When the four members of Phish got on a video call during their Dinner and a Movie webcast this past Tuesday night to announce the impending release of their latest studio album, Sigma Oasis, via a worldwide listening party on Wednesday (4/1), fans were overcome with a wave of emotions. As we continue to self-isolate, these moments of virtual togetherness have been points of much-needed relief. The webcast replays of old shows have been comforting to fans, giving them a chance to connect for a few hours, share an experience, and bring everyone along in real-time—even if we’ve shared the same experience in the past. Hearing a new studio album together in that same, inter-connected setting was an exciting prospect.
Of course, given the date of the surprise listening party debut (April 1st), Phish fans were immediately skeptical. These four guys have made a career out of “zigging” when we all think they’re ready to “zag,” and an inevitable first thought was, “Okay, what’s the gag?” Drummer Jon Fishman, however, put those inklings to bed when responding to one fan’s thoughts on what might actually happen in the “Phish Tour 2014” Facebook fan group:
[Screengrab via Phish Tour 2014 on Facebook]
With that assurance in mind, fans around the world tuned in from their respective quarantines to hear some new Phish studio tracks. As the album played, a stylized montage of photos from the recording process by band photographer Rene Huemer filled fans’ screens. As each song started, its name appeared at the bottom of the screen, and as each title appeared, fans reacted with familiar excitement: Each of these nine songs had already made their way into Phish’s live repertoire, some for half a decade or more.
These were songs we know and love, songs we’ve learned to sing, songs that connect us to the feeling of live shows that seems so distant and elusive in these uncertain times. This was the album where all those “new” songs that never made it onto a record got their time to shine. It was new but familiar, fresh but nostalgic. It didn’t tell us that Phish is resting on their laurels on the songwriting front (see: Trey Anastasio‘s prodigious quarantine songwriting output), but it did tell us how proud the band is of where they are in their lives and careers. It wasn’t a trick, it wasn’t a gag. It was just what we needed right now.
Sigma Oasis track listing:
1 Sigma Oasis (debuted 12/8/19)
2 Leaves (7/14/17)
3 Everything’s Right (7/14/17)
4 Mercury (7/22/15)
5 Shade (7/21/15)
6 Evening Song (12/28/19)
7 Steam (6/4/11)
8 A Life Beyond The Dream (6/19/19)
9 Thread (7/16/17)#sigmaoasis #phish
— Scott Marks (@bizarchive) April 2, 2020
In a note distributed on Thursday morning, the band offered an explanation of the new LP and the confluence of conditions that moved them to present it to us at this time, in this fashion. Read the full note from Phish about Sigma Oasis below:
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. Trey suggested calling up Vance Powell as he mixed and engineered Ghosts Of The Forest. Vance was very familiar with the space and the console 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 days. We just played a bunch of songs — very quickly, a few takes, very organic, natural, live, honest. We had the best time.
When we were done, our photographer Rene came up and asked us to come out on the porch and snap a photo. It took about two minutes. And that’s the album cover — a snapshot of our band at that point in time.
Vance had some stuff on his schedule so he asked as a favor if we would mind if he didn’t mix until early March. Now four months might sound like a long time, but it gave all of us time to work on the tracks — Page overdubbed a lot of keyboards at home. Trey went to a studio in New York and did vocals and percussion. We had time to pick which songs we wanted to work on. We let a few of them go, which was difficult, but that’s ok.
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 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.
Now, on to the music: The album begins unsurprisingly with its title track, “Sigma Oasis”. The track was first played live in December of 2018 during a Trey Anastasio solo show and was debuted live by Phish in Charleston in December of 2018. Its catchy guitar riff, upbeat energy, and message of self-actualization set the stage and give the listener their first taste of the attention to sonic detail apparent throughout the record.
“Leaves”, which made three live appearances during the summer of 2017 before vanishing without a trace, takes the number two slot on Sigma Oasis. The tune is highlighted by lead vocals from Trey and Page McConnell and beautifully arranged three-part harmonies by Trey, Page and Fish which slide into late-Beatles/early-David Bowie-like thematics by way of close vocal harmonies and an accompanying string section.
Next up is “Everything’s Right”, which has become a staple in Phish’s live arsenal since its debut in the summer of 2017, at the same show (7/14/17) that featured the debut of “Leaves”. It’s during “Everything’s Right” when the unique upsides of an album comprised of familiar material begin to come into focus. On various occasions throughout the song, Trey opts for an alternate melody from the usual live takes, and by taking this approach, Trey ensures that anyone singing along will actually be “harmonizing” with him. The band has spent the past several years teaching fans how to sing this song, so the usual melody is already implanted in all of our heads. Now, fans sing the “melody” while he provides the “counterpoint” on the record. It takes a minute to get used to, but the effect is undeniable. It’s just one of the many ways Sigma Oasis helps connect Phish and their fans in the era of social distancing…
…and we haven’t even talked about the jam yet. The studio version of “Everything’s Right” goes just as far “out there” as any live rendition to date. This cut cements the song’s ever-growing resume as a go-to jam vehicle for Phish. Clocking in at more than 12 minutes in length, “Everything’s Right” provides the improvisational aspect that often goes missing on the band’s studio albums. It’s yet another reason why the new LP has already been so well-received by fans, and it’s arguably not even the best “jam” on the album. More on that later.
As “Everything’s Right” fades out, Trey hits the arpeggiated chord that opens his Ghosts of the Forest record. While that’s not the direction it winds up going, your premonition that some “Ghosts of the Forest” influence is coming isn’t too far off. More on that later, too.
Out of the ashes of “Everything’s Right” rises “Mercury”, another staple 3.0 jam that’s been thrilling Phish audiences since 2015. In a conversation with our friend and Live For Live Music contributor Alan Paul published in the Wall Street Journal in 2016, Trey revealed that “Mercury” was actually slated to appear on Big Boat but was cut after ample discussion by producer Bob Ezrin. “Mercury” gets its studio redemption on Sigma Oasis, and while it doesn’t feature much of the improvisation with which it’s become associated via live performances, it ably fills the “complex composition” slot on the album with a fresh take on the song.
One of the album’s biggest highlights is “Shade”, another favorite of Trey’s that’s popped in and out of Phish setlists since 2015. This heartfelt ballad once again gets ample assistance from a string section and features a characteristically emotive and delicate Trey guitar solo. This is one of the most beautiful songs that Phish has debuted in the last decade, and it feels simply perfect on Sigma Oasis.
“Evening Song” is the “newest” song on the album, having only been played twice (at last year’s MSG New Years run and this year’s Mexico event). This particularly apt warning to “approach the night with caution” is perhaps the closest thing to a “low point” that this album has—its a pretty, “slow song,” but it comes after another “slow song” that winds up overshadowing it. It would not be surprising, however, to see “Evening Song” come into its own as it continues to work its way into the live rotation. After all, the band has less experience with this track than any other song on the album, and if the rest of the record is any indication, these tunes all seem to get better over time.
Moving from something new to something old, the album flows from “Evening Song” into “Steam”, which no doubt elicited a chorus of cheers from housebound streamers everywhere. “Steam” has been a live go-to since 2011, and fans have clamored for a studio rendition for just as long. The album’s incredible sonics are on full display here, as the track evokes the feel of a ’70s soul record. Much like its live versions, the studio “Steam” pushes into dark and sinister territory for some focused improv before dissipating and giving way to “A Life Beyond The Dream”.
If you’re like me, you had a moment of “Mandela effect” when you saw “A Life Beyond The Dream” pop up on your listening party screen. Wasn’t this already on the Ghosts of the Forest album? A quick search proved that memory false, though it was prominently featured in the project’s live shows and appeared on its official live record. The backing vocals featured on the track’s chorus and, of course, Vance Powell‘s involvement in both projects, seem to suggest that this may have been left on the cutting room floor during the GotF sessions—is that you, Jen and Celisse?. Whatever the situation, this polished version comes off powerfully and easily makes an argument for “best rendition ever.” All apologies to Susan Tedeschi.
The album finally comes to a close with “Thread”—and what a “Thread” it is. The ominous song has only been played live four times since its debut in 2017, and has made a lasting impression with each outing, but never quite like this. An undeniable highlight of the album, this 11-minute “Thread” hears the band delve deep into the darkness. From analog synth scratches to Mike Gordon-propelled percolation, the studio “Thread” embodies the continuously pined-for “evil Phish” that’s become less prevalent through the years. It’s a Phish studio track that spins you around, one that will take many, many listens to fully appreciate. Let that sink in for a second.
There are plenty of thoughts on Sigma Oasis running through my head right now, even after writing all of this. For now, though, only one feels important: “Thank you, Phish. We all needed this.”
Listen to the new Phish album, Sigma Oasis, below:
Phish – Sigma Oasis – Full Album