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Fish - 13th Star Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 May 2008
Image'80s. Marillion. Lead singer. “Kayleigh.” Left at height of popularity.

Now that I’ve got the mandatory biography of Fish out of the way I can get on with the task of sharing my thoughts on 13th Star, his latest release.

Fish one of those artists I support, and enjoy, even though at times I don’t know why. His solo releases are wildly uneven. Moments of sheer lyrical brilliance are teamed with clunkers that even a constipated Sting couldn’t dream up. Sometimes his voice is commanding, genuine and warm and at other times he takes on affectations that rival Neil Diamond’s “listen to me this is important” histrionics.  He’s a Scots poet in the pure traditional sense, with all the good and bad which comes along with being such. For every Robert Burns there is a William McGonagall.

I’m happy to say that 13th Star, Fish’s seventh solo outing not counting greatest hits packages, is clearly his best. The music, which I’ve found to be cringe-worthy on past efforts , is inventive, rockin’ and modern. There are lyrical highpoints throughout and none of the songs seems too, too, long. But, there’s also a wee bit of the ol’ McGonagall as well.

13th Star opens with “Circle Line,” which sounds like Chris Whitley’s Rocket House meets A Perfect Circle. It’s a propulsive rocker about being slotted into a place in society, using the allegory of an underground train, and not being able to rise above the dehumanization. I was shocked after hearing this cut for the first time as it seemed so different from everything Fish had put out before. My mouth might have even been open for the last half of the song. After the first listen I started the song over from the beginning. 13th Star immediately drops into the low end of life with a thundering bass-driven number, “Square Go,” that it is as interesting as “Circle Line” and for all the right reasons.  When he sings “My blood is ice, the temperature is rising / my soul a glacier, I move alone,” he sounds both vulnerable and threatening, no mean feat.  Just these two cuts, back to back, propel 13th Star to a position far beyond his other solo efforts.

And then the next song, “Miles de Besos,” provides a clear cut example of how Fish befuddles and confuses me.  The music is driven by a Spanish guitar and builds from a delicate hum to an angry Alanis Morisette roar. In what is typical fashion for most his lesser songs, he drops in overly precious lyrical references to Sauvignon Blanc and Conchya Torro and endlessly repeats the title to drive home the point of his “thousands of kisses.” It seems like it could be a good song but something goes sour like bad breath and each time it cycles through I find myself hoping that it will get that 1001st kiss…. entitled “death.” 

And that’s the way of 13th Star and, in the larger picture, Fish’s art. For each “Arc of the Curve” with the cool line “If love is blind, I’ll never see again” or the (dare I say it?) Marillion-sounding “Where in the World,” there’s a “Manchmal” (“Sometimes,” in German), which is interesting musically and lyrically but is drug down by his incessant repetition of the title in the verses, chorus and any damn place he can squeeze it in. It’s a case where he’s made a conscious artistic decision and it’s the wrong one. It seems he’s attempted to give the song a little more mystery by choosing the German over the English, but instead he’s merely made it clang like two iron pipes in a wind tunnel. By having someone whisper in German over the coda he’s taken the song to the edge of parody.

Thankfully Fish closes out 13th Star with the title track, which proves to be one of the best songs he’s ever recorded, including “Kayleigh.” As with many of his songs it starts off quiet and with him singing in the low end of his register, before erupting into a joyous waltz about halfway through. As he sings “There’s a point in your life, you got to reach and when you do / you know it, and now I’m here” with a sincerity that is unmatched in rock music; you believe he’s sharing something intimate, and telling us something truthful about us all, and with that, making the grand connection between artist and listener.

And that’s Fish at his best, when he’s the Robert Burns of rock, telling us something lyrical, universal and immediate. At his worst he’s trying too hard to be the poet, as if he’s still trying to live down, or up to, his prog-rock past. It’s a shame because he has much more to offer the music world beyond his one line bio, and 13th Star is as close as he’s ever gotten to leaving that bio behind. All it would really take is a release that’s consistent from beginning to end and with a lighter touch. Both may seem Herculean, but all he really needs to do is relax and set his sights on the future. The 13th Star sets a good course for him to follow.
I downloaded 13th Star from [email protected] 320kbps, 44.1 kHz. It’s a very good-sounding release and all of the highs and lows are evident. From soft triangles ting ting tinging in the background to bass riffs that make hair grow below the waist, you can hear the mix as it was intended by the engineer and producer, both of who happen to be Calum Malcolm.

A little special recognition needs to go out to Fish’s co-writer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Vantsis, who does an incredible job of bringing the music into the 21st Century with the appropriate use of samples and modern recording techniques. The first minute of “Manchmal” could be directly off of the latest Radiohead release. I wish I could go back in time and strongly request that he rethink the German thing. The song sounds awesome but in the long run is killed by the artist.

Normally I wouldn’t consider driving around town with Fish (who’s real name is Derek W. Dick -- I’d change that too) blaring on my car stereo, but this album rocks enough that I decided to do just that. When the George Thorogood-style ending to “Openwater” came on I realized it was the right thing to do. I had fun and realized it sounds like 13th Star was mixed for radio, which seems like an odd choice for many reasons. Primarily, who’s gonna play it on the radio?

It gets high marks on my home theater system and if you’re into the prog-rock I know you’ll enjoy this. If you’re into Marillion they have a new release out soon as well. Slainte Mathe!

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