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Sunday 27 September 2020

Reviews: Fish & Ayreon (Reviews By Matt & Rich)

Fish: Weltschmerz (Fishy Music Ltd) [Matt Bladen]

Weltschmerz - a feeling of world weariness or ennui, once again the Germans have basically spoken for the entire world in this current period. It's also the perfect title for what is touted to be the final album from acclaimed singer/songwriter Fish. It's a double album release that has been influenced by a multiple personal factors such as his father dying, his mother moved into his house for permanent care and he developed sepsis which nearly killed him. He also drew from the current social situation we find ourselves with Trump, refugee crisis, Syria, Brexit and even writers block all putting up barriers to this albums creation. Then when all seemed ready to go Coronavirus meant that the original release date was pushed back to September. 

A lesser man would have given up years ago but Fish has always been a cantankerous git and he has set about not only making this 'final' album but also making it the best of his career. Now with all this in mind you would be for forgiven for thinking that it may have a downbeat tone but no, yes there's a melancholy but it is balanced with a playfulness and also a sense of closure. It's also his most personal record, nearly everything here is autobiographical, though Fish didn't realise until the recording he had subconsciously done this. The record was written by Fish along with collaborators Steve Vantsis (bass/keys/guitars/programming/co-producer) and Robin Boult (guitar) with additional contributions from Foss Paterson and everyone's favourite session six stringer John Mitchell, who co-writes the beautiful Garden Of Remembrance. Mitchell plays guitars too along with Robin Boult while Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson) and Dave Stewart are behind the kit with Liam Holmes on keys. 

Add to this the soaring backing vocals from Doris Brendel, David Jackson of Van Der Graaf Generator on sax, Mikey Owers with brass and The Scottish Chamber Orchestra providing strings it makes for a record with huge sonic scope, the musical backing deft and stirring ably carrying Fish's clever lyricism. Now Man With A Stick has been around since last year getting heavy rotation on Planet Rock, it's the albums funkiest track that takes you through several different scenarios in a life surrounding the titular character who has been numerous iterations of a 'man with a stick' but mostly it focuses on the career as brutal Police officer in the 80's, though this topic is more relevant now than ever, showing Fish still has his finger on the pulse. 

Weltschmerz is a chance for him to get things off his chest and speaking of pulses Grace Of God a song that describes medical procedures/worries and the acceptance of death in unflinching detail it's sets a tone of both acceptance but also attempted resolution. Both of which re-appear again on the Walking On Eggshells a story of domestic violence and This Party's Over which warns of problem drinking (a topic that re-appears in Fish's music a lot), the latter features some keen piping and a dirty sax solo too making it the closest thing to Fish's previous job in Marillion (though this was over 30 years ago now). Elsewhere though we get to heavier subject matter, the albums two longest songs, the cinematic Rose Of Damascus and the dramaric Waverly Steps dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis and male suicide. 

It's Garden Of  Remembrance a song about his father's dementia that hits hardest, especially due to the songs sparseness and emotive weight, there are few times in music where you can be brought to your knees, but on this track I had to switch off the record for a moment to compose myself. Weltschmerz has that effect right the way through, it's the sound of man whose very soul has been battered for a long time, but who has found catharsis in his creative outlet. Much like 30-odd years ago, if this is the end of the line for Fish's solo career then he's drawn the curtain with his best work yet. 10/10    

Ayreon: Transitus (Music Theories Recordings/Mascot Label Group) [Rich Oliver]

The heavy metal hippie Arjen Anthony Lucassen is back with another epic rock opera Transitus which is the tenth album from his Ayreon project. The past few years have been busy ones for Arjen with some huge live shows such as Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle Live And Other Tales (along with the accompanying live releases that followed those shows) but he has still had the time to come up with another captivating rock opera with an extensive cast of singers and musicians.

Transitus is slightly different from other Ayreon releases being more of a stand alone story separate from the extended storyline of previous albums (though with a few subtle nods) and is more of a tragic love story with dashes of the supernatural. It is set in 1884 and centres around forbidden lovers Jonathan and Abby and the prejudice their relationship faces which ends in horrific tragedy. The lead roles are taken by Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) and Cammie Gilbert (Oceans Of Slumber) who absolutely shine as the doomed lovers. Extensive parts also are taken by Paul Manzi (Cats In Space/ex-Arena) and Amanda Somerville (Trillium) who have the parts of the main antagonists whilst there are great appearances from Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) playing the formidable father and Simone Simmons (Epica) as The Angel Of Death. There are countless other guest vocalists who all put their own stamp on the characters they portray. 

It’s a given that an Ayreon album is going to have a stellar vocal cast. One part that got me very excited was the legendary Tom Baker as The Narrator who of course is known as the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who. Tom’s rich and dramatic voice really adds a gravitas to the narration which is good as there is a lot of it throughout the album. As well as multiple guest singers and a narrator there is also a plethora of guest musicians with regular collaborators such as Joost van den Broek (keyboards), Ben Mathot (violin) and Jeroen Goossens (wind instruments). We also have legendary guitarists Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman laying down some solos throughout the album. One person noted in their absence is regular Ayreon drummer Ed Warby with the drums on Transitus handled by Juan van Emerloot.

The music on Transitus is unmistakably Ayreon with the projects usual mix of progressive and power metal sounds mixed with the pomp of a Broadway musical. There is a nice mix of symphonic sounds, medieval folk, swing as well as some leanings into more heavy metal territory. There aren’t many songs which stand out on their own merit as this is meant to be heard as one vast conceptual piece but the medieval folk of Talk Of The Town is a highlight as is Dumb Piece Of Rock. The metal crunch and prog pomp of Get Out Now! also impressed whilst Tommy and Cammie absolutely shine in the tender duet of Hopelessly Slipping Away. There are also some fun songs centered around the Angel Of Death and The Furies that have a swing and big band sound to them including the effective use of a horn section. The usual musical mixing pot style of an Ayreon album is very much prevalent here and as always used to great effect.

An Ayreon album is always a bit of an acquired taste and Transitus isn’t going to change the mind of anyone who doesn’t get along with this style and sound but fans of Ayreon and other similar prog and rock opera acts will love this. Certain issues of the album also come with a 28 page graphic novel which is beautiful to look at and also helps give a visualisation to the story and helps the listener follow the plot a bit easier. A PDF version of the graphic novel has been made available for those who only have ordered standard issues of the album. Overall this is another great album from Arjen and Ayreon and whilst not really differing musically from previous albums it sees the project going into slightly different territory with the concepts subject matter. Ayreon are one of those few musical projects where the music and the story are as essential as each other and Arjen has come up with another great conceptual piece with Transitus. 8/10

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