It’s New Year’s Eve 2018, and Phish are on stage at Madison Square Garden playing to a sold-out crowd of devoted fans, as they have done dozens times in their 35+ year career. As midnight nears, the band launches into “Mercury”, a multi-section prog-funk opus that has become one of their most popular live numbers since their 2009 reunion. As the band plays, they are joined by a troupe of acrobats who swing and dance above them as they play.
Despite being an elaborate set-piece for the band’s most important concert of 2018, “Mercury” had never appeared on a Phish studio album until this month. That’s hardly an uncommon occurrence for a band famous for their live shows: Phish classics like “Harry Hood” and “Runaway Jim” have never made an album either.
“Mercury” nearly made the cut for their previous album, the bloated 2016 disappointment Big Boat, but had been removed from the tracklist by famed super-producer Bob Ezrin. Four years later, the celebrated composition has found a home on Sigma Oasis, the polar opposite of their last studio set and their best album in over 20 years.
The oft-repeated claim about Phish’s studio albums is that those releases never quite capture the power or impromptu experimental brilliance of the Vermont jam band’s concerts. That’s not entirely wrong: Phish are one of the greatest live concert acts of the past 30 years, known for their exploratory jams, an almost telepathic connection with their fans and each other, and thrilling technical chops.
However, those comments has often led to some fans completely dismissing those albums, which is unfair to a perfectly solid discography that contains several excellent songs and performances. On albums like Junta, A Picture of Nectar and Rift, Phish did a great job at capturing the mix of jazz-fusion and 1970s prog rock that was prevalent in their sound in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and featured solid versions of live epics like “Maze” and “The Divided Sky” even if they didn’t always capture the power those songs had on stage. Shorter songs like “Guelah Papyrus” and “The Wedge” even shone in the studio as bright as they did in concert beneath Chris Kuroda’s light shows. Billy Breathes and The Story of the Ghost, the band’s two best studio albums, have a natural flow and grasp the folk rock and funk sounds that had taken prominence in their live shows in the months leading up to their respective releases.
Sigma Oasis, Phish’s fourteenth album (fifteenth if you count 1999’s all instrumental The Siket Disc), was recorded last fall at their Barn studio in Vermont with producer Vance Powell. Whereas Big Boat was let down by Ezrin’s production, Powell firmly understands the band’s dynamics and allows room for all four instrumentalists to breathe, and for samples and feedback to seep between the songs.
All of this adds to the band’s best producer pairing since Andy Wallace was behind the boards for 1998’s The Story of the Ghost. The band and Powell decided to record the album mostly live in the studio bar a few overdubs, and without physical dividers between the musicians. This adjustment has resulted in the Phish album that feels and sounds the most like their concerts, capturing the slight changes and longer instrumental improvisations that make them such a great live band.
Sigma Oasis acts as a whistle stop tour of everything the band has accomplished sonically since their 2009 reunion. All nine songs have been played by Phish before the album’s release, and many of these numbers should be familiar to the band’s die-hard fans.
Title track and album opener “Sigma Oasis” is a loping psychedelic pop-rock song built around a winning vocal melody and wonderful guitar work from Trey Anastasio and fascinatingly twinkling keyboards from Page McConnell. The song was only played twice by Phish before the release of the album, but Anastasio had performed it once in a solo acoustic format two years ago and then regularly with his solo band earlier this year. In both its live performances and in the excellent studio version of the album that bares its name, “Sigma Oasis” has successfully turned from an acoustic sketch into a perfectly solid radio-friendly track, all from a band who ordinarily isn’t known for that kind of thing (despite Billboard evidence to the contrary).
Another highlight is “Everything’s Right”, a song where the band combines the pop hooks of “Sigma Oasis” with an uplifting chorus and a tight funk-soul instrumental, has become a dependable jam vehicle since its unveiling in 2017. The song’s lyrics, penned by longtime collaborator Tom Marshall, have been one of the more optimistic pieces in Phish’s post-reunion oeuvre, and considering the times we now live in, serves a calming reminder of an eventual return to normalcy.
What really sells “Everything’s Right” is the exploratory studio jam that makes up the bulk of its runtime. For the first time since Round Room in 2002, Phish have perfectly captured the exciting essence of their live improvisations in a studio form. The band flows from one musical mode or idea to another with bounding energy before ending with an ambient outro that will remind some long-time fans of their amazing June 2000 concert in Fukuoka, Japan that was all about ambient experimentation. “Everything’s Right” is the longest song on the album, and its stunning jam more than warrants the 12 minutes you will spend with it.
“Mercury” fits better on Sigma Oasis than it ever would have on Big Boat, with Powell’s production zeroing in all the time changes and Anastasio’s calm vocals while highlighting excellent synthesizer work from McConnell. The song’s lyrics are about Mercury in all forms – The Roman god, the planet, the element, the color – and does so in a way that the lyrical conceit never becomes corny.
“Steam”, a fantasy tale about dragons and captured maidens, has been in the band’s repertoire since 2011 and is the oldest number on the record. The studio version captures the slow-funk feel that has made it a concert perennial, and it’s always a hoot to hear the band return to the Dungeons & Dragons-esque lyrical well that served them well on classics like “Cavern” and “The Lizards”.
In addition to psychedelic jam favorites, Sigma Oasis contains several lovely, shorter ballads, from the contemplative “Leaves” and “Evening Song” to the string-heavy “Shade”. Some of Phish’s best loved studio cuts are ballads, and all of those featured on Sigma Oasis are done justice in a studio setting, perfectly conveying the emotions behind them.
Especially poignant is “A Life Beyond the Dream”, a song Anastasio has performed but did not record with his new solo project Ghosts of the Forest, whose debut album from last year was a collection of guitar-heavy psychedelic songs dedicated to a close friend he lost to cancer. All of the Ghosts songs, even the rockers, are filled with intense emotion, and “Dream” brings that heart-on-his-sleeve feel to Sigma Oasis, with Phish perfectly
The album ends with the prog rocker “Thread”, another song that ends with a remarkable studio jam and clocks in at over 11 minutes. The jam on “Thread” is harsh and rocking, the musical equivalent of being on a ship in stormy seas. After settling on a thumping King Crimson-esque time signature, it abruptly finishes, bringing Sigma Oasis to a climactic and cinematic end.
Sigma Oasis is Phish’s best studio effort in at least 20 years, and their best collection of songs presented as an album since Story of the Ghost in 1998. The album is a worthy addition to their discography, and one that can be recommended to Phish neophytes who are interested in what they sound like in the studio, and to long-time fans who have heard all of these songs multiple times and ordinarily eschew their studio output.
Sigma Oasis is a good album, and not just a “Good for a Phish studio effort” way. It is full of surprises over the course of its 66-minute runtime, and is endlessly re-listenable.