For musicians, the live concert experience is the make it or break it factoid that can shift the popular opinion of many fans, with the likes of Motley Crue and Bob Dylan on the negative end of the spectrum while Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen lie on the opposite side. Phish is one band that was never lauded for their studio efforts while simultaneously being praised for their tenuous live performances that span all the way back to 1983.
“Big Boat,” the 13th studio album released on Oct. 7 from the Vermont quartet, serves as a satisfactory template for the group to fiddle with during their live performances — with each song already having made their live debut sans “Running Out of Time.” However, the group succeeds in reaching back to the core of their roots, pushing the limits of sonic resonance while having boundless fun behind their respective instruments.
As much credit as I can pin on this record, the first track, “Friends,” comes off as clunky and has no distinctive rhythmic components that justify the track to open such a fresh and inviting album. Drummer Jon Fishman’s almost childish lyrics, though self-admired, sound more apt for a television show intro rather than a Phish song, which sadly starts the album off on the wrong foot.
Taking this into consideration, Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon and Fishman allow the loose cannon of composition to flutter about, especially on “Blaze On,” which stresses the message of enjoying the time we are given while boasting a comprehensive funk-induced tracking. This may be the most fun any “Phan” has heard from a studio effort since the 2000’s “Farmhouse.”
Another commendable track is “No Man in No Man’s Land,” which was featured extensively during 2015’s Summer Tour and bursts with a healthy dose of frenetic, chromatic scales courtesy of Anastasio and a grooving bassline from Gordon, the “cactus.” Equally as eclectic is “Breath and Burning,” which boasts a well-suited horn section that adds a fourth dimension to the already immense composition.
Where Phish thrives is when the group slows the tempo down and places heavier emphasis on McConnell and Anastasio. “More,” which arguably may be one of the better compositions on the record, explores the lapse of time and realization of the now. Anastasio even beckons to his audience, “My history, I tend to revise/With chapters upon the floor/I tell myself I’m part of a tribe/And that I’ve been here before.” The formula is further christened as the group tackles “Tide Turns,” which brings back the horns and slows the tempo, creating another emotional analysis of time.
Although Phish has never succeeded in the studio markedly, “Big Boat” offers a refreshing take for the weathered tribe of hippies and their brand of comically complex jam rock.