Hal Stern

Dec 29, 2021

3 min read

Phish’s “Sci-Fi Solder”

Now that Phish has announced a New Year’s Eve broadcast show from “The Ninth Cube” with an obvious reference to the “Sci-Fi Soldier” Halloween show, it’s time for me to share some thoughts on what has been widely and wildly divisive show in the Phish fan base.

Halloween is a night to dress up as our alter egos, our heroes, our secret identities. We get to be whom we want, dressed as we want, to either sow confusion or live out loud for a night without judgement. That’s why I paraded up and down the Las Vegas Strip dressed as a six foot tall cactus, complete with green LED lights and a white scarf, in a poorly sewn homage to Mike Gordon.

Sci-Fi Soldier is literally the Phish costume. It’s not Phish the band, but it’s Phish as they envisioned themselves, having fun, saving the world with music, and doing something that their alter ego superheroes would. Add the dry mix of self-reference, self-deprecating humor, and nearly 15 minutes of hints that ran through the previous night’s “Harpua” and you have the recipe for fun. The stage set, the helmets, and even the vocals felt like a literal comic book — the repeated, pithy phrases were exactly what you’d expect in a word bubble drawn in an action comic.

Musically, Sci-Fi Soldier ventures outside of the usual triangle of blues based rock, jazz and mildly progressive fare. Listen carefully to the longer, composed pieces and you’ll hear Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, King Crimson, Zappa, and every blues artist featured during the Baker’s Dozen run. Each time I listen through Reba, Mercury or Petrichor I find echoes of Hatfield and the North or Yes, a short form symphony of repeated themes and long improvisations. Now add something a bit punchier and heavier, draw on the Kasvot Vaxt set, and you end up in the year 4680.

Bottom line is that I liked the Sci-Fi Soldier set the same way I liked Yes’s “Relayer” (and now a favorite all time album) and Dire Straits’s “Love Over Gold;” my first listens were full of recoil and questioning the bands’ musical paths but I’ve found significant musical depth in the ensuing 40 years. Some additional observations about the live performance:

  • It has some very funky and tight sections, and a huge jam carrying capacity.
  • The actual Halloween show was quite long. Clocking in over 90 minutes, it’s up there with “Waiting for Columbus” but after three solid nights of shows I’ll admit to a bit of listener fatigue about half way through the live set.
  • Lyrically, it’s not the layered and complicated crossing vocals that are the hallmark of so many Phish songs, but the lyrics fit the comic book theme well. It’s not a narrative in song; it’s a musical interpretation of 3- and 4-panel graphic novel narrative.

What to expect on New Year’s Eve? Whatever it is, the hints are likely out there, and we will be amazed, surprised and celebrating no matter what.