It’s been a rough spring for the music biz with the coronavirus pandemic turning life on Earth into a strangely dystopian episode from The Twilight Zone. Many musicians are scrambling to adapt with streams from home or free webcasts of classic shows to provide fans with some entertainment. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio has been prolific here, writing a string of quarantine-inspired songs that he’s debuted on his Instagram account. Then during the set break of Phish’s “Dinner and a Movie” weekly webcast series on 31 March, the four band members announced they’d be dropping a new album the next day.
Some fans wondered if this was going to be an April Fool’s joke, though most felt such a prank would be inappropriate considering the brutish realities in this foul year of 2020. As the leading Gen-X torchbearers for the psychedelic rock counterculture, Phish have long been known for the special relationship they have with their devoted fans — many of whom consider rock ‘n’ roll as their religion. And so Sigma Oasis was indeed premiered on 1 April and widely hailed by the ever discerning fanbase as an instant classic.
The jam-rock quartet from Vermont have also been well-known for their uncanny knack for topping themselves, which they’ve done again here with what feels like their most zeitgeisty album ever. It presents a diverse array of well-crafted tunes that includes a handful of fan favorites as well as some more obscure numbers that may soon become fan faves. And while the album showcases a live vibe with the band recording in the same space together, it also features some dazzling post-production work with majestic backing vocals and some orchestral augmentation.
But what makes Sigma Oasis shine all the brighter is how many of the lyrics take on a mindblowing synchronistic resonance that seemingly foreshadows these challenging times, while simultaneously offering a spiritual lifeline. How does Phish do it? Does the band have access to secret esoteric intel about Earth’s future from sources such as “The Book of Information” (allegedly channeled from forces beyond), which late jazz great Sun Ra reportedly gifted part of to Phish drummer Jon Fishman in the early ’90s? Are Trey Anastasio and songwriting partner Tom Marshall genuine prophets of a new age? They often seem like it, though such is the mark of visionary artists.
Phish were already calling for something more than the modern age offers on 2016’s Big Boat album, where the anthemic “More” featured Trey singing, “In a world gone mad, a world gone mad, there must be something more than this…” And that was during the tail end of the Obama era. Sigma Oasis follows the standard Phish formula of presenting road-tested songs in a studio format, mostly debuted over the past three years. But the Vermont tone scientists took the album to the next level by recording it in a live quartet mode when they met up at Anastasio’s Vermont studio in November.
“Sigma Oasis came to be during the first week of November 2019, but it wasn’t planned that way at all. We were headed up to the Barn to rehearse for our fall tour and ended up discussing this batch of relatively recent songs that we were particularly proud of and always wished we had recorded but hadn’t had a chance to yet. So we set up the gear with no room dividers, no click tracks. Nothing. Just like a Phish show. Open space. We played for a couple of days. We just played a bunch of songs — very quickly, a few takes, very organic, natural, live, honest. We had the best time,” the band said in a statement.
The Vermont troubadours weren’t planning on releasing the album so soon, but current events altered the timeline. “When we recorded the album, we didn’t plan to release it this way. But today, because of the environment we’re all in, it just feels right. We don’t know the next time that we’re all going to be able to be together. This is an opportunity to have a moment where the Phish community can share something despite being physically separated,” the band added.
The vibrant title track is one of the newest songs and opens the album with an uplifting mid-tempo groove on a tune about using mind over matter to realize that “you’re already there…” Keyboardist Page McConnell layers in some cosmic synths for extra psychedelia that sets a heady tone, with the music matching the song’s theme about becoming weightless. The song seems to recycle the theme Anastasio utilized in a memorable story from his 36th birthday show in Las Vegas when Phish were set to take a planned hiatus following their fall 2000 tour and used one of the earliest webcasts in the music industry to get the message out to the entire Phish Nation.
“Gamehendge is a state of mind; you don’t have to be there physically,” Anastasio said of a revelation from a dream he had the previous night that felt aimed at comforting the fanbase through the band’s impending absence. The tale referenced the mythological land where a concept album’s worth of the band’s earliest material depicts a revolutionary movement by “The Lizards” against a tyrannical dictator named “Wilson”.
“Leaves” is a song Phish performed three times on their summer 2017 tour with little fanfare before it disappeared. The cinematic style ballad evolves to a higher level here as the band conjures some surreal Bowie-esque vocal melodies and harmonies that feel influenced from their performances of Bowie classics like “Life on Mars”, “Space Oddity”, and “Five Years”. With lyrics such as “the music stops and echoes linger on” as well as “we built a kingdom out of lies, and then we blindly fanned the fires”, the song feels like a prophetic track for social distancing playlists in 2020.
The album surges with the uplifting “Everything’s Right”, a song that’s quickly evolved into one of Phish’s most reliable jam vehicles over the past couple of years. Debuted in 2017 in what felt like a response to the Trump regime’s assault on America, the lyrics suggest taking a darkness before the dawn perspective on the chaos of the current era. When Anastasio sings, “This world, this world, this crazy world I know, It turns, it turns, and the long night’s over, and the sun’s coming up,” it feels like Phish are aiming to use the metaphysical power of music to help manifest a higher vibration and better world. When he sings, “I’m in prison without a crime, the sentence stretches on undefined,” it feels like a genuine prophecy of 2020’s quarantine shutdown.
The track is also a rare gem in the Phish studio catalog in how it features an extended jam to clock in at more than 12 minutes, with the band exploring a groovy sonic landscape. Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon lock in on one of their patented grooves that’s both tight and loose at the same time, with Anastasio and Page weaving dynamic melodies throughout.
The epic sonic journey of “Mercury” follows, much to the delight of the many fans who were disappointed when the song was left off of Big Boat in 2016. Debuted in 2015, “Mercury” saw the band delivering a compelling progressive rock number that struck many fans as the most adventurous new song of the band’s “3.0” era since reforming in 2009. When Anastasio sings, “Your day is longer than your year, The lies they feed to me are as edible as mercury”, the prophetic vibe flows yet again. “Mercury” is another tune that’s developed into one of the band’s best jam vehicles, though this version gets cut rather abruptly right before the outro section that would open up.
The romantically melodramatic ballad “Shade” takes things down, but Anastasio’s soulful vocals make the song work like few others in the jam-rock scene could. The foreshadowing continues on “Evening Song”, a mid-tempo melodic number where he sings lyrics like “Approach the night with caution, no longer shall you roam when darkness stains the eastern sky, be sure that you are home…” There’s something about the song that just feels like sonic comfort food.
“Steam” then rises to spin the album in a bluesy and mystical direction. The oldest song on the album (debuted in 2011) features compelling backing harmonies to help conjure that mystical vibe, recalling Buddy Miles’ haunting backing vocals on Jimi Hendrix’ “Machine Gun”. Fishman rocks a crisp snare sound on a tight beat, while Trey delivers some smoldering riffage.
The album takes a surprise turn with “A Life Beyond the Dream”, a power ballad debuted in Anastasio’s “Ghosts of the Forest” project in 2019. A song that dealt with the spiritual challenge of losing a close friend to cancer, Anastasio recently spoke of how it’s taken on a more universal quality that can be applied to deep connections in general or even just the transient nature of a Phish show with lyrics like, “We share these moments, Till they melt away, To foggy memories, Of a distant day.” The song builds in a climactic fashion with the backing vocalists harmonizing on the “Don’t give up hope, Keep dreaming, Keep on dreaming” lines to deliver a genuine catharsis that again fits the current zeitgeist in uncanny fashion.
Phish closes the album with “Thread”, one of the more obscure songs played just a handful of times. It took on a deeper theme when Anastasio recently revealed that it’s a continuation of the journey for the characters in “Shade”, lending more thematic heft to both songs. Clocking in at more than 11 minutes, the quartet show off their multi-dimensional prowess by taking the song for a wild ride on a dark minor key jam that recalls seminal psychedelic forays on classic tunes like “Split Open and Melt”. It’s one of those incendiary jams with moments where all four members seem to be soloing at once yet with a collective tone science alchemy that works like magic. Page stars again here with some heavy piano parts augmented by an array of cosmic synths and psychedelic tricks to enhance the vibe.
The band’s extensive summer tour is probably about to be canceled (along with all summer tours). Still, Phish keeps the torch burning on Sigma Oasis with a vibrant and uplifting album for the fanbase in their hour of collective spiritual need.