April 20, 2020

…if you are after a well-crafted, well-produced, melodic rock album which isn’t afraid to go for the grandiose jugular when the opportunity arises, you can safely order a helping of this particular seafood

Fish. They seem to exert a curious fascination with prog rock, as the piscine influence has intertwined itself with the music for years. We’ve had Tinyfish, and there’s Strangefish. Fish himself, of course, while Chris Squire was known as The Fish even before that. Steve Hillage had his Fish Rising, Jethro Tull with their similar Catfish, and there’s even Fish On Mars. In case you haven’t had the pleasure already, however, add another name to that list: Fish On Friday. Originally consisting of two Belgian musicians, Frank Van Bogaert and William Beckers, they expanded over the years to bring in drummer Marcus Weymaere, Californian guitarist Marty Townsend and finally the ubiquitous Nick Beggs on bass. With the departure of Beckers after the last album, chief songwriter Van Bogaert still anchors proceedings, but it is otherwise a very stable ship indeed.

Black Rain is the band’s fifth studio album, since their 2010 debut – a creditable rate of output by today’s standards – and it easily lives up to their high standards. Previous album Quiet Life was a popular release for the band, and although Godspeed arguably remains their most overtly ‘prog’ effort to date, the crossover appeal evident on this one looks as if it could well prove to be their most successful to date, particularly with the support of Cherry Red behind them. But we’ll come to that ‘crossover’ description shortly.

The album opens incredibly strongly, with the opening two tracks making up among the best fourteen minutes of music you’ll hear all year. Life In Towns get things going with its wistful look at life in the country as contrasted with the far more oppressive urban existence, with the English pastoral feel taking on Big Big Train and Tiger Moth Tales at their own very successful game, and making a real contest of it. The second half of the song sees some beautiful guitar work from Townsend bringing to mind Ken Hensley’s breathtaking slide guitar work in the Uriah Heep classic Circle Of Hands. As soon as this superb opener dies away, we are into the eight-plus minutes of Murderous Highland Highway, which seems to be expressing a love/hate relationship with the roadway which is lamented yet grudgingly admired in the lyric. Once again, Townsend is the star here, with his soaringly melodic lead guitar work taking the whole track up into the realms of greatness. The greatest compliment I could pay is that if I had been told this was Steve Hackett in his absolute pomp, I would not have batted an eyelid. A one-two opening to rank up there with the very best.

From here is where that ‘crossover’ tag comes in, as the album makes it clear that there is no desire to be a ‘difficult’ or inaccessible prog album at all. The following two tracks illustrate this perfectly, with the title song possessing something of an ’80s sheen to the vocals and the general production, while Mad At The World continues the same theme with a less commercial yet still glossy finish which carries more than an echo of 1980s-vintage It Bites. This isn’t to say that the band are forsaking longer and more adventurous pieces, however, as Letting Go Of You ebbs and flows in deeply satisfying fashion before closing on a ‘proper’ big finish to put a smile on any symphonic prog fan’s face.

The rest of the album generally steers clear of the expansive grandeur of those longer tracks, although We’ve Come Undone builds to a sweepingly impressive conclusion, and Trapped In Heaven gives us more astonishing work from Townsend, whose guitar really is masterful throughout this record. He should feature in some annual awards on the back of this, for sure! Morphine is a dreamy song conjuring up the soporific, relaxing effects of the substance rather than the stark ‘Sister Morphine’-type route that the title might have suggested, while the closing Diamonds brings the album to a triumphant close in grand style. Nick Beggs’ daughter Lula provides vocals on four of the tracks here, including Diamonds and Letting Go Of You, and her contribution is impressive to say the least. Fans of the much-travelled Theo Travis can also hear his always impressive reeds on two of the songs, again mosty notably on Letting Go Of You.

Taken all told, it is fair to say that this isn’t an album which seeks to test its audience and cover difficult terrain – you won’t find any angular, atonal riffs or discordant melodies here. However, if you are after a well-crafted, well-produced, melodic rock album which isn’t afraid to go for the grandiose jugular when the opportunity arises, you can safely order a helping of this particular seafood. It’s a Good Friday!