A couple of weeks ago now I discussed the tumultuous tale that was Marillion's first record with Steve Hogarth, Seasons End, who this weekend celebrates his 32nd year with the band. It seems fitting that this weekend also marks the 31st anniversary of the release of Scottish songsmith Fish's first solo outing following his departure from Marillion, the incredible Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors, hereafter referred to as simply Vigil.
Whereas in part Seasons End was more of a Marillion sounding album with a different vocalist, Vigil is basically the lost Marillion album since plenty of the lyrics meant for the fifth Marillion album ended up here. It kickstarted the trend of Fish's music being these brooding atmospheric affairs, as had taken place across the duration of his four-record stint with Marillion. There's hints of what was to come on the incredible Clutching At Straws, but Vigil just takes things to an even higher level. Interestingly, even though the band and lead singer had parted ways, to avoid any clashes between the release of Vigil and Seasons End, EMI decided to release Fish's effort in early 1990, despite the fact the album was finished as early as June 1989.
The opening title track enters with the same darkness that Script For A Jester's Tear did some seven years prior with its spoken vocal and smatterings of synthesiser. Being a classic Fish song, it's one that builds from that spoken opening through some increasingly aggressive and blunt storytelling into the song's central piece - a near four minute rallying cry that's filled with bagpipes and this triumphant aura last seen on Market Square Heroes. With all this, and the track's near nine-minute length, it's got some brilliant attitude that only an artist as talented as Fish could cultivate. There's some parallels that can be drawn across the songsmith's career between Vigil and Little Man What Now? from Weltschmerz, as well as the lost Marillion demo Voice In The Crowd. Each song features this view of the world through one man's eyes lost within wider society - someone who appears to pale into insignificance - and this wider motif that spans Fish's solo career just makes it origins all the more marvellous.
Big Wedge soon follows , marking the time where Fish truly takes aim at capitalist greed as well as American society and politics that comes all wrapped in a metaphor for the importance of money, or the phrase Big Wedge that's actually a turn of phrase that originates in New Zealand to mean a fair amount of money. It contains some of Fish's best lyrics over the course of his distinguished career, discussing the notion of 'selling out' all for the aid of money and how important it is in American society, as well as the rest of the world. If Big Wedge's message wasn't already clear enough, Mark Wilkinson's fantastic single art features Uncle Sam handing the viewer a wad of money. The song was hauled over the coals and actually barred, along with State Of Mind, from gaining any US airplay as the tracks were thought to be anti-American. The song's opening lines discussing shoe-shine boys singing gospel and priests getting into Cadillacs is all true, as Fish discussed in his long running Fish On Friday show a couple of weeks back, and comes from when he went with Marillion on a US tour in the mid eighties. By comparison to some of the writing with Marillion, there's this notion with Big Wedge that Fish doesn't really care what other people think; it's got this bluntness and up-yours attitude that you simply don't get anymore that makes it a real highlight.
The protest songs continue with the effervescent State Of Mind that, over the years, has grown into a real fan favourite. Intriguingly, the track's origins run before Vigil was recorded and come from the writing sessions Marillion undertook at a castle in the Highlands. The song's original title was Tic-Tac-Toe and does feature a slightly different melody and the rough basis for the lyrics. There's this same protest lyrics on both tracks discussing the political discontent of the late Thatcher age, asking for politicians to be "straight for a change" as opposed to "talking tic-tac-toe" on the original recording. State Of Mind takes things up a notch with its strong bass and percussion as well as lyrics explicitly stating Fish has no trust in both the government and any form of alternative regime and has gotten tired of politicians, specifically Margaret Thatcher, playing games and insulting the general public with "cheap propaganda". It's easy to see why State Of Mind became so popular and it's actually thanks to this lyrical content that it, over the years, also became one of my favourite Fish tracks from those early years.
Arguably Vigil's best offering follows on, in the form of the classic drinking song The Company. Whilst on the surface the song simply looks to discuss an argument with someone in a bar, the actual meaning of Fish's incredible lyrics run an awful lot deeper. The entire Vigil record discusses materialism and issues with it; fundamentally, "The Hill" that both this song and the album references is an extended metaphor for greed and consumerism. There's even an argument to state that The Company is a coded message for the way the Scot felt about the departure of Marillion - at the end of the day, with the company that Fish chooses to be "solidly singular", he'd rather be on his own, as opposed to the people he's talking to telling him that "To sell out my dreams you say you'll make it worthwhile". The band were on the verge of a million-pound record deal and about to make it big in America, but there was a sudden realisation. As Fish recalled in an Edinburgh Evening News interview back in 2003, "By 1987 we were over-playing live because the manager was on 20 per cent of the gross. He was making a fantastic amount of money while we were working our asses off. Then I found a bit of paper proposing an American tour. At the end of the day the band would have needed a £14,000 loan from EMI as tour support to do it. That was when I knew that, if I stayed with the band, I'd probably end up a raging alcoholic and be found overdosed and dying in a big house in Oxford with Irish wolfhounds at the bottom of my bed." Much like the record's title track before it, The Company has this triumphant and powerful ending that builds from the original, slow, piano-driven backing. There's almost the sense that someone's dared to try and insult Fish whilst standing at a bar, and over the course of the song, he picks this person apart, before a merry band of supporters rally round him and make the man on the other side feel as small as possible.
The triumphant notion of The Company is nicely contrasted by the heart-wrenching ballad that is A Gentleman's Excuse Me, largely lauded as one of his finest pieces of songwriting to date. It's one of the first instances on Vigil where Fish shows his side, except it's in a more personal way than he ever did with Marillion and it's this individual touch that makes it a true standout. It's got this heartfelt timidness that would later be built upon on Weltschmerz' incredible Garden Of Remembrance and it's on tracks like this where the otherwise charismatic Scot is at his best - Vigil is packed solid with those usual full-to-the-brim prog epics and kick-in-the-teeth protest songs, but there's only one ballad that's been crafted as purely as they come. This proves that it's a song that requires the same care and attention when listening to it, and that it's absolutely right to heap all the praise over A Gentleman's Excuse Me and then again, that still wouldn't be enough.
The Voyeur (I Like To Watch) acts as a discussion from Fish on the act of television voyeurism. Voyeurism, on its own, is the principle of watching someone engage in an intimate act for your own pleasure, not actively getting involved, and can also extend to the idea of gaining enjoyment from seeing other people in pain. In Fish's case however on this track, it's neither. There's more fun to be had in simply watching anything that comes on the television as opposed to watching "video nasties", such is associated traditionally with voyeurism. The enjoyment factor is seen to now extend into all corners of the world of television and entertainment, from watching "implausible pledges of polite politicians" to "on the spot interviews, kicking in front doors". It's an indication of what society has transitioned into and has continued to over the thirty-odd years since Vigil's release - people will literally watch anything and there's a guarantee that someone somewhere will find enjoyment out of it, even if it is someone's head getting kicked in. Musically, it returns to the ominous sound featured on Vigil's earlier offerings with its evil arpeggiated synth sound that continues throughout the track's duration, complete with Fish's haunting lyric.
Things turn even darker on the ensuing Family Business with its subject of domestic violence and the idea of keeping it between just the family - the speaker questions how long this can go on for and how long it should remain a private matter. It's one of his most harrowing techniques and with the song's structure, soaring guitars and smashing drums, it would be easy to mistake it as a Marillion track. It should therefore come as little surprise that Family Business had its origins in the sessions that would have led to the fifth Fish-fronted Marillion album under the title Story From A Thin Wall. Even with a different title and a He Knows You Know-like guitar entrance, the song's haunting subject matter still remains. With the way everything comes together on both the demo and Vigil's finished product, it's certainly clear to see why Family Business has over the years become a true fan favourite. It's one of those songs that is made even better by a crowd singing in unison and especially with that rolling piano behind Fish's declarations and questions.
Vigil's final couplet of View From A Hill and Cliche also make for excellent listening, marking out the big Scot as his best. The former offers a direct reference to "The Hill" that other tracks over the course of the album allude to where Fish once again discusses the idea of 'selling out' and people buying into this greedy, capitalist and consumerist world that has been cultivated with the rise of neo-liberal leaders like Thatcher. The track epitomises all that was wrong with the Thatcher age - whilst self-determination was undoubtedly a guiding principle, it was the yuppie generation that took it too far (well, not in their own minds) whilst factories and mines were shutting. Fish takes aim at those who bought into this wholesale and how certain people, who he never thought would have bowed down to the power of the Thatcher age, ended up engrossed within it - "We thought they couldn't buy you - that the price would be too high/That the riches there on offer they just wouldn't turn your eyes/But your conscience it was locked up in the prisons of your schemes/Your judgement it was blinded by your visions and your dreams." Once again, View From A Hill takes some of its lyrics from the lost Marillion demo Sunset Hill, with the key difference being that Sunset Hill is a much more personal song, whereas with the song that ended up on Vigil is a little bit more detached - in Sunset Hill, Fish discusses how "They sold me the view from the hill" as opposed to selling it to someone else.
Cliche, as with the likes of Family Business, sounds like it should've been a central part of Clutching At Straws, making its inclusion on Vigil all the more important and intriguing. It's arguably the most personal song present, with Fish overtly stating that he's got a reputation for having "a way with words" but that when describing the person he loves, he runs out of words and will eventually fall into cliches. With its near seven-minute length, it's one of the more progressive songs here, and the incredible combination of Fish's lyrics and the band's backing means it's absolutely amazing. A major reason why the backing is so good is thanks to Frank Usher's purposeful guitar drive in a similar way to Steve Rothery. The song is quintessential Fish and perfectly sums up why Vigil is such a great album - that combination of lyrics and music remain simply unmatched.
Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors is undoubtedly a true masterpiece. Very few records manage to amaze me as much as any Fish album does, and this one is testament to his strength as a songwriter and fundamentally as a vocalist. Whilst the man may describe himself as a
"writer who can sing", Vigil simply proves that statement wrong thanks to its mix of insightful lyrics and powerful vocals backed by one of the best bands in the business.
If you want to pick up a copy, I’ll leave an Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/2MniBZ9
Or if you'd prefer, here's a Spotify link:
More musical magnificence to come next week!
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