favorite bands underwent the biggest and riskiest change in its history.
For eight years, Marillion had been led by a tall, swaggering Scotsman named Derek Dick, but more commonly known as Fish. The four albums of the Fish era reflected the frontman’s personality more than anyone else’s, particularly the latter two – Misplaced Childhood, which contains Marillion’s only real hits, is a concept album about one of Fish’s particularly bad breakups, and the great Clutching at Straws is entirely about his love-hate relationship with alcohol. Fish was the face, the voice and the outsize persona of the group, and when he chose to leave, many assumed Marillion would be over.
What actually happened was much better than anyone could have predicted. Fish went on to a solo career that, despite some lows, has found him producing some riveting, timeless work. And Marillion found Steve Hogarth, one of my favorite singers, and have thrived with him at the helm. Last year, Marillion released what may be their career best album, the amazing Sounds That Can’t Be Made. It’s risky, complex, emotionally devastating and all-around beautiful stuff, the pinnacle of the band’s work with Steve Hogarth.
And now it’s Fish’s turn. His new album A Feast of Consequences is without doubt the finest thing he’s done since leaving Marillion. The big man has been on a massive upswing lately, moving from the pummeling rock opera Field of Crows to the more groove-oriented 13th Star, and though his voice has aged, he’s found new ways to bend and shape it, and new settings to place it in. While both his most recent albums were splendid – in fact, the best he’d made as a solo artist – the praise was reserved, since his voice was nowhere near its height.
I have no idea what he did in the meantime, but A Feast of Consequences contains Fish’s best vocals since Sunsets on Empire, easy. His voice is still an older, rougher instrument, but it’s more supple than it’s been in years. I mention that first, because the songs on A Feast of Consequences – his best as a solo artist – require a subtle yet strong singer to bring them home, and Fish steps up to the plate here. He’s always had a unique quality to his voice, and in the past, I felt like he was trying to recapture his early, more elastic sound instead of working his new range and tone into something more comfortable. Well, he does that here, finally. It’s just a great performance.
But you’re here for the songs, and they’re excellent. Of the 11 tunes here – five of which make up an extraordinary suite in the middle – only one feels less than complete. The album is loud and vibrant, blessed with the best production Fish has ever enjoyed, and the songs match it. They were written with three mainstays of Fish’s band throughout the years – Steve Vantsis, Robin Boult and Foss Patterson – and you can tell that this time, they buckled down and decided to make each one as special as it could be.
The record opens with four unrelated songs, three of which would make terrific singles. “All Loved Up” is a rocker that presents a jaundiced view of technology and social media – “We’re beautiful people, we’re all fucked up,” Fish spits over a snarling riff. “Blind to the Beautiful” is the record’s loveliest song, and perhaps its darkest – it’s about the pain of life overwhelming the joy. “I just can’t see the beautiful anymore” is one of Fish’s most devastating lines, and he delivers it with feeling, before the wonderful violin section. The title track is another of Fish’s patented angry breakup tunes, this one with a bouncy and memorable chorus.
To get to those comparatively jaunty numbers, you have to get through the opener, the 11-minute “Perfume River.” But believe me, this will be no chore. It’s a gloriously atmospheric trip through Vietnam, which Fish visited in 2007. The record’s first few minutes show just how intense the production is – it opens with bagpipes and a bed of synthesizers, sounding like fog off in the distance. When the bell-like acoustic guitar cuts through, right in the foreground, you know you’re in for a 3-D listening experience, and “Perfume River” doesn’t disappoint. It turns into a hootenanny halfway through, and Fish knocks it out of the park.
But it pales in comparison to the High Wood Suite, comprising tracks five through nine. Inspired by his grandfathers and their service in World War I, the suite is a powerful bit of historical scene-setting, taking place at the sites of several famous battles in Europe. “High Wood” starts as a piano ballad, and ends as a death march, with shades of Savatage. It sets the stage: a wooded area in which 8,000 men disappeared. “Are they ghosts or moving shadows, are they spirits gone before, are these the restless souls still wandering, the ones that were forsaken in the high wood…”
The soldiers’ tale is told in “Crucifix Corner,” for my money the best song on this album. The repeated melody sounds ancient, like a folk song sung through the mists of time. But as the seven-minute epic moves on, Fish sets it against beautiful pianos and then thunderous guitars, occasionally bringing Iron Maiden to mind. The music matches the mood, as the soldiers prepare for battle, then charge, and are defeated, leaving this mournful final verse: “In the cornfields ripening corpses sweet, in a sunrise moving shadows, from the High Wood the reaper walked to a harvest duly gathered, the skylark’s solo mournful cry above spirits torn and tattered, in a new dawn the whistle blows on a field prepared for battle…”
“The Gathering” starts with a jubilant fanfare, and goes on to capture the national mood of Britain at the start of World War I. “We signed off our lives with a stroke of a pen, joined our pals in the line, we took the king’s shilling with pride…” Placing this right in the middle is perfect – we know the horrors these men will face thanks to “Crucifix Corner,” and that prepares us for the horror of “Thistle Alley,” the darkest piece here. “Thistle Alley” is the name of a trench Fish’s grandfather helped dig, and the song details the battle that took place there: “Heaven above, Thistle Alley below, motionless survivors bloody on the killing floor, praying for the darkness to return and hide the graves of the living…”
“The Leaving,” the final track of the suite, examines the aftermath, not just of the battle, but of the war. It begins on a field strewn with corpses, but ends with hollow-eyed soldiers coming home: “The men returned, the war was over, the bells rang out, a country cheered, behind their eyes they stored the horrors, behind their smiles they hid their fears…” Fish sings with emotion over a melancholy string arrangement that gives way to a sad mirror of the marching beat from “High Wood.” It brings the suite to a stunning end.
After the High Wood material, anything would have fallen short, but “The Other Side of Me” is still the album’s weakest song. A tender acoustic ballad about reconciliation with oneself, the song’s lyric and melody (and vocal performance) are lacking in comparison. The whole thing sounds great, particularly the violin lines, but the repeated “first person singular, me, myself, I” doesn’t hit home. Thankfully, the finale, “The Great Unraveling,” is great indeed. Fish uses his parents as a starting point to talk about how everyone eventually leaves everything, and he makes it sound glorious. The final refrain of “into the light” is lovely, and the song a fitting finish to this marvelous album.
It’s amazing to even think about, but since their own great unraveling, Marillion and Fish have both been gathering strength. And now, less than a year apart, both have issued career highlight records. A Feast of Consequences is Fish’s high point as a solo artist, a record of remarkable depth and power, one that has made the entire journey worth it. It’s a completely independent piece of work, beholden to no one, the product of pure artistic freedom. And it’s just wonderful.
A Feast of Consequences is only available from Fish himself, here. The special edition is packaged in a stunning hardcover book with dozens of illustrations from Mark Wilkinson (who has handled Fish’s artwork since the beginning), and comes with a feature-length documentary on DVD. It is so well worth the asking price.
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Next week, I’ll try to catch up with a bunch of shorter reviews. Yes, you heard right, I’m going to try to write shorter. Come by in seven days and see how I do. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.