Taking account of the studio output of Phish – a lot of which is uneven at best and in no way representative of the band – is a difficult task. Even their most ardent supporters would be hard pressed to make an argument in favor of the timelessness of any of their albums. That’s not to say they are inherently bad, but they function better as a postcard of where the band was in their evolution at the time of their release.
Rift, released in February of ‘93, is no different. A concept album in the loosest of terms, it follows the story of a young man dealing with the tensions of his relationship and, in more vague terms, all of the turmoil that comes when it is finally time to make the transition from an overgrown adolescent to a man that seems to plague white dudes in their mid-twenties.
Perhaps belying their reputation, Rift is a remarkably dark album. Nightmarish imagery abounds throughout its length, with lyrical references to falling through a sheet of ice, being trapped in a maze, decapitation, hidden knives, betrayals and laughing into a nervous breakdown. I’d wager none of that subject matter would make the list of someone who had to guess the given content of a given Phish album. Rift’s brilliant cover art, illustrated by David Welker in foreboding shades of blue, captures a piece of each song save for the horse that would grace their next album, Hoist.
Musically, Rift is the endgame of Phish trying to synthesize their stew of early career influences into an original voice. Their previous album, A Picture of Nectar, was criticized as being all over the map because it captured those influences, but on individual songs (a bluegrass song here, a composed prog-rock piece there, a straightforward rocker in between). It was a valid criticism for an album that plays schizophrenically. On Rift, all of those are styles were incorporated much more organically. The jazz chords of “Weigh” don’t necessarily make it this album’s “jazz song” just like the tempo of “Sparkle” works in a way that doesn’t make it the album’s “bluegrass song,” even though both are clearly products of their respective influences. The result is arguably the most cohesive studio work of their career.
It is almost impossible to separate how Rift sounds today versus how it did at the time of its release. It sounds like ’93 in the same way that seeing the video for “Jeremy” or a photo of Bill Clinton’s inauguration takes you right back to those times. It was hardly influential in a pop-culture sense that year, never getting past number 51 on the Billboard charts. Twenty years on, some tracks have aged better than others. The frenetic organ and guitar solos in “Maze” capture the kind of manic energy that Phish conjures regularly in their live shows better than almost any of their existing studio output to date. Bass player Mike Gordon’s two contributions to the album, “Weigh” and “Mound” – they of the oddball time signatures and oddball lyrics respectively – wouldn’t sound out of place on one of their albums today. Gordon remains to this day a criminally underused songwriter for the band. Influenced by the lyrics for “Thrasher” by Neil Young, “The Wedge” is one of the rare Phish songs that sound better in the studio than in the live setting.
The tracks that don’t quite measure up upon re-examination seem hokey in the way a lot of things from that time appear in hindsight. Listening to “Rift”’s melodramatic lyrics or the cheery lilt of “Sparkle” is as awkward as watching Bart Simpson telling somebody to eat his shorts in an early “Simpsons” episode. Cool at the time, not so much now.
As a postcard of where Phish was at the time, Rift came along during a period of remarkable transition for the band, both musically and in terms of their popularity. There is a direct correlation between that theme of the tension in transitioning to adulthood and the place where Phish was at in their career. The album is the line of demarcation that delineates Phish from being a Northeast regional band to a national touring act. 1992-93 saw them settle into cross-country tours, filling larger theaters first, and then summer sheds, all culminating in their first headlining arena gig in Worcester, Massachusetts on New Year’s Eve ‘93. Despite a burning ambition on their part to do so, that growth spurt had to be overwhelming on a level. In that sense, it’s no wonder that the album’s theme is one of simmering turmoil. Despite whatever upheaval was wrought on them personally, musically it was the beginning point for the most fertile period in their history. At that point, Phish was 10 years into what is now a 30 year long career and, believe it or not, despite the fact that they are a jam band, the real improvisational fireworks they would come to be known for didn’t start to blossom until they toured behind Rift in ’93. Beginning that winter, their musical explorations (fine, jamming) would go deeper and longer than they ever had before.
Decades later, Phish has enjoyed a level of sustained popularity that few of their peers (the few that remain) could touch. A large, intensely loyal fan-base awaits them at every stop, and while their output of new material has slowed considerably in the past few years, they enjoyed a year in 2012 that was perhaps their most creative in a decade. And that fact alone, more than anything else, says volumes about their legacy since the release of Rift. Phish is a band to be enjoyed live. That’s as true in 2013 as it was in 1993.