Phish Is Maybe Reuniting: Do You Care?

I mean, I do. You don’t go to Plattsburgh and the Went and spend one New Year’s under a giant udder ball at MSG and another with a choir singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Boston without being intrigued by recent happenings. Trey’s gone through a rough patch, but after appearing with Jon, Mike, and Page to accept a lifetime achievement Jammy Award, the rumor mill’s gone frothy. Trey’s on the record saying he’d “give his left nut to play ‘You Enjoy Myself’ five times in a row everyday” and boy, man, let’s keep the nutsacks out of this. But let’s pull the other guys in.

Page recently said to that a reunion is something he “thinks about a lot” and “considers seriously” and that he’s “closer with them now than I’ve ever been,” and that they plan to meet and talk shop later this year. And now Mike’s telling Rolling Stone they’ve all had some dinners, and even started talks with Steve Lillywhite, who did great work on Billy Breathes. Fishman hasn’t weigh in yet, he’s probably too busy up in Burlington hitting on young girls.

Yeah the shows weren’t known for their focus, and our collective ADHD may intrude on the band’s appeal, but I’m sure a reunion would go over well. I was mulling this reunion post as I tried to wake up this morning, because I always wake up in sleep-state brain activity about the day’s posts (not true), and somehow it occurred to me that Phish’s discographic trajectory parallels, uh, Metallica’s. And even though I’m totally awake now and realize the analogy fails on multiple levels, it’s fun so I’m going to spit it out now…


Phish’s first widespread album release was Junta in 1989; Metallica’s was Kill ‘Em All six years before that. Both records introduced the bands as great jerk-off material for guitar nerds (guilty) while also introducing some of the bands’ hallmark characteristics: for Metallica it was a shredding Hammett, endless riffs, an eschewing of mainstream-rock song structures, and juvenile lyrics about death; for Phish it was a shredding Anastasio, endless arpeggios, an eschewing mainstream-rock song structures, and juvenile lyrics about nonsense. I just blew your mind. Let me do it some more: for such guitar centric bands, it’s worth noting that both lost founding members who were also guitarists (see: Dave Mustaine, Jeff Holdsworth).

Next both bands entered their “classic period,” wherein those basic building blocks were stretched and stewed to a boil. Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets saw Metallica take their love of deep, classically minded arrangements and push them to places faster and more conceptual; Rift is Phish’s big concept piece (aside from the Gamehendge fable), about a relationship mid-rift. Things get plenty stretched, here, and both bands’ clear virtuoso abilities breed obsessive fans who grow their hair long and don’t shower enough.

Next: the mainstream acceptance phase. …And Justice For All birthed “One,” and with the kiss of MTV for its video, on their fourth album Metallica finally had its taste of crossover success (while, admittedly, still mostly on their own terms as …And Justice For All will still scare the shit out of your mom). For Phish it was the fifth LP, Hoist, that brought some MTV play with “Down With Disease” (also FM liked the Alison Krauss-guesting “If If Could” and sometimes also “Julius”).

These brushes with larger exposure tasted good after all those years, and for the follow-up records, the studio is a changed place. Metallica wants a bigger release, so they go to a go-to commercial hard rock guy, Bob Rock (he of Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood, among many others). Phish wants similar things, so they go to a go-to FM rock guy, Steve Lillywhite (he of Dave Matthews Band’s Under The Table And Dreaming, among many others). The world greets Metallica and Billy Breathes, and the world greets very radio friendly song structures from Metallica and Phish.

In certain senses, both are highwater marks for the bands. Metallica explodes, releasing a cavalcade of MTV and radio dominating hard rock singles, whatever you think of the art (I don’t think much of it). Phish does not explode, but they certainly release their finest studio effort (Junta being their finest writing), Lillywhite bringing the right tones to the band’s time in the barn, reining in the endless jam in just the right ways. (“Billy Breathes” is a great example.) Although in different ways, it’s fair to say neither band has so effectively utilized the studio before.

Next stage: nosedive.

Farmhouse is really just an afterthought to Phish’s discog, a batch of songs that had seen time at various shows set to tape to justify one more trek to feed Phish’s bloated tour machine. None of the songs show the Zappa-worshipping prog elements that made the band’s most ambitious stuff so gripping to obsessive fans; instead, like much of Hoist and even Billy Breathes, we’re talking verse-chorus-verse-bridge songs, with sections for interminable improv jams that really just offer Trey licks and little band dynamics. For Metallica, it was Load and St. Anger and I think the less said about those the better.

So here we are in 2008. I just transcribed my morning’s dream into Stereogum, Metallica is getting ready to release Death Magnetic, and Phish is talking about doing another record with Steve Lillywhite. There’s little to know about the direction Phish will take things in the studio, but Metallica’s made it abundantly clear — they are going back to the “classic period.” Obviously I’ve taken some contextual liberties here in the name of discussion and framing, but maybe, just maybe, Phish will keep mirroring Metallica for one more stop. Go back to the extended passages, back to Junta and A Picture Of Nectar, and Rift … back to the “classic period.” People will come watch it either way. Just don’t expect many VWs to tour with you (see: $4 a gallon). As for the whole metalhead/hippie intersect? Obviously I’m crazy. Crazy like a Bonnaroo.

Tags: Metallica, Phish