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16 September, 2007

Review: '13th Star' (Fish, 2007)

This is a 'grower'.

My first (mistaken!) impression was... succinct: "That was dire." However, repeated listening and a little insight from the 'Making Of...' DVD which accompanies the special edition CD¹ have boosted my appreciation. I think the main problem was my own expectation of high-energy, accessible rock music (with more substance emerging with familiarity) comparable to 2003's excellent 'Field Of Crows' album. Though it's not the one I'd anticipated, I now think 'Thirteenth Star' is a reasonably strong album (though not one I necessarily like...). Perhaps I'm overstating, but its unexpected depth makes 'Field Of Crows' even seem a little superficial.

To expand that initial impression, at first I thought the music and lyrics were boring; 'been there, done that', and if you've heard one downbeat Fish song, this album would be all too familiar. From an artist who claims to be progressive, it seemed dreadfully stale. However, that was only the result of a single play-through and based on mistaken (inflated?) expectations. Hearing it again a few more times, and considering it on its own terms, I'm more impressed.
Uncharacteristically, I've taken a while to compose this review, returning to it several times over the weekend, between playing the album again several times. In that time, I've gone from "this is appalling" to "It's not his best" to "er... actually, it might be" and back to "don't be so wishful: it's not his best".
If this review has any purpose beyond spreading the word that Fish has a new album out², I hope it's a warning against preconceptions and an appeal to give the music, and especially the lyrics, more than one chance to penetrate.

It'd be naïve to ignore the context in which Fish wrote these lyrics, namely the departure of his fiance, Heather Findlay of 'prog' band 'Mostly Autumn', in late May 2007. This was another reason for my initial dislike. The material seemed too personal, and I have a strong aversion to people criticising ex-partners in public; I'd thought better of Fish. Yet that too was a flawed preconception, and it seems the album's concept was determined well before it was mirrored by real life.

There's a fine balance. I don't listen to music for mere transitory entertainment, 'just a bit of fun': I demand more substance. Yet nor do I seek discomfort, or to be unproductively reminded of unhappy times in my own life. If '13th Star' had been no more than an bitter declaration of Fish's grievances, I wouldn't have wanted to hear it. Though there are clearly raw emotions in the lyrics, framing them in a slightly abstract narrative somehow adds sufficient distance, and it feels like a fictional protagonist singing about a fictional lost love, not Derek singing about Heather. Whether that's strictly accurate is a different matter....

That pre-existing concept (yes, it's a concept album, but don't worry about it) still defines the basic structure, being the story of someone seeking love/fulfilment within the mundane cycle of everyday life, and failing; the protagonist is left looking for his 'thirteenth star' alone ('Misplaced Adulthood', anyone?). According to the 'Making Of...' DVD, ~80% of the lyrics were already completed by the time of the break-up, so the subject matter and direction apparently predate events and emotional responses they seem to document. An interview segment from April 2007 casually mentions an intended happy ending, so clearly the narrative arc was amended to incorporate Fish's strong feelings, but it's not the overt attack on Findlay that I'd thought (though read whatever you wish into the first line of '13th Star': "With a heart full of sky,..."). Apologies for doubting his integrity.
The only remaining uncomfortable moment is in the 'Fish TV' promo at the end of the 'Making Of...' DVD rather than on the album itself. A video clip of questionable relevance shows Fish singing 'Just Good Friends' to Findlay³: "what would you do if I went down on my knees to you...?" (which he did (twice), under Micklegate in York). I really wonder why he included that.

The music itself is a minor problem. As a non-instrumentalist, Fish is slightly dependent on his collaborators. When that was Mickey Simmonds on the early solo albums or Steven Wilson on 'Sunsets On Empire', it was fine, but this time his primary partner was bassist Steve Vantsis on his first ever writing project. Unfortunately, it shows: the music is competently workmanlike and enjoyable, but in places it's a little predictable, particularly in terms of song structure. I'm not really complaining, and '13th Star' is consistently preferable to, say, 'Fellini Days', but it doesn't particularly challenge the listener; it doesn't sparkle.

Naturally, the immediate highlights are the full-on 'rock' tracks, 'Openwater' (especially the verse keyboards), and 'Dark Star' played at a neighbour-rattling volume. In an earlier draft, I was going to name 'Where In The World' as the album's low point, the obligatory maudlin ballad to skip (there's one on every Fish album). Yet in context, it works, just not necessarily in isolation, which illustrates that '13th Star' is indeed an 'album' album: a coherent composition with an emotional curve rather than a bunch of unrelated individual songs.

In terms of technique, Mark Wilkinson's cover art may his best ever (though the booklet layout work still looks cursory, even amateurish), but the subject matter is disturbingly 'proggy' – angels sailing into a stormy sea, exaggerated starscapes, even a ****ing sea serpent. Dangerously Roger Dean-ish. I'm glad the special edition digipack comes in a plainer slipcase, but presumably the Wilkinson artwork will appear on the retail edition, and deter potential buyers who'll naturally question the album's apparent mainstream credibility.
Yes, I know genre pigeonholing is annoying and it shouldn't matter if journalists and mainstream rock fans falsely associate Fish with crappy retro 'prog' or 'neo-prog' acts, but this is marketing, and first impressions do matter. I loathe 'prog'. If my first exposure to Fish's career was seeing this artwork in a jewel case in HMV, I would not buy it. Simple as that.
Heh. I've just realised that I primarily associate the pictorial content with albums by second-rate 'neo-prog' bands, the artwork of which was very probably influenced by Mark Wilkinson's early work for Marillion and Fish! The original remains the best, but still, the association is unfortunate.

Two final, isolated thoughts:

  • I don't have anything specific to say about it, but the beautiful production work by Calum Malcolm deserves especial mention.
  • Why does '13th Star' (the song) begin with the intro to 'Sugar Mice'?

1: Should an album need to be justified by the artist, or should it stand alone? I genuinely don't know; I'm inclined towards the latter, but that sounds like a pointless test, and music isn't a competition.

2: The special edition of '13th Star', featuring the CD in a three-panel digipack with a full-colour booklet and 'Making Of...' DVD, all within a decorative slipcase, is available now, solely from Fish's webstore and concerts. The standard retail edition is expected at the start of 2008.

3: It may be from the Berlin concert in October 2006, the last time they appeared together on stage.

Comments

This one hit me after two or three listens, and it's a very strong candidate for best album of the year. There is absolutely no filler on this album; the only other releases in the same league are Porcupine Tree's "Fear of a Blank Planet" and (ironically), Odin Dragonfly's "Offerings".

Totally disagree with you on the artwork. My opinions on 'were not prog' snobbery, battered wife syndrome and pandering to brain-dead NME-school critics are well-documented and I won't repeat them again. Fish has taken a (probably correct) decision that people that remember him from his heyday are a bigger potential market that the brainwashed zombies that take still cretins like Tony Parsons seriously.

Were you at the Manchester gig that wasn't on Saturday, cancelled 15 minutes before he was due to go on stage because he lost his voice again.

Posted by Tim Hall at September 16, 2007 10:12 PM

Album of the year: no, this is good, but 'Fear of a Blank Planet' is in a different class. '13th Star' certainly 'beats' Marillion's 'Somewhere Else', though.

I knew you'd disagree about the 'prog' image issue (which is fine), but this goes beyond my personal aversion to that stuff.
A decision needs to be made: is Fish still chasing mass-market sales and fresh popularity with a new generation of fans, or is he happy to just feed the existing, aging loyalists? If the former, then yes, he does need to consider the NME mayflies, like it or not. Either the 'prog' association goes, or any chance of success within the contemporary rock market.
Evidently, I do think he can compete with teen pop-rock bands; this new material is stronger than ever. Yet that artwork is just a millstone. A very attractive millstone, but it's commercial suicide.

Manchester: no, I decided to skip this tour when I heard that the set would be based on 'Clutching At Straws' (last Wednesday's concert featured eight songs from that album, and four from '13th Star'). Much as I like 'CAS', it's twenty years old, and I have no interest in Fish revisiting Marillion's past glories. Primarily new, solo material, please!

Posted by NRT at September 16, 2007 11:54 PM

I'm told Friday's gig at Newcastle featured the whole of the new album as well as Clutching at Straws (and virtually nothing else)

Like it or not, revisiting past glories does pull in the punters better than trying to compete with the Arctic Monkeys.

Posted by Tim Hall at September 17, 2007 12:56 PM

Aye, but the wrong punters!
Maybe surrender to niche obscurity is acceptable; I just think the contemporary mass-market appeal is still there, if only it's marketed properly. And yes, that means to the Arctic Monkeys crowd.

Posted by NRT at September 17, 2007 01:03 PM

I didn't realize this was available yet. I was going to wait on it, but it sounds like a pretty cool package. Thanks for the review and the information.

Posted by Greg Burgas at September 19, 2007 05:57 AM

As an art director I find your ideas of what constitutes a 'prog' cover interesting. The prog by numbers Hipgnosis-lite affairs that grace albums by Porcupine Tree, Marillion et al are considered far more risky in the industry than the illustration style favoured by Fish.
As for the music it is certainly a contender for the top spot here at Noj towers FoaBP edges into the top 10 and poor old Somewhere Else is, well, somewhere else not even reaching the top 20.
I'm surprised by your comments on the actual song writing as I'm also struggling with you interpretations which sound pompous among other things, I'm sure you've written better songs your self and can point them out to you.
This may not have the odd time signatures and overblown instrumental sections as some prog but this is prog with it's feet on the ground and is what Fear of a Blank Planet could have sounded like with a little more maturity.

Posted by Noj at September 29, 2007 09:34 AM

I think you need to follow the 'prog' link in the text. As used in this context, 'prog' is the name of a specific genre, as opposed to progressive music, which can be of any genre (or none). By definition, 'prog' is firmly stuck in the 1970s. Fish is sometimes progressive, but not 'prog', and there's nothing 'dragons-and-pixies prog' about the Hipgnosis style.
You may disagree with the definition, but that's the context in which the review was written.

One doesn't need to be a musician to comment on music; one doesn't need to be able to do better oneself sorry, but that's an utterly fatuous argument, easily dismissed.

Whatever; I like the artwork – I just question whether it sells the album optimally – and I like the music –as a listener I don't find it especially challenging, but it doesn't have to be; I'm commenting, not especially criticising.
Let's not get bogged-down in details. ;)

Posted by NRT at September 29, 2007 03:13 PM

I understand all your comments on 13th star, but I really think that in its total it might be his best album ever! Fish's suberb quality is not his music or his lyrics in isolation, it's his ability to transfer any emotion. He has the gift of composing and singing songs that hit you in the emotion he intends to. He gets right to you, more with this album than with all his other albums. I have been a Fish fan from thh beginning, and with Fellini Days and Field of Crows I started to have my doubts, as he likes to dwell endlessly on his theme which in the end seems more like a parody in itself. But with his new album he has hit the top. The lyrics are comprehendable, the songs are catchy, the music is refreshing. Steve Vantsis deserves a lot of the credits for this. It is a party to listen to it, over and over again. Fish is back as he never was!

Posted by Yvette at October 9, 2007 11:12 AM

Hi,

Nice album review. First exposure to the material was at the Manchester gig. (I was there both times!) the second time was well worth the wait, and has managed to convert my 16 year old son and also my wife who both came with me. Bought the Album (The second time) and listened to it the following day.

I was blown away by his best album, and my favourite of the year. Certainly it's way better than Somewhere Else, and that is from somone who went more with Marillion than Fish (I didn't even buy Field and Fellini) and on the back of that have gone and bought the two missing albums. Have to admit I like Filed better than Fellini, but stil 13th Star is way above them both.

Anyhow, thanks for the review, and keep spreading the word.

Nathan (A Sugar Mouse)

Posted by Nathan at October 17, 2007 09:20 PM
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