Thursday, September 13, 2007

Lucky Star?

Fish, who as I said below is my favourite solo artist, released his 9th solo studio album last week (mail order, you'll have to wait a bit to buy it in the shops). Counting the four studio albums he recorded as part of Marillion, this is album number 13. Hence the title, The 13th Star.

But is it unlucky 13 or lucky star?

The release of a new album often produces one of two reactions from fans (of any band):
  1. "Brilliant, fantastic, best thing they've ever recorded...", or
  2. "Not very good, don't like it, worst album ever..."
Quite often the fans aren't able to find the middle ground and acknowledge that something is neither fantastic nor rubbish. So I set my initial reactions aside and listened to the album a few times before deciding to declare my opinions to the world. But here goes now:

Fish, the 13th Star.

Is it any good? Well, its neither fantastic nor rubbish. I don't hate it, but I also don't love it (yet). However, it is growing on me with every listen, in much the same way that Sunsets on Empire did.

Lyrically, this may be Fish at his most heart-felt, his most open. Certainly the man's true feelings shine out from several of the songs, revealing his hopes and heartbreak. For those of you who don't know, Fish wrote most of this album in the run up to his marriage with Heather Findlay of Mostly Autumn - presumably a happy time in his life. Then they split up 'with no possible chance of reconciliation' - and times must have been tough. Both the happy and the sad are reflected in the lyrics.

Musically, however, something is lacking. I've commented before that the quality of Fish's music is entirely dependent on his co-writers. Here, most of the songs were co-written with long-time band member (since 1998) and bass player Steve Vantsis. Crucially, Steve has never written songs before. It shows. That's not to say that there are not any good songs on here, there are, but several of the songs are quite run-of-the-mill musically and I suspect I may skip a few of them on future listens. Some of the songs have clearly been composed by formula - there are times when you know that there should now be an instrumental break, and sure enough there is. But on a number of occasions its just formulaic and uninspired. None of the solos on this album stand out in the same way as, for example, the guitar solos on 'Cliche'. None are exceptional.

The feel of several of the songs is what I would describe as 'industrial' - grinding, overdriven guitars and heavy thumping drums. It has a rawer, harder edge than Fish's more usual melodic style. I'm not entirely sure this is a good thing. I suppose its more in keeping with the style of Sunsets on Empire than any of the more recent albums.

Song by song:
  1. Circle line
    Continuing the trend of the past three albums, this one opens with a perfectly serviceable but fairly unremarkable track. Of course, the song is trying to convey the boredom and pointlessness of a life going round in circles, so perhaps expecting something interesting is too much.
  2. Square go
    Reminiscent of 'The Rookie' (one of the weaker tracks on 'Field of Crows'), this is quite a low point on the album. Dull and unengaging. Tends towards being simply 'a racket'. Or maybe I just don't relate to the feelings expressed in the song.
  3. Miles de besos
    The first great song on this album. A beautiful, gentle song with nice acoustic guitars. Great use of the female backing vocals on the chorus. Builds nicely into a powerful climax. This is one of those songs that are pure Fish - a bittersweet love song juxtaposing declarations of love with moments of despair and anger.
  4. Zoe 25
    On first listen this was the track that stood out from the rest as being something special. It still does.
  5. Arc of the curve
    Musically this is a quite nice but is hardly an earth-shattering song. It suffers slightly from having the phrase 'magic of the moment' early on in the song - this always reminds me of naff Scorpions songs. This is one of the better formulaic songs here, but its still clearly rooted in a prescribed pattern.
  6. Manchmal
    Sorry, don't like it. Back to the 'industrial' sound again. Drum loops, hmmm. 'Manchmal' is German for 'Sometimes'. Strange syncopation in the verse and the angry chorus, which is clearly meant to be emotive and powerful, doesn't engage me at all. And I usually like the angry Fish songs best. Interesting lyrics though.
  7. Openwater
    This one is still growing on me. I hear more in there with each listen. I think I'll probably like it better in a few weeks time, so I won't say much about it here. This one was co-written with Frank Usher.
  8. Dark star
    Almost 'Manchmal part II'. Another one with a slightly odd beat. Not sure if I like that. This song tries to be mean and moody but I'm not sure if it hits the mark. Its oddly reminiscent of 'Black Canal' from the Suits sessions. Slightly muddled metaphors - which is it, do you want to be a meteor or travel at the speed of light, you can't have both? I think someone had been listening to Tony Iommi's guitar playing before recording this. Dark and heavy.
  9. Where in the world
    Deep breath and relax. Ahhhh. Take it gently, open your heart and let it all pour out. Its hard to listen to this one, I mean really listen to this one, without a tear in your eye. Seventeen years ago, in Vigil, Fish sung "If there's somebody up there, could they throw me down a line...". Here he echoes that again "...if we found out no one's listening to our even louder prayers... where in the world do we go from here?". Here is a man, lost in the world with questions and no direction, looking for an answer. Heartbreaking. And sounds quite like Pink Floyd too.
  10. 13th Star
    An unhurried and appropriate end to the album. Heartfelt and moving. I wonder if Heather Findlay has managed to listen this far into the album yet. This song is clearly for her, the 13th star. Its all very sad, really.
So, in conclusion, this album isn't as great as Vigil, Internal Exile, Fellini Days or Field of Crows, but it is much better than Suits and far more coherent than Raingods with Zippos. It wears its (broken) heart on its sleeve and invites you to look. Its hard work. Musically its not an all time classic of all time, but pretty good nevertheless. And still growing on me. Probably on a par with Sunsets on Empire, to which it is a close relation.

By the way, Gareth also reviewed this album.

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At 4:14 pm, Blogger Tim H said...

I think this is his best work for ages, and blows away "Field of Crows" and "Fellini Days", as well as Marillion's lacklustre recent effort. But my favourite Fish album is "Sunsets" followed by "Raingods".

Lyrically it's not a comfortable listen when I'm on first name terms with Heather. But I didn't really expect it to be.

At 8:28 am, Blogger Ricky Carvel said...

Each to their own.

Its still growing on me but the three most 'industrial' sounding songs (Square go, Manchmal and Dark star) will have to grow on me a bit more before I prefer this to Field of Crows (which, incidentally, I consider to be one of the top five albums by anyone so far this century).

I don't suppose you know Heather's opinions on the album yet? :o|

At 8:29 am, Blogger Ricky Carvel said...

Forgot to say. It certainly beats 'Somewhere Else'...

At 6:29 pm, Blogger Tim H said...

Heather left the country before the album shipped, and isn't due back until the end of October. It's all right for some.... I would be suprised if she's heard it, or wants to.

It does indeed beat Somewhere Else.

At 9:24 pm, Blogger Ricky Carvel said...

Further to my review above, I now find that I have either 'Arc of the curve' or 'Open water' stuck in my head most of the time. Both still growing on me...

At 9:30 pm, Blogger Tim H said...

"Arc of the Curve", "Open Water" and "Machman" stuck in my head.

And his Manchester gig was cancelled 15 minutes before he was due to go on stage due to his losing his voice. Bummer!

Next three gigs also cancelled, further gigs possibly in doubt.

At 4:04 pm, Anonymous James P. said...

Fish is just a poet and an artist, his work is his catharsis. Great album, great lyrics. It is ridiculous what I read here. It seems people lost the capacity to enjoy genuine artistic expression. All a read here is clouded by comparing one work with another. Instead, just listen to it like you have not heard fish before.

At 8:56 pm, Blogger Ricky Carvel said...

"It is ridiculous what I read here."

No. Its just me expressing my opinions, just as you are. Opinions not facts. I certainly haven't lost the capacity to enjoy this album - I'm probably past 20 listens to it now, less than a fortnight after getting it! Its good, at times great, but still (in my opinion) is not musically the greatest album Fish has recorded. Lyrically, possibly... musically, no.

Perhaps if I listened to this like I'd never heard Fish before I'd be highly impressed. But then if I heard Vigil it would blow me away!

While it may be true that some things are beautiful in and of themselves, without the need for comparison with other things, this can't be applied to the 13th (or 9th) in a sequence of albums. Comparisons are inevitable.

BTW, if I was to rank it now, it would come in at 5th out of 9 albums, or 8th out of 13 if you'd rather...


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