November 29, 2023

Back in 2020, just as the world was heading into a lockdown/pandemic situation of which the gravity was as yet unknown and underestimated, Fish On Friday released their last album, Black Rain. It was without doubt, to these ears at least, their finest work to date, mixing mostly accessible and commercial proggy rock with some definite indications of darker emotions and musical flavourings, along with a guitar masterclass from Marty Townsend. It was a triumphant album, and I myself lauded it as so on these very (virtual) pages. Three years later, and with the world long since having emerged again, blinking into the post-Covid sunlight, the follow-up release has arrived, and I was eager to check it out and see how its predecessor had been either built upon or progressed away from.

In essence, most of what is here doesn’t stray too far from Black Rain, or indeed the template set by most of the Fish On Friday output, and fans of the band can approach without any reservation. It retains the air of a mostly light-toned and very skilfully composed commercially-friendly modern prog recording. The strongest touchstone – and this is, too me, more evident than ever before with the band – is The Alan Parsons Project. Specifically, that ‘sweet spot’ that the APP at their best manage to hit, where they straddle the worlds of pop-rock and prog with a foot in both sides so adeptly that it is hard to call which way they are leaning. Where FOF also score is that they mostly manage to navigate their way through this minefield without straying too far into the overly-smooth sheen and glossiness of some of the APP’s most casual-listener-friendly fare. It’s a valid area to aim for, and one which is achieved strongly for the most part. The only nagging sense is a feeling that, somehow, things are generally just a little too reined in and ‘safe’, as if the safety catch is rarely let off and the music does ever so slightly too much what they aimed for it to ‘say on the tin’. But let’s have a look in some more detail.

Other influences are at play here, it must be stressed. Despite the unavoidable Parsons parallels, this isn’t like some kind of ‘Son of Eve‘ or ‘Pyramid Part Two’ in any way. The opening title track, for example, has a nice relaxed Canterbury feel to it, coming off like a piece of nice 1970s-vintage Caravan, there are touches of almost Tangerine Dream electronica here and there, while the very strong Don’t Lose Your Spirit features some of the best instrumental interplay on the whole record. There’s also a cover, but you’d be extremely hard pressed to guess the identity of it in a hundred tries, as the band take the double-header Overture To Flame / Flame from the 1977 debut album from almost entirely forgotten glam/art rockers Metro and give it a pretty faithful reworking while putting their own sonic stamp on it. I doubt anyone would have seen that one coming, it’s fair to say! Jump This Wall is an upbeat, catch and yet lyrically obtuse song, its fascinatingly opaque wordplay coming courtesy of a Flemish musician previously unknown to the band, Sofie Dykmans, and rather unexpectedly namechecking both Prince and Bill Withers along the way. Funerals is a standout track, though not so depressing as it might sound, being a tale of starcrossed lovers who only ever see each other at funerals, he finding her black veil incredibly erotic yet never daring to talk to her, though he swears he will do at the next… well, you know (Spoiler: he doesn’t). Some very tasteful slide guitar in this one from Townsend, and one of the best melodies on the album.

Elsewhere there is a little bit of an issue with things becoming just too one-paced and relaxed in the tail of the album, where a feeling of them being let off the leash as it were is very much needed. It’s a little like the sort of thing early-’80s Roxy Music were doing, or perhaps Coldplay to bring it up to date, whereby everything is so skilfully and smoothly arranged and played that the gloss tends to erase the rougher edges which would have given some bite and contrast. It isn’t a poor album at all – in fact it does what it sets out to do in exemplary fashion – I just find myself wishing for a little bit more of the fire found in tracks such as Life In Towns, Murderous Highland Highway or Letting Go Of You from the previous album. The mileage is very much in the ears of the listener of course – if some relaxing pop-prog delivered in a manner so well arranged as to invite comparison with the craft of Steely Dan is on your wish-list, this will be like sinking into a nice warm bath of sound with a glass of wine and some chocolates…