A little over a year ago, Phish released their fifteenth studio album Sigma Oasis through a YouTube live stream. At the time, everyone assumed it was going to be an April fool’s joke, but it ended up being a much-needed gift at the beginning of the pandemic. Right off the bat, you could tell it wasn’t a normal Phish album. Most of their studio projects end up sounding just a little off. Some are too clean sounding, others have a weak tracklist, but everybody agrees that none of them capture the true essence of Phish. Sigma Oasis is different. It’s the perfect expression of who Phish is at this point in their career.
One of the most obvious issues with most of the more recent Phish albums is the song selection. A good few are weighed down by filler. Sometimes the entire album is filler. Those that aren’t have an odd collection of songs that don’t really mesh, keeping the album from ever settling into a good flow. Big Boat, the album released prior to Sigma Oasis, is considered to be one of the band’s worst, and a look at the tracklist will tell you why. It’s chockfull of odd-ball songs that had clearly never been played outside of the studio and have already struggled to fit into the flow of a live show. This is especially bizarre given how the album before came to be.
For those who are unaware, Phish has a longstanding tradition of donning a “musical costume” every Halloween and covering an album from another band. For the 2013 concert, they got creative and decided to cover themselves from the future. That night they played Wingsuit in its entirety, and it was the definition of a mixed bag. Thankfully, the band listened to the fans’ feedback and made some major adjustments before releasing it on June 24, 2014. They trimmed the fat, changed the song order, and even renamed it Fuego after it was clear the new title-song was the fan-favorite from the Halloween performance. This new approach paid off big time when the album debuted at #7 on the Billboard charts and received almost universal critical acclaim.
Thankfully, Phish followed this methodology when creating Sigma Oasis. Every song on the album had already been played live multiple times, which gave them a sense of what made each song great. They took the time to rework a few tracks, and it made all the difference in the world. I saw the live debut of Thread, and right away I knew it had huge potential if they could tighten it up a bit, and they did. Plus we got a new and improved Mercury, now with 20% less vermillion!
For better or worse, most of the lyrics on the album reflect the state of current-day Phish perfectly. Outside of Thread, everything is happiness, peace, and love, a hallmark of the Anastasio/Marshall duo. Yeah, a lot of it does cross over into the realm of cheese, but can you blame him for being so happy? Trey Anastasio went from sitting in a jail cell suffering through withdrawals to having everything he could ever ask for. It would be shocking if that didn’t bleed into his songwriting. I’ll always be glad when a person finds true happiness, even if it means cringing every now and then at a show. And hey, at least it doesn’t have Soul Planet.
There are a lot of opinions about the good and bad parts of this album, but everyone agrees on its biggest strength: it feels like a live show. The band made the right call in ditching producer Bob Ezrin. He’s a rock legend, but some of the decisions he made on Big Boat made it clear that he doesn’t really get Phish. Nothing on Sigma Oasis sounds too glossy or overproduced. It’s all incredibly natural and intimate. The entire project was recorded in one week at The Barn, and it shows. But there’s one major reason this album captures the essence of live Phish so well. They did something they hadn’t done on an album since 1992: they jammed. Sigma Oasis has such an organic feel because it is organic. Over half of Everything’s Right’s 12+ minute runtime is improvised. Phish finally found a way to capture what it feels like to be at a show, and they did it when we needed it most. Listening to that April 1st debut was the first time hearing an album made me genuinely feel happy. After the crushing news that the Summer tour had been canceled, this album was a gift. Even as the world burned around me, I knew I could have an escape and rely on this album to take me to my happy place. If you’re looking for a way to experience Phish but you can’t go to a concert, listen to Sigma Oasis. It has everything you need.