One of the more inspiring and heart-warming trends that have developed as we attempt to navigate through these remarkably uncertain times is that of artists taking to social media and other online avenues to share their music with fans. From grainy footage of live solo performances filmed on a smartphone to full band concerts hosted on Zoom, musicians across the globe have joined together to provide a much-needed distraction in what has otherwise rapidly become a genuine shit-show of a reality.
Among the more recent additions to this growing phenomenon is Phish who surprisingly announced, previewed, and then released a brand-new full-length LP – Sigma Oasis – all within a 72-hour span from March 31st to April 2nd. This was preceded by a handful of releases from guitarist Trey Anastasio, who had taken to social media hubs like Instagram over the past few weeks to share some intimately recorded video footage of other new material ranging from tender solo acoustic ballads to full-blown rockers with pre-recorded backing drum & vocal tracks.
While recording Sigma Oasis last November in Trey’s Vermont-based studio The Barn, the band adopted a more intimate approach to the process by eschewing room dividers and the other usual studio accouterment in favor of a setup that closely resembled their live performances. The group kept with the familiar vibe by tapping Ghosts Of The Forest collaborator Vance Powell to help produce their latest studio venture. In addition to Mr. Powell’s predisposed comfortability with Trey and The Barn’s equipment & acoustics after taking part in mixing & engineering the guitarist’s most recent solo project, the Grammy Award-winning producer has also worked with countless notable artists – including Chris Stapleton, The White Stripes, and The Revivalists – making him an ideal choice for Sigma Oasis.
Musically, this album provides a strikingly accurate portrayal of what Phish still does best in 2020. The nearly seventy-minute nine-song track-list contains a healthy mix of ballads (“Leaves”, “Shade”, “A Life Beyond The Dream”) as well as funky rockers (“Steam”) and a pair of 10-plus minute epics (“Everything’s Right” and “Thread”) with extended jams that represents some of Phish’s most adventurous studio material to date.
In addition to the relatively polished vocals – usually not one of the band’s strong suits – the album also features robust production values, with pristinely mixed recordings as well as the subtle, yet effective, use of string and choral arrangements throughout, adding to the depth & “fullness” of the LP’s overall sound.
While every song selected for Sigma Oasis has previously been performed live by Phish, the track-list still has a varied concert history, ranging from “Steam” – a (mostly) second-set regular with dozens of appearances since its 2011 debut – to brand new material such as “Evening Song”, which first appeared in concert in December of 2019. This is also the first Phish studio album since Farmhouse in 2000 to be comprised entirely of material in which Trey was the primary composer.
Join us as Glide takes a closer look at each track of what is arguably Phish’s most complete studio effort of the post-breakup – or “3.0” – era.
1) “Sigma Oasis”: Breezy and upbeat, the album’s opening track features a catchy melody along with a swampy guitar-riff from Anastasio that is somewhat reminiscent of another Phish original, “Blaze On.” After making its live debut as a solo-acoustic offering by Trey in 2018, the song made its first Phish appearance nearly a year later at the 12/8/19 show in North Charleston, SC. Another in a long line of collaborations between the guitarist and his partners-in-crime Tom Marshall & Scott Herman, “Sigma Oasis” features some particularly poignant lyrics, especially given our current state of affairs. As Phish describes in a press release that accompanied the latest album: “The last line of the chorus of “Sigma Oasis” sums up this point — There’s no place to get. There’s nothing to achieve. There’s no place to be. We’re here. Right here, right now is as good as it gets. “You’re already there.” It’s a content state of mind. You’re just completely in the moment. “You’re already there.” You already have everything you need. Sigma Oasis. It aligns with where we are in our career and as friends and musicians. There’s a joy to the playing. We’re not clamoring to make it. Make what? We’re already there! Sigma Oasis.”
2) “Leaves”: This tender ballad made its concert debut in 2017 and was performed twice more that summer before disappearing from the repertoire. This version finds Anastasio and Page McConnell engaged in a gorgeous vocal duet – one of the only times throughout the album that someone other than Trey is on lead vocals – before Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman join in on the chorus and subsequent verses to form some beautiful harmonies. The song eventually builds to a gratifying outro jam that contains hints of “Bug” and “Free” before closing with a vocal refrain in which the band gently instructs the listener to just “breathe.”
3) “Everything’s Right”: Debuted in 2017, this optimistic affirmation of hope has appeared 25 times so far, and is equally likely to show up in either set on any given night. In addition to the inspirational Tom Marshall-penned lyrics, this song typically features an extended outro jam, with several standout versions that have stretched past the fifteen-minute mark. This studio cut is among the album’s highlights, with emotional – if ever so slightly strained – vocals from Trey before the band launches into an elongated atmospheric jam akin to the live versions that ultimately dissolves into a puddle of Brian Eno-flavored synth-laden goo.
4) “Mercury”: Another 3.0 regular since 2015, this Anastasio/Marshall composition has appeared 26 times, most often as a second-set jam vehicle with several performances that have exceeded the 20-minute mark and contain some of this era’s finest improv. This version – clocking in at a relatively modest 7:31 – still showcases why “Mercury” is such a well-composed song. Featuring a sublime Zappa-esque instrumental breakdown halfway through, the track eventually fades into a delicate Marimba Lumina solo from Fishman before launching back into the final verse.
5) “Shade”: This Anastasio/Marshall love song, among the songwriting duo’s most affectionate, remained somewhat rare after its 2015 debut, though its visibility has steadily increased as of late, with nearly half of its fourteen performances occurring in the past year alone. Starting off with a piano intro that rubs elbows equally with the Grateful Dead’s “Standing on the Moon” as well as Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There”, this version features an especially emotional vocal delivery from Anastasio, as well as some delicate augmentation from a six-piece string ensemble during the track’s latter half.
6) “Evening Song”: The “newest” track on the album also happens to be the shortest with a relatively compact 3:21 runtime. Comprised of a typically catchy Anastasio-composed melody and a blithe – albeit brief – guitar solo, this gentle rocker has already begun to cement its role as a pleasant first-set breather.
7) “Steam”: This swampy groove has been played over 40 times since its inaugural 2011 appearance, giving it the honor of having the longest gap of any song between its live debut and eventual studio offering at just under nine years. (The previous champion “Grind” had a nearly six-year gap between its 1998 debut and the 2004 Undermind release, for those keeping score at home.) This song is also notable for presumably being one of the only in recorded history to contain the lyrics “horse’s nostrils.” This track is another among the album’s standouts, with gospel-infused background vocals and some robust Hammond B-3 work from McConnell bubbling underneath. The climactic ending jam features some fireworks-inducing lines from Anastasio before slamming head-first into the final verse.
8) “A Life Beyond The Dream”: The only track on the album to be culled from Trey’s Ghosts of the Forest solo project, this version is simply gorgeous. Containing a heartening directive to “don’t give up hope” and “keep on dreaming”, this emotional ballad features some rare falsetto vocals from Anastasio en route to a soaring and cathartic outro jam.
9) “Thread”: Arguably saving the best for last, this version of “Thread” is a multi-layered powerhouse with a ferocious closing instrumental passage that repeatedly visits the same dark musical corners that so many “Carini” & “Split Open and Melt” jams have traversed before its time. The song starts off with some impressive Mike Gordon basslines under Trey’s vocals before another Zappa-esque breakdown in which the listener is ominously reminded “you’re alone”, a lyric which takes on an entirely different meaning in today’s quarantined reality.
My critique, a (formerly) casual Phish fan who had never heard these songs before today:
My favorite song on the new album is “A Life Beyond The Dream.”
Given the circumstances of its release, to me, this is THE Ballad of these dark times.
It is almost prophetic and haunting in that it could have been written just yesterday specifically to us about our current situation.
Catchy, soothing and uplifting, this is music at its absolute finest and literally has something for everyone.
When the band hits full-cylinder towards the 5-minute mark, they confirm to me why anyone who takes music seriously should take note.
This is a serious album for the adults in the room by professional, big-boy musicians (and possibly even true geniuses) hitting their stride at the perfect time in their storied career.
The “mainstream” should even take note of this one.
Phish confirms with “Sigma Oasis” why they have earned the right to be mentioned with the Greatest Rock and Roll Bands of all time and deserve not only the attention of Phish Heads and serious music enthusiasts, but by everyone else in between.
“Sigma Oasis” and everything leading up to it’s release, including the “Dinner and a Movie” is truly historic for not only the band and music history, but history itself.
As a casual Phish fan before that fateful and electric Wednesday night, I was pleased to hear that the music was as epic and meaningful as their efforts.
Not since the Beatles have we seen such a level of groundbreaking “outside the box” level of genius, seemingly sent by the Heavens above at just the right time.
The Other 8 songs in order of my personal ranking, which is subject to change.
6) “Evening Song
1) “Sigma Oasis”
3) “Everything’s Right”
Dave, Thanks so much for the review of Sigma Oasis. This is a great review. Music is really helping me get by in these strange times and it is so sweet to hear something new that soothes the soul.
Stay safe…It’s gonna be alright.
Mike Gordon really drives Steam for me. I can’t get over how deep and groovy his bass is on that track.
Thread sounds like they wrote that darker section before the jam riff at the end after listening to King Crimson. Some of Pages effects around the 7:00 mark remind me of Rage Against The Machine.
Great stuff. I knew they had it in them.