It would seem that nothing inspires Fish to write some of his best material quite like personal demons; and so it is with 13th Star, far and away Fish's best album in a decade. The ex-Marillion front man recently went through a rather public breakup with fiancé Heather Findlay from Mostly Autumn and one can't help but assume that the new album is a direct result of the end of that relationship. Filled with anger, bitterness and regret but also suffused with moments of tenderness in remembering happier times, the big guy opens his heart like he hasn't done in a very long time.
13th Star is very neatly split between rockers and ballads. The heavier songs contain Fish's most muscular arrangements since Sunsets on Empire while the ballads are among the very best he's ever written. Crunchy guitar riffs, sequenced keyboards and spacey interludes are sprinkled into pieces like "Square Go" and opener "Circle Line". "Square Go" recalls "The Perception of Johnny Punter" in its menace and simple but heavy groove.
"Manchmal", a song of betrayal, is probably the heaviest cut on the album and calls to mind recent Porcupine Tree. The lyrics are particularly clever here as Fish tells the metaphorical tale of a turtle and a scorpion agreeing to cross a riverbank together before the scorpion stings the turtle just as the pair reach the other side. To make his meaning clear, Fish breaks through the metaphor with: "I can sense you're going to leave me, I know you'll break the deal, I'll drown in my sorrows and I'll drink at your shrine".
"Openwater" continues the bitterness with a bluesy infectious heavy rocker that's almost uplifting…unless you're paying attention to the desperate lyrics. "Dark Star" is an imposing moody piece of self-recrimination that builds and builds to an awesome Middle Eastern tinged finish.
The ballads, likewise, do not disappoint. "Miles de Besos" is a soft jazzy piece that tells of a torrid brief love affair in Chile. "Where in the World" speaks most directly of his recent split with Heather Findlay: "This time last year I was in love, this time last year there was a dream". The hauntingly vivid "Zoe 25" tells of a pair of tragic figures and each time I hear it, I can't help but think of Peter Hammill's "Curtains".
For many listeners, the true highlight among the ballads will be "Arc of a Curve". In a different world, this would yield Fish a mainstream hit: wonderful lyrics, a beautiful musical arrangement and also a catchy enough chorus for top forty radio.
The somber title track is equally impressive. As Fish contemplates following the 13th Star, he becomes so emotional that one can hear the singer choke up at one point. Furthermore, it can't be a coincidence that the opening line begins "with a heart full of sky" because it is the name of the current Mostly Autumn release.
The key to the success of the album is that Fish has aligned himself with a strong writing partner in Steve Vantsis. Vantsis has been Fish's bass player for 10 years and it's amazing to think that prior to 13th Star, Vantsis had never written a song with Fish. Calum Malcolm's production is likewise superb and he manages to get the best vocal performance that Fish has given in years. The entire package is first rate: the limited edition version contains classic Mark Wilkinson artwork. There's also an informative hour long DVD on the making of the album.
Is 13th Star a "prog rock" album? Who knows and frankly who cares? If you're looking for long complex songs, look elsewhere. This is, above all, a songwriters' album. What I do know is that Fish's new disc will go down as one of his major accomplishments. Welcome back Mr. Dick. My faith in you has been completely restored.
- Circle Line
- Square Go
- Miles de Besos
- Zöe 25
- Arc of a Curve
- Manchmal (Sometimes)
- Dark Star
- Where in the World
- 13th Star