November 27th, 2013
It’s been six years since Fish’s last effort, 13th Star. That album was forged in the aftermath of his disastrous relationship with Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay who canceled their wedding shortly before the big day. Consequently it is a very dark affair, its lyrics littered with anger. 13th Star was mainly co-written with bassist Steve Vantsis who also contributed drum programming, samples, and keyboards which gave the album a distinct industrial edge. At some point Fish’s relationship with Vantsis soured and they went their separate ways after the tour in support of the album. For his part, Fish had surgery on his throat and found himself on the primrose path of matrimony.
Although Vantsis and Fish have buried the hatchet, their latest collaboration, A Feast of Consequences is a very different animal. The shadings of Nine Inch Nails have given way to a more melodic sensibility, Fish’s anger mostly ceding to introspection and a desire to look at the world around him.
“Perfume River”, the lead-off track, opens with some rather lonely bagpipe – Scotland fading in the distance – as Fish pleads to be taken to the titular body of water. The Perfume River lies in Vietnam and Fish traveled there alone in the wake of the end of his relationship with Findlay. Here he closes his mind “in soft surrender” and “in quiet resignation take[s] the lies”. He wants nothing more to escape his life that has been torn asunder:
Lyrically this is not too far away from 13th Star, but musically, it’s nothing like it. The song is nearly eleven minutes long and meanders through multiple sections. The opening bagpipes give way to dream-like synths before Robin Boult’s acoustic guitar plucking enters. Slowly the song and tension build as drums and electric guitar are added to the mix. A vocal crescendo gives way to a briskly strummed acoustic guitar that banishes the miasma and ushers in a faster tempo. Fish’s vocals lose the sustained notes and drama as the pleading chorus takes over. A fantastic slice of progressive nouveau.
“All Loved Up” takes things in a totally different direction with a Keith Richards guitar lick and Fish sardonically discoursing on fame in the age of the Internet. It sticks out like a sore thumb here being more light-hearted lyrically and musically than the rest of the album but on the other it’s really just “Incommunicado” inverted and updated for the 21st century. There’s more to Fish’s life than lost love. “Blind to the Beautiful” follows and is rather sparsely arranged. Acoustic guitar, piano, and accordion, courtesy of Foss Paterson’s keys, carry the tune with occasional flourishes of a doleful violin. Elizabeth Antwi’s voice is featured here to great effect for the first time since “Incomplete” twelve years ago. It has all the ingredients for another song about the loss of love but the beauty here is nature. With lines such as “The ice retreating, mountains exposed in the sun,” this song is decidedly a lamentation over environmental destruction and our indifference towards it.
The title track is straight-ahead rock and the name is a play on a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson – “Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences”. It acts as something of a companion piece to “Blind to the Beautiful” in that most of the lyrics here seem to refer to a relationship that nears its final moments (“I tear a page from the book of faces/Throw your letters in an open fire”) but the environmental theme crops up again at the end with “We were running out of World, running out of hope, running out of resources/We were running out of time, running out of space, running out of tomorrows.”
What comes next is a half hour suite concerned with The Great War. Referred to as the High Wood Suite, it consists of five songs: “High Wood”, “Crucifix Corner”, “The Gathering”, “Thistle Alley”, and “The Leaving”. The High Wood is a site in northern France which saw fighting during the Battle of the Somme and Fish was apparently inspired by reading a book on the battle, visiting the site, and then learning that his grandfathers both served in that area during the war.
The first three songs were co-written with keyboardist Foss Paterson and so the opener, “High Wood”, leans heavily on piano which is complemented by a string quartet. The drums eventually begin a harrowing march as the song shifts gear to the events of 1916. The chorus is almost a chant, adding a bit of primal menace. “Crucifix Corner” opens with more piano and sustained guitar notes as battle nears but Boult’s six strings churn out a galloping riff for the cavalry charge in the second half of the song. We flash back to 1914 with “The Gathering”. What sounds like a Salvation Army band sets the mood as the country prepares for war and young men ready themselves to be shipped out. Duty, honor, and hope for a better future rule the day. The brass sounds very odd on a Fish record but the chorus features the customary wall of guitar and organ.
The brief retreat to better days ends with “Thistle Alley” with the nightmare of the war resuming. This is the heaviest song of the suite and marks a return to the sounds of 13th Star. Gavin Griffiths’ bass drum is brought up in the mix to emphasize the plodding rhythm while the guitar alternately bubbles underneath and cuts out jagged chords. Vantsis left his mark on “Thistle Alley” but the piano and strings which bookend “The Leaving” signal the return of Paterson. Boult, however, owns the middle section here with layers of guitar reminding the listener that, while the war may have ended, the loss and pain had not.
After a half an hour of Fish investigating The Great War, “The Other Side of Me” sees him looking inwards and at his own life once again. But he seems to have come out of the darkness and found some solace. Aidan O’Rourke’s bittersweet violin is a highlight of this song as is Robin Boult’s rather Gilmour-like solo. The Floydian feel is bolstered by Antwi’s backing vocals here as well. The song feels like “Sugar Mice” with a happy ending. “The Great Unraveling” brings the album to a close. The positive vibe of “The Other Side of Me” is tempered here with a bit of pragmatism. The singer is no longer the lost soul of “Perfume River” seeking to just be someplace else; instead he has gone through it all and come out the other side able to move on and a bit wiser.
If, as my ears tell me, the strength of 13th Star lies with its consistency of mood and tone, then the great virtue of this album is its diversity. Instead of a single event providing the focus, here Fish is looking inside but also at the world around him. In addition to love lost, he has fun with celebrity & the Internet, mourns for our environment, and spends half the album looking back at one of his latest interests, World War I. The variety of lyrical subject matter is reflected in the music. While mainly a rock album, it speaks well of Fish that you can find flugelhorn on one track and a hip-hop drum box on another. The tonal palette brings together your typical rock instruments and pairs them with strings, brass, and drum loops to great effect.
Foss Paterson doubled his songwriting credits with Fish on this album with much of the High Woods Suite being co-written by him. Those songs are dynamic with slower passages that highlight his piano work giving way to louder sections where he harmonizes with Robin Boult’s guitar. Speaking of guitar, it was great to hear Boult alone on this album. Normally he’s to be found sharing the six string duties with Frank Usher or Steve Wilson but he’s basically on his own here which was really nice for me to get a sense of just what he brings to the table. He ably moves from acoustic to electric, gently picking one moment and slashing out distorted walls of sound the next. His parts always fit in with the greater whole whether that means providing a lead or adding to the overall picture.
Fish’s voice also merits mention here. It sounds clearer and he sustains more notes than on 13th Star. While he will never be able to sing the vocal gymnastics of something like “Grendel” again, his voice has regained much of its dramatic flair. 13th Star featured more bursts of raw emotion while this album is more about sustaining emotional arcs across songs. There’s less anger present here. And Liz Antwi’s return is most welcome. She provides nice counterpoint which helps make the songs about relationships less antagonistic and take on a more pensive feel, more about looking back at past troubles rather than being mired in them.
This is certainly one of Fish’s strongest efforts. Not only are the material and performances strong, there is a lot on A Feast of Consequences that sounds like nothing Fish has ever done before yet sounds quintessentially Fish.