An Appreciation of Fish
Cards on the table right from the start – if you are looking for an objective, analytical review of Weltschmerz, apparently the last album to be released by Fish, then look elsewhere. This album has been out since September 2020, so there are plenty of those reviews out there already. This is more of an appreciation of an artist I have followed from the start of his career. I turned 18 in October 1982 and in that same month, as I started Uni, Marillion released their debut single Market Square Heroes, and in its 12” format it had the much vaunted ‘epic’, Grendel. The classic ‘Prog’ bands were for the older generation, but here was a new, edgier ‘Prog’ band just for MY Generation – at least that’s what it felt like. It was love at first listen and thus began my following of this artist for literally my whole adult life. Over 38 years later the ‘Big Man’ has called it a day with his final album and therefore it felt like a good time to pay tribute and bid farewell to the musical endeavours of Mr. Derek Dick.
I will not pretend to be dispassionate or non-biased about this album, or Fish himself, however, it has not always been a smooth relationship with Fish. There have been some lows, some VERY low… the less said about the mid-’90s nadir of obvious ‘contract-filler’ covers album Songs from the Mirror the better, in my view. I have also seen some pretty low points on the stage, including a clearly rather disillusioned and exhausted Fish bizarrely playing in a sparsely populated remote Devon pub right at the end of his Sunsets on Empire tour in 1997… but for every below par album or rare off-key show I can point to many more great albums and numerous fantastic live gigs across his long career, such as a wonderfully rowdy and raucous night in which the crowd went bonkers in the appropriately named Phoenix Centre, Exeter in 2008. You see that’s what long term relationships are like sometimes – we can forgive the odd off moment and less that perfect output because overall the quality and commitment across the years has been worth the journey. I can look back and recall special moments of musical excitement, lyrical beauty or caustic insights that bring a smile to the face or a tear to the eye, or just simply makes you think.
So after over 38 years, what does Welstchmerz feel like as a last calling card to me?
Well, despite my self-confessed ‘fanboy’ status, I would like to think I can retain enough critical faculties to be able to spot whether this was a festering pile of whatever or a decent rock album… after all, I was able to recognise that Suits (1994) was really not a great album at all, but I got over it! Therefore, I am relieved to share that Weltschmerz feels like an excellent way to bow out.
What stands out, and has ALWAYS stood out for Fish albums, is the quality of his lyrics. Right from Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear in 1983, Fish has excelled in laying out his poetic visions in fascinating and sometimes startling, off-kilter lyrics. The challenge has been how the musicians with whom he works can frame those words – the simple equation being that the better the musical partners, the better the albums. Marillion had the mighty collective talents of that band who worked with Fish to make his sometimes tortuous words fit and flow, wonderfully at times – indeed, the tension between their music and his words and how they fitted together, and sometimes didn’t quite fit in a conventional sense, was what helped make them stand out as a band. It is no coincidence that the highlights of his solo album career have been recorded with other high quality musicians in their own right – Mike Oldfield alumni Mickey Simmonds was largely instrumental in the music writing for 1990’s outstanding solo debut Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors and Steven Wilson was crucial in the excellent diversity of Sunsets on Empire – two of the best albums of his solo career. That is not to say that albums such as Raingods with Zippos and Field of Crows are poor in quality – they are worthy, quality albums, but they just do not quite reach the heights of those stand out albums, both lyrically and musically, because they lacked that truly inspired musical input from another collaborator. Weltschmerz once again features the musical partnership between Fish and Steve Vantsis, their third fine collaboration alongside 2007’s 13th Star and solo career highlight Feast of Consequences from 2013. In these three outstanding final albums, Vantsis has emerged as Fish’s most musically intuitive partner since those heady days of Marillion. Vantsis plays bass on stage, but it has become increasingly evident through these albums that he is a skilled multi-instrumentalist with the ability to write and play perfect musical canvasses upon which Fish can paint his lyrical images.
It is inevitable that some listeners will reminisce nostalgically about an artist’s glory days and yearn for them to re-live their younger days. If they come to this album expecting Fish to sing with the same passion, power and brio of his Marillion or early solo career days they will inevitably be disappointed. Fish is 62 years old so it’s not surprising he won’t sound like he did in the ’80s – indeed, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect anyone to stay the same after a lifetime of experience and wear and tear – I sure as hell know I am not the same as I was as a spotty 18 year old, excitedly picking up my 12” copy of Market Square Heroes, so I cannot expect my heroes to remain stuck in musical amber, forever sounding as they did a lifetime ago. Fish himself would say he was never the greatest vocalist technically and was not blessed with an angelic voice like Jon Anderson. However, he always sings from the heart and is able to fashion and twist his sometimes elaborate wordplays into lyrical passages to fit the music. Indeed, he is more like a poet than a singer – for him the words are everything and that has not changed. Indeed, in the accompanying interview Fish states that “melody was secondary to the words”. The music of Weltschmerz is also pitched within his older and more limited vocal range, and he is more likely to almost speak his words over the musical backdrop rather than bellow them against a storm of music. Nevertheless, Vantsis and others succeed very well in conveying Fish’s lyrical threads in varied and interesting musical frames, enhancing the power, emotion and impact of his words.
Weltschmerz (meaning ‘world pain’ in German) has been long in gestation and in the interesting accompanying interview in the Blu-Ray deluxe edition Fish explains that he first came up with the title in about 2015 (before “things went REALLY BAD“, he adds comically!!) and that title became the ‘lightning rod’ around which he formed his themes and wrote his songs. Various issues associated with Fish’s own health, the loss of his father and now caring for his mother with dementia in the intervening years has interrupted and delayed the album, but those experiences have also inspired and enriched his insights and subsequent lyricism. Fish initially struggled with how to grapple with significant subjects in an effective way until he decided that they needed to be character-based, telling individual stories that touch on greater subjects but presented through the prism of a person’s experience. He has always been a ‘story teller’ and he called these songs ‘mini-scripts’ akin to “writing movies for peoples ears”. This is presented most personally in opening song Grace for God, based on a near death experience for Fish when he has taken to hospital with a serious bout of sepsis, which commences with a doctor intoning sonorously over the rhythms of an MRI scanner. The low-key first half is transformed mid-way through with a flourish of guitars and a more upbeat second half seems to reflect Fish’s realisation that he had ‘missed a bullet’ that time and may need to rethink his life. This realisation is later played out on the jaunty and folk-infused This Party’s Over which skips along with Van der Graaf Generator’s legendary David Jackson on saxophone and whistles. This piece makes it clear that Fish has finally followed the advice first heard on Torch Song from Marillion’s Clutching at Straws in 1987 – “My advice is that if you maintain this lifestyle you won’t reach 30”… well, he reached 60, but it was touch and go it seems, so better late than never!
Later, this deceptive combination of light and dark is echoed on ‘C’ Song (The Trondheim Waltz) which rolls in acoustically in Crosby, Stills & Nash style with a guest accordion from Martin Green, and then later swings with some brass from Mikey Owers. Within this lighter musical style the lyrics touch on the darker subject of the ‘C’ word, ‘Cancer’, about a person not despairing about their illness: “I won’t let you bring me down” .
The personal perspective is most touchingly presented on Garden of Remembrance, inspired by Fish’s experiences with dementia in his own parents. Originally intended as an ambitious epic connected with the ‘Market Garden’ Arnhem paratrooper operation in 1944, Fish – probably wisely – decided that was “one epic too far” (as he already had two others lined up for the album). John Mitchell (Frost*, Lonely Robot & Arena) helped unlock this much simpler piece when Fish heard Mitchell’s piano piece whilst writing lyrics to another song, and realised they went together perfectly. This is such a beautiful, elegiac song, and yet so powerful – sometimes less really is more. It’s probably one of the most touching songs from 2020, and the emotional video about separation and reminiscence was perfectly judged during lockdown.
Man with a Stick is one of the stranger, more percussive pieces in which Fish initially focuses on the image of his aged father walking with a stick over a cool undulating synth solo from Foss Paterson, before the imagery shifts more sinisterly to riot police wielding riot sticks – it’s imagery and ideas like that which help Fish’s lyrics stand out. Similarly, the lyrics dominate the eerie Little Man What Now?, inspired by Hans Fallada’s novel of the same name about 1930s Germany. Fish is clearly drawing parallels with the rise of Trump and the rise of nationalism and disillusionment in recent years – (dare we even mention the ‘B’ word?!):
From straight-backed moral duty, desert the higher call,
And eloquently mumble as the ignorant shout them down”
This ‘song’ may be the most difficult one for some listeners as it is an extended and mournful, virtually spoken stream of consciousness over a melancholic David Jackson saxophone, giving a “smoky Berlin vibe” (as Fish put it) – Sugar Mice or Incommunicado it ain’t! Jackson’s roots in Van der Graaf Generator (a band Fish always loved) emerge with a manic Sax break and the sense of decay is further evoked with a discordant guitar solo from Robin Boult, until the piece wistfully fades away with a fading sax. It’s an atmospheric, dark and ambitious piece, and one of the most intriguing songs on the album… and sometimes these things just need saying.
Fish’s desolate journey continues elsewhere as he explores mental health and bi-polar issues in Walking on Eggshells, which features a lush string arrangement from Ian Stephens and emotive backing vocals from Doris Brendel, as she does so well across the album. Walking on Eggshells rolls along fluidly on one of the most accessible rock songs on the album, with some great guitars from Boult and Mitchell and excellent drums from Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson man Craig Blundell.
Being Fish’s last album, he clearly decided to pull out all the stops – if the song needed strings or horns, then they got strings or horns. If it needed an accordion or an oud then so be it. This attention to detail with authentic instruments and contributors gives the album a real feel of class, and enhances its large-scale cinematic atmosphere. He also graces the album with two epic tracks – one very close to home and one more distant… although not so distant at times. The evocative Rose of Damascus tells the tale of a young woman fleeing the war and turmoil of Syria, evoked with oud and exotic Eastern sounding strings. There are echoes of Perception of Johnny Punter from Sunsets on Empire halfway through as Fish launches into a sinister spoken monologue describing the carnage of war over an apocalyptic musical background. This proves to be the musical zenith of this epic as the music then recedes to reflect the sad, lonely journey of our Rose of Damascus. Indeed, Fish wanted to avoid a dramatic conclusion and wanted the piece to drift away mysteriously like the refugee floating away on the boat with an uncertain future. It’s a brave way to finish an extended piece, but shows Fish’s commitment to the story and a desire to avoid a clichéd, predictable ‘crowd pleasing’ dramatic ending.
Waverley Steps (End of the Line) is much closer to home, inspired by seeing a homeless man on the steps of Waverley train station in Edinburgh. Across its 13 minutes, it offers a life story for the man who ended up on those steps, with all its highs and lows before depression and circumstances laid him low. Horns and strings (this time arranged by Egbert Derix) add to the drama as the piece sweeps along. Fish describes the man’s descent, and Mitchell adds a fluid guitar solo as we draw towards the end of the line. It’s a stirring depiction of descent and despair, and a highlight of an album full of highlights.
So how does Fish bring down the curtain on his last album?
The remarkable title track Weltschmerz starts with a hypnotic, insistent riff and martial rhythm, illustrated with imaginative and evocative instrumentation and inspired backing vocals from Brendel. This final song is an autobiographical acclamation that this “grey bearded warrior, a poet of no mean acclaim” in a time of ‘world pain’ will not just stand-by and let things fall apart:
Stand up to be counted, stand up to be heard, stand up at the barricades, stand up for your World”
Not a bad message and not a bad way to finish your last ever album… not bad at all!
Nearly 40 years is a long career in music and a long time to follow an artist. Personally, I am relieved that one of my heroes is leaving us musically on a real high note. He’s not the same man as he was back then, but then that goes for us all. Fish has grown older with some grace, and his later albums have shown a different side to his art. His decision to bow out at a high water mark is admirable – other artists take note. I remain inspired by his great ability as a wordsmith, able to describe stories and experiences with a sense of Truth and meaning. Fish, in and out of Marillion, has been a constant soundtrack in my adult life so there is a sense of sadness that he’s reached the end of the road musically. However, whilst it may be the end of his career in music, I get the sense we may not have heard the last of this Poet.
Thanks Fish and Good Luck. Slàinte Mhath!
01. The Grace of God (8:19)
02. Man with a Stick (6:27)
03. Walking on Eggshells (7:18)
04. This Party’s Over (4:22)
05. Rose of Damascus (15:45)
Time – 42:12
01. Garden of Remembrance (6:07)
02. C Song (The Trondheim Waltz) (4:41)
03. Little Man What Now? (10:54)
04. Waverley Steps (End of the Line) (13:45)
05. Weltschmerz (6:51)
Time – 42:18
Total Time – 84:30
BLU-RAY (Deluxe Edition only)
Weltschmerz – 5.1 Mix (same tracks as above)
Weltschmerz Live – from U.K. Tour 2018:
• Man with a Stick
• Little man What Now?
• C Song (The Trondheim Waltz)
• Waverley Steps (End of the Line)
‘The Tale of Weltschmerz’ (Fish in conversation with Will Smith)
‘Behind the Masque’ (An interview with Mark & Julie Wilkinson)
Song videos & ‘making of’ features:
– Man with a Stick
– Garden of Remembrance
– This Party’s Over
Fish – Vocals
Steve Vantsis – Bass & Fretless Bass guitar, Drum Loops & Programming, Samples, Synths, Marimba, Keyboards, Electric Guitar (tracks 1,2,3,4,5,7,8,9 & 10)
Robin Boult – Electric & Acoustic Guitars (tracks 1,2,3,4,7,8,9 & 10), Acoustic & Slide Guitar (track 5), Nylon Guitar (track 6)
John Mitchell – Electric Guitars (tracks 1,3,4,5 & 10), Acoustic Guitar (tracks 4 & 5), Solos (tracks 5 & 9)
Liam Holmes – Piano (tracks 1,5 & 6), Hammond Organ (tracks 3,4 & 5), Fender Rhodes (track 7), Synths (track 6)
Foss Paterson – Synth Solo (track 2), Piano, Tine Piano (track 8), Keyboards (track 9)
Craig Blundell – Drums (tracks 1,3,4,5,7 & 10)
Dave Stewart – Drums (tracks 2,8 & 9)
Liam Bradley – Percussion (tracks 2,7,8 & 9)
Doris Brendel – Backing Vocals (all tracks)
David Jackson – Saxophone (tracks 4 & 8), Whistles (track 4)
Martin Green – Accordion (track 7)
Lu Edmonds – Oud (track 5)
Tony Helliwell – Spoken Word (track 1)
Handclaps – Liam Golecki, Simone Dick, Derek Dick & Steve Vantsis (track 7)
Alina-Lin Merx-Jong – 1st Violin (tracks 8 & 9)
Lara Meuleman – 2nd Violin (tracks 8 & 9)
Tanja Derwahl – Cellos (tracks 8 & 9)
Egbert Derix – String Arrangement & Recording, Netherlands (tracks 8 & 9)
Mikey Owers – Trombone, Trumpets, Flugelhorn (tracks 5,7 & 9)
Dave Milligan – Brass Arrangements
Kana Kawashma, Aisling O’Dea, Robert McFall, Rachel Smith – Violins (tracks 1,3 & 5)
Brian Schiele, Felix Tanner – Violas (tracks 1,3 & 5)
Su-a Lee, Harriet Davidson – Cellos (tracks 1,3 & 5)
Ian Stephens – String Arrangements (track 1,3 & 5)
Dr Paul Ferguson – String & Brass Recordings, Edinburgh
Live Band on Weltschmerz (tracks from 2018 on Blu-Ray):
Fish – Vocals
Steve Vantsis – Bass
Robin Boult – Guitars
Foss Paterson – Keyboards
Gavin Griffiths – Drums & Samples
Doris Brendel – Backing Vocals & Whistles
David Jackson – Saxophone (on Little Man What Now?)
Record Label: Chocolate Frog Records
Country of Origin: Scotland
Date of Release: 25th September 2020
– Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors (1990)
– Internal Exile (1991)
– Songs from the Mirror [Covers] (1993)
– Suits (1994)
– Yin & Yang [Compilation] (1995)
– Sunsets on Empire (1997)
– Kettle of Fish (Compilation) (1998)
– Raingods with Zippos (1999)
– Fellini Days (2001)
– Field of Crows (2004)
– Bouillabaisse [Compilation] (2005)
– 13th Star (2007)
– Feast of Consequences (2013)
– Weltschmerz (2020)