“A progression if ever there was one”; those were the words of Phil Stuckey when he kindly gifted me with this new album, Days of Innocence. So, in a single phrase I was left in hot anticipation of what it would be like, the third from Stuckfish. Formed in 2017, Stuckfish have gone through some trials and tribulations, with the very sad passing of former keyboardist Alan Gibson and bass player Danny Stephenson within a week of each other in 2020; they have now well and truly settled on the line-up of Phil on lead vocals, Ade Fisher on guitar, Gary Holland on keyboards, Phil Morey on bass and Adam Sayers on the drum riser. This is the first album where all the band members have contributed to its compositional output.
On first listening, and whilst it is not explicitly stated, I got the impression that there are some very personal messages within the lyrics. Couple this with Phil’s very melodic vocals and it seems to be an album of reflection of times past, with positive thoughts for the future. Whilst the band are very proud to be associated with the progressive rock genre, and having got to know their first two albums well (Calling and The Watcher), this album is an evolutionary step up with traits of classic rock (almost vis-à-vis Bon Jovi) and symphonic rock, which will appeal enormously to a wider audience. But the trademark Stuckfish elements are there in spades, with all five band members given their opportunity to shine.
The opening track, Age of Renewal, is a magnificently upbeat start, with a keyboard solo, regular beat and delicate guitar work. The chorus is certainly more mainstream rock than prog, but this makes the track all the more interesting. This steady number has a theme change at the 4-minute mark, with a lovely solo from Gary Holland and a bass rhythm from Phil Morey, leading into an enriching lead guitar solo that illustrates just how skilled Ade Fisher is. It leads into the title track, featuring Morey’s bass undertones and highlighting the higher register vocals from Stuckey that we have become accustomed to with their earlier work. It’s a bit stage musical, but it conveys a message of hope and freedom with lines such as “For where we are, We want to be, Looking on, The way we’ve gone, The journey we have taken, To set ourselves free”, before closing with orchestral sampling, emulating a string section and horns before a lengthy fade over the course of a minute. It’s inspiring stuff, and the beat goes on.
Painted Smile has a steady melodic start, with Stuckey’s vocals expressing great feeling and emotion, almost choral in nature. There is an interesting narrative section that takes this track in a different, more forceful direction, before returning to the central theme. But the surprise is at the end, where there are instrumentals from all the band members, with ‘fairground’ keys, a confident bass line and highly rhythmic drums from Adam Sayers; it rounds off a nice track that restores a fairly repetitive theme back to its symphonic progressive roots. Gamechanger has already been well received on the live circuit. I guess it could be described as the ‘single’ from the album, with a tight beat and punchy rocking style, certainly tending more towards classic rock than prog. One could be forgiven for making the reference to recent times of lockdown with the lyric “Silent and unseen it came, Another player in the game, An enemy, Of liberty”. But it’s gone in a flash as the theme changes again to an instrumental fill of rhythm and lead guitars, a superb timpani percussion backline throughout and the mix is superb to give percussion, bass and guitars equal weight before the synths strike a chord. It really is single material and I think the crowd will love it.
As the album moves into the second half with Thief in the Night, the band brings the momentum down. This track is a personal favourite with delicate acoustic-like guitar and sweet vocals, as if telling a ghost story – there is a reference to ‘Frank’, and we need to find out more about him, probably a man no longer with us. The central instrumental section has overtones of Andy Latimer’s signature guitar from late ’70’s Camel, followed by a single bell tone, marking the return to Stuckey’s story-telling central theme. And then the story closes beautifully with an ethereal instrumental that allows the listener to reflect on those lovely heart-felt lyrics. Yearn is another high point, with Stuckey introducing his trumpet playing, and I very much hope they will introduce that at gigs at some point. As one might expect with a trumpet intro, it has a smoky jazz club feel before developing into a slow tempo rock song. It is different in many ways to the other tracks on the album, with piano reminiscent of an old Joanna (look it up if you’re unfamiliar with Cockney rhyming slang…) with an ethereal vocal chant in the background. It’s a beautiful song to perhaps reflect on someone no longer with us, with superb melodic vocals and a simple understated guitar from Ade to close; another favourite of mine.
The penultimate track, Nevermore, is classic rock through and through, almost hard rock; a steady drum beat and rhythmic guitar with Stuckey’s trademark, almost falsetto vocals. At the risk of being critical, it seems a bit repetitive and does not sit easily with the remainder of their more melodic and symphonic progressive direction.
And on to the Grand Finale, and what a finale we are treated to with Different Ways. It’s a prog epic of which the whole band should be very proud. It is story-telling with some menacing undertones, but breaking into something quite reassuring: “We tell our stories as they twist and intertwine, To see the world in different ways.” This is the Stuckfish we have all come to know and love: melodic prog with Stuckey’s vocals taking centre stage. I was reminded of elements Styx from their Cornerstone era. The song builds in breadth and depth, always returning to the track title, Different Ways. One expects an explosive rock ending to the album, but no… the final three-minutes is pure symphonic prog excellence with the whole band having their moment in the spotlight with underlying bass rhythms, smooth keys, metronomic drums, but in particular the exceptional Ade Fisher with a guitar solo that is sure to delight every prog fan the world over. It’s a peach of a track that might just usurp their fan favourite, The Bridge.
The order of the tracks has clearly been considered closely. There is definitely a structure in place, with highs and lows, fast-paced rock tempered by slower numbers so, as with most albums of this genre, it benefits from being played as a whole in the order that the band intended. Resist the urge to pick and choose, find an hour and settle back to enjoy this from start to finish; you won’t be disappointed. There is lots to admire in this album and the band have succeeded in opening up a range of musical styles that will appeal to a far wider audience than the prog rock fraternity. And definitely try to catch them on the road, as their live performances are exceptional.
01. Age of Renewal (7:12)
02. Days of Innocence (7:54)
03. Painted Smile (8:04)
04. GameChanger (5:36)
05. Thief in the Night (6:44)
06. Yearn (7:53)
07. Nevermore (5:34)
08. Different Ways (8:13)
Total Time – 57:10
Phil Stuckey – Lead Vocal, Occasional Trumpet
Ade Fisher – Lead Guitar
Gary Holland – Keyboards
Phil Morey – Bass
Adam Sayers – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Sonic Portrait Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 16th April 2022