Friday, February 1, 2013

20 Years Later: Rift in Retrospect

The below article was edited by @TheBabysMouth and @Phish_Forum with additional assistance from @jameskam17. It has been cross-posted at and

Celebrating its 20th Anniversary tomorrow, Phish’s 4th studio album Rift,  holds a special place in the hearts and minds of band and fans alike. Encased in a certain amount of mystery and intrigue, Rift is a conceptual album in that the entire album relates a succinct narrative. Paired with vivid artwork of New York artist David Welker who Phish collaborated closely with closely and the stylistic variety of the albums’ tracks, Rift was and remains a crucial album in Phish’s oeuvre.

The relative peace and quiet of the studio setting allowed the band,and most especially Trey and Tom Marshall, the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles when heavy touring was still the prime directive. We shouldn’t be surprised then that such a creative effort. Phish oozes ideas on the micro and macro level. Always have, and always will.

20 years later, much of the material produced on Rift remain not only staples of Phish’s repertoire but fan favorites too. This is a testament not only to the durability of the songs on Rift, but to Phish’s career-spanning commitment to song evolution. For those who don’t know, Rift describes, in song, a single night of dreaming for a certain man. The album tells the story of the narrator’s growing “rift” with his girlfriend, with each track delving deeper into the relationship, discussing various aspects of their life together, the mistakes they made, the feelings their relationship induced and ultimately what led them to break up.

Stylistically the album is a study in diversity. The up-tempo title track “Rift” opens the album with a manic vibe, only to pump the brakes as the soft cadences, dulcet tones and vocal harmonies of “Fast Enough For You” begin. As we hear the “man” restlessly sleeping, Fishman intones the simple lyrics to “Lengthwise,” his sole compository contribution to the album. The empty space of the song, almost Syd Barret-like in its oddness, serves as a perfect precursor to the true meat of the album, “Maze.”

Is there a more synesthetic Phish song then “Maze?” The song, the title, the lyrics all contribute to a feeling of discombobulation. Haven’t we all at one point or another gotten lost in a “Maze” at a Phish show, desperate to touch solid ground and escape the sinister voices mocking our navigational missteps?

As a tribute to Rift, we invited various community members to send in their thoughts, recollections, feelings and memories to their favorite songs on the album. One thing that quickly became clear as submissions came pouring in was how often various songs were described as “quintessential Phish.”It speaks to the grandness of the Phish project that so many different people can say this and for it to be true, every single time.

Is “Maze” the quintessential Phish song? Or “Rift, The Wedge, Weigh, Mound, It’s Ice, Sparkle?” The truth is they are all quintessential Phish, once again proving Phish’s ability to reveal the fungibility of all music,  Everything bleeds into everything else. It’s all connected. Just like the songs on Rift.

We hope you enjoy and for old time’s sake, whip out the original album and give it a spin.

Rift -- @lazylightning55
I was 20 years old and it was March 14th, 1992 at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC. As “Reba” finished, I told my gang at the back of the floor, that I was going to the rail for a bit. Then Trey began playing this series of notes over and over. Jon and Mike then came alive - which created an opening that felt like a herd of horses were running downhill, right at us. Trey looks at Page, gives him the 1-2-3 and boom: LAST NIGHT..

Trading lines ever so deliberately each lyric appeared as if in a speech bubble above the stage, perhaps a consequence of extra curricular licking earlier in the evening. So many messages we were being fed to us at once as the first verse came to a close. Horses came rollicking around for a bit again until SO MUCH,
which brought more mind messages from Trey and Page until finally Trey persuaded my soul to ignite emerged out of the darkness directly into a pool of glossy relief. Trey then began his assault on the first solo-- a blistering run of variations on this perfect melody.

Fish and Mike just keep humming along. Page finishes up and Trey takes over, taking us on another adventure thru the Rift, pickin' away and progressively getting faster in a big solo. Page makes everything quiet for a couple of seconds. He then reminds us of the terrible night and the band finishes.

What an adventure it was, and still is; a wonderful rollercoaster of dark & light. Emotions, like passion and confusion. Speed and silence, peaks, ledges, and ignition!  Rift can fire us up like very few songs. Hear it any way you'd like, the song “Rift” remains one of Phish' best short stories, all thanks to Trey and Tom Marshall rhyming at one another in a room. A dynamite track to kickoff an album which, Twenty Years Later, holds tight as one of Phish' best and most complete albums.

Fast Enough For You -- @Phish_Forum
Is there anything worse than the feeling of woeful inadequacy and helplessness--that time is inexorably slipping away? “Fast Enough For You” captures those emotions of a failing relationship in a somber fugue that rivals the depth and breadth of any other “slow” Phish song, e.g., “Lifeboy,” “If I Could”. Expectations are like stones heaped upon the back in a burden becoming unbearable. And it is the realization of those fears and the failure to meet other’s expectations that make this song so heart-wrenching at times. We can all empathize with “Fast Enough For You,” whether from personal experience or the emotions evoked by the lyrics and melody.

The first and only time I caught “FEFY” live was on the first night of the two-night stand in Cincinnati Fall ‘09. After Phish’s return earlier that year at Hampton, some good summer shows and Fest 8 for Halloween, I was gripped with anticipation for Fall Tour. I tend to think of Summer Tour as a nice bit of practice for the real deal once Phish heads indoors for some fall shows. I was with my best friend and my brother on tour again and I finally felt great again. Phish tore down Cincy those two nights, and in marked contrast to the song’s sad style, I will always associate “Fast Enough For You” with great memories.  

Lengthwise Pt. 1 -- @ThisAlbumSucks
Jon Fishman’s contribution to Rift is a song so special Phish decided to include it not once but twice on the album. “Lengthwise” is a brief interlude that serves as a segue into that terrible night’s more harrowing dreams and as a segue out into the dawn. Lengthwise is more chant than song, similar to “Kung.” The repeated phrases “when you’re gone I sleep diagonal in my bed / when you’re there I sleep lengthwise” gnaw at the brain, the stress of which opens the rift that leads into the labyrinthine “Maze.”

Maze -- Billy Reuben @TheBabysMouth
At over 8 minutes, “Maze” is the longest song on Rift. It is an uptempo track beginning with snare rim clicks signifying the hot breath of time upon the neck of the narrator who is in this first part if his dream. Lyrically “Maze” concerns the narrator’s subconscious fears of embarrassment, duress, and public humiliation. This “shame”is the result of the narrator’s failure to find the object being sought in this allegorical maze with an audience who laughs at his misfortunes. Musically “Maze” conveys a futuristic and electro-hellish game show accentuated by the b2 chord (Flat 2) just before resolving at the end of each verse stanza. Tritone intervals are used again and again producing maximum demonic tension in the angular and bold dominant 7 chords. The chorus expresses a frantic realization not only of being trapped but the added recognition of an inability to overcome a challenge. This signifies the narrator's inability to overcome his navigational shortcomings and a resulting sense of futility causing his inner voice to become negative and taunt him.

The first guitar solo expresses an unbridled hostility in an attempt to muscle out of this hedged-in groove. As Trey’s solo winds its way, it beats against the walls of the labyrinth in desperate search for an exit, creating more and more tension. Page’s organ solo, easily one of his strongest on any Phish studio record, launches sinister waves of leslie-inflected chromaticism over Trey’s first dissonant and then choppy accompaniment. The organ solo conveys the sense of being chased through the maze by a serpentine alien monster and turning corners in attempts to evade a confrontation. Finally as the progression reaches the dominant or 5 chord the alien beast is inadvertently met head on as Trey’s molten guitar solo portrays this gruesome creature rising to it’s full sky-scraping height baring it’s razor-sharp slime dripping fangs at the narrator who is frozen in fear. This second guitar solo is Trey’s strongest and most evocative effort ever recorded in the studio and proceeds the sophomoric tongue-in-cheeky ending riff which conveys a sudden
video-game like departure from the “Maze.”

SPARKLE -- @Phish_Forum
Coming on the heels of “Maze’s” descent into madness, a reprieve emerges in the form of “Sparkle.” But, like many tracks on Rift, what at first listen may seem to be an upbeat number, “Sparkle’s” lyrics tell a different story. The worried lover is being battered by building pressure. The dread of popping the question is compounded by a conversation with Ed and having to humble himself to Luce and Lil. Being confined in their worlds and subject to their expectations induces confusion and shame. And as the mind comes undone, he falls apart descending into gales of mad laughter.

The tempo of “Sparkle” steadily rises throughout the song. Each line is like the turn of a screw which continues the crescendo. The pressure steadily builds until melody breaks down and the lyrics become jumbled gibberish. Only one thing to do: laugh and laugh and fall apart.

HORN: @phishinhippie
I've always believed that the album Rift was written as a reflection of the narrator's inner turmoil. "Horn" tells the story of a committed lover who cannot let go despite the toxicity of the relationship. This lover intoxicates him like a "Rhine wine,”, and although she leaves him "forlorn,” he inevitably will continue to pick her up "at 8 as usual.” Whether this relationship is of a romantic nature or other is for the listener to decide for themselves. Despite its melancholy tone, I think "Horn" is a beautiful song.

The Wedge via Secret Cable from “PhishyLeaks”
“The Wedge” paints a picture for you instantly; one of a land of recognition and self-awareness.  A beautiful song that has continued to grow and transform in the live setting every year since it’s debut. A lively beat from Fishman and you’re off towards one of the more underrated FUN parts of a Phish song. We’ve had the blueprints for our pyramids forever and here we are, ready to peak all over them. The four headed monster is strong now. The great divide comes, as it always does – all, harmonizing and funkiness from the Chairmen, Trey’s professional subtleties of bliss, laced everywhere. The evolution of “The Wedge” reflects the lyrics and vibe of the song. Time and experimenting intros led us to 12/31/12. On this day, it was time for “The Wedge” to continue its path upward. A lively “I get it” jam was added as a gift; and it was edible. Truly astounding notes from Trey, and we are left with afterglow and the knowledge of just how far we’ve all come, together.

My Friend, My Friend -- Zachary Cohen @TheBabysMouth
The early acoustic strums of “My Friend, My Friend” produce a blissy pillow of sweet melodies that invite the listener to recline upon. Don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security, because this song is not your friend. Or at least not the kind you want on tour with you. As the swinging jazzy chord changes roll by, the slightest intimations of something dark and sinister lurk just at the edge of things. But just as you start to suspect something rotten is afoot, the roll and swing of Fishman’s cymbal snaps and Trey’s acoustic string strikes keep things grounded in the familiar.

And then, there it is, an utter tonal and rhythmic change, we’re now in Satan’s bed chamber as he prepares for a feast. He’s hobbling around in a scarlet kimono of the deepest darkest red as the nasty lyrics and minor melodies provide the soundtrack to Wilson’s Gothic chemistry lab, hidden in the catacombs underneath Prussia. As the song builds, musical dynamite is spread all over the tracks, the self-destruct button is revealed, and then, Page’s chords point the way home. “He Lights the Fuse.” The choral deconstruction and Trey’s absolutely wicked solo narrate the journey through to hell and back ending back on the soft pillow where this whole thing began. “MYFE!”

WEIGH -- @CaptainDan
“I’d like to cut your head off, so I can weigh it…..whaddya say?”

That is pretty much exactly how I picture a Mike Gordon lucid dream starting. “Weigh” is one of my all time favorite Phish tunes as the song encompasses so much about the band that is special to me: its jazzy feel and sound set against awkward, yet hilarious lyrics. I can’t help but smile  when “Weigh’s” introductory notes drop.

Weigh gives each band member an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, even for just a few moments.  Whether its Fish’s playful balance of the bell on the ride cymbal and the snare, or Gordon dropping a few key bass bombs when he sees the opportunity, it all fits together like clockwork. When it is Page’s turn to take the reins he delivers some beautiful work on the ivory that transitions to one of the rare times where a guitar solo is layered with another. And although some interpret the lyrics as being malicious in nature--given their graphic content--I tend to find them more inquisitive. I think Mike would actually like to “Weigh” some weird things, which I am totally OK with.    

All Things Reconsidered -- @ThisAlbumSucks
An instrumental track bridges the weirdness gap between Mike Gordon’s two contributions to Rift. “All Things Reconsidered” is a variation on NPR’s All Things Considered theme music. Short and sweet, ATR often served as an instrumental interlude between two weightier songs in its heyday from 1992-1993. Last performed live by Phish on 2/23/97, “All Things Reconsidered” is annually mentioned as a potential bustout. True to its live setlist function, the album version of “All Things Reconsidered” is a brief respite from the slasher song “Weigh” and the macabre “Mound.” In fitting with the theme of introspection throughout Rift, “All Things Reconsidered” opens the final 1/3 of the album, which features arguably some of the most introspective songs in Phish’s repertoire--”It’s Ice, Mound, and Silent In The Morning.”

Mound -- @MikeHamad
“Mound” is dimension-rich.

Clap along, on the two and four. If you successfully make it through the opening (doubtful), your hands will meet on the first and third beats (try it!). There's a reward for getting it right: you get to pass from one dimension (two-four) to another (one-three). (Not literally, but fun to propose.)

In two-four (0:32-0:44), a bunch of bros are hanging out, drinking beer somewhere.

In one-three (0:45-5:55), there's an old man, and a mound. There's a deceptively large amount of information in this minimal place, and struggle; between stability (those steady drums) and decay (that incessant guitar syncopation); between campy sing-along chorus and perfectly choreographed, tight-harmony verse, one that would lose little of its impact -- perhaps it would gain more muscle mass -- if it were sung a capella; between the Caribbean and Appalachia. Between American post-war blues and British psychedelic folk. Between linear counterpoint and parallel motion. "At the last hill, he realized he'd circled back around." You can imagine the response from a Greek chorus: "Round a back circled, round a back realized."

It gets interesting before it gets dull. (It gets dull, but later). Some examples:

3:20. Mike plays the folky verse melody, Trey the syncopated prog-reggae, Page the blues shuffle, Fishman the Appalachia.

3:35. Four distinct, colorful objects hang down from a mobile above a crib.

3:48, the "time, time, time..." part of the instrumental section. “Mound” has rewind-able time, pointing backward, into the old man's past, never spelling out for us what happened; static time, the eternal struggle between us broken old men and this unkind, treacherous world; and free-flowing time, jumping around at will, now forward, now backward, constrained by none of the shackles found in conventional pop lyrics. Mike baked a certain chance-music element into the instrumental section, some parts of which have never made musical sense to me, and that’s totally fine: Trey makes musical sense, to a fault. Mike is nomadic and unpredictable.

3:56. The plant outgrows the planter.

4:21. Mike, Trey and Page fall in line together behind the syncopation. (It doesn't last; they fall out of phase again.)

4:34. One-three, or two-four? Fishman has to pivot, to hiccup, to adjust his steady beat (try it!). We lost a sixteenth note along the way somewhere. (Is THAT what's in the mound?)

That textural third verse. Clean arpeggios; color-note organ, no real chords, very spare. Bass, far less busy than before, a pillow shoved down its throat to get it to shut-the-fuck-up-please. Wide-open cymbals, open throttle, no dampers. Mike's voice, hovering in reverb. Meat falling off the bone.

The ending is dull. You've heard the best parts of the song, and you know it. Songs end -- everything does.

“I was inspired to do something of my own that was written out,” Mike told me when I interviewed him in 2011. “I remember I spent a couple of weeks every day all day on my Rhodes keyboard and I was experimenting with a lot of different concepts. I was taking melodies and making them come back around on a different instruments. The only thing I didn’t know was how to make something playable. I thought, Well, Page [McConnell, Phish’s keyboard player] has ten fingers. Then I discovered that [guitarist] Trey [Anastasio] had never written a fugue with more than one note for each hand... So this one must be pretty hard. It wasn’t written for playability... It’s certainly one of the hardest Phish songs.”

Postscript: I was at the debut of “Mound,” in 1992, in Portsmouth. I'm proud of that. I was with my best friend, Jon Sweeney. He's not alive anymore. “Mound“seems like it has always been around and isn't going anywhere.

IT’S ICE -- @Jameskam17
One of my personal favorite songs from Rift is “It’s Ice”. The Tom Marshall poem was frequently played live from ‘91 to ’94 before slowly fading in favor of newer material. By the time Phish Destroys America (Fall ‘97 Tour), “It’s Ice” was a rarity. Since returning to the stage in 2009, “It’s Ice” has only been played live twelve times and only once in 2012 at Bader Field. Regardless of its apparent shelving, “It’s Ice” will always hold a special place in my heart.

The song, like each track from Rift, was written to place the listener directly in the song. The music not only creates characters, but moods too. Like “The Lizards, Tela” or any other song from TMWSIY, “It’s Ice” transports us from listener to active participant.

From start to finish “It’s Ice” has several tight, cohesive composed parts, but also has sections that emphasize Phish’s antics and moods. In a way, “It’s Ice” is one of the most complete Phish songs.

The beautiful signature guitar riff starts the song before transitioning into Page’s voice. Page is absolutely perfect for this song as he tells us about a skater who is conflicting with his reflected image on the ice. The vivid imagery paints a ridiculous picture for us, and the chorus then takes that picture and lets us hear what we think we are seeing. Trey and Page sing back and forth, echoing the reflective souls skating on the ice, before playing music that slowly tries to pull us down. The music here reflects the lyrics more than ever. “My double wants to pull me down” is followed by descending riffs, just fantastic stuff. We hear this struggle constantly between what’s above the ice and what’s below. The music is impeccable and consistently evokes the battle between the skater and the image, more and more as the song progresses, stressing that the battle is getting harder and harder. Along with “Maze,” this song was built to jam upon. The tune is so catchy it will stick in your head all day.

But before we get dropped into a bottomless abyss, we get a classic Phish move, or rather, a Fish move. A slow build features Fish atop his seat when live, doing the Fish Dance before we are finally thrown under the ice. We are sinking, we are falling, we are helpless. But soon after the boys bring us back up for one last breath, and struggle, to finish off the song. “It’s Ice” is just too complete and too perfect. Between hilarious antics, fiercely composed sections, and beyond vivid imagery from the music and lyrics, “It’s Ice” will always be a quintessential Phish song, and a favorite for many for many years. Oh, by the way did I mention that all in all, it’s just an awesome song!! Might be time for this one to come off the shelf.

Lengthwise Pt. 2 -- @ThisAlbumSucks
Before the dawn breaks, the chanting of “Lengthwise” again repeats in the sleep-muddled mind. The dream sequence is near denouement, but not before one more round of worry over his lover’s absence from their bed. The hazy thoughts overburden the jilted mind just as it awakes.

The Horse>Silent In The Morning -- @ClayMaddox
“The Horse > Silent in the Morning” has always been one of Phish's prettier pieces and a standout track to close the album in true coda fashion. Many of the musical elements of the album are woven into the final piece. The gradual surge that builds on Trey's minimal, yet escalating guitar line is vintage Phish. The multiple vocalists and chorus in canon are the essence of how Phish music works and touches our emotions. What starts as a lone acoustic guitar line and typically Phishy introspective lyrics in “The Horse” becomes a cyclical wave of tension and release in “Silent” as the song rises to a peak and fades away. After the chaos of the album and the underlying tone and message of confusion and loss, this song brings resolution with the morning sunrise.

While not the most rocking bullets in Phish' arsenal, this combo is one of the deadliest because whether you like Phish for the virtuosity, the introspection, or the unique approach to songwriting, this album and this song contain those elements in spades.

"Brings me to my knees"

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