The wait for a batch of new material from Trey Anastasio has been a long one, but if the Phish front man’s new single Scabbard, which came out today, is any indication, he’s used that time wisely. Scabbard finds Anastasio melding his early influences (King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Genesis) with more recent ones (Radiohead, The National, Sigur Ros) into a psychedelic art-rock sound that’s far unlike anything he’s ever released before.
The track starts with rustling percussion swipes before a dramatic burst of guitars, bass and swirling synths comes in. From there, a xylophone, horns and organ enter the mix giving Scabbard the Zappa-like feel that permeates the rest of the song. For all the windy, complex twists and turns found in the near two-minute intro, once the verse gets started there’s a catchy pop element that keeps the track from becoming too self-indulgent and abstract. Anastasio delivers the lyrics with urgency while backed by what sounds like TAB vocalists Natalie Cressman and Jennifer Hartswick. The trio of singers belt the “it’s there” chorus before the song’s first overdriven guitar comes in like a shot of musical testosterone.
Once we get through the vocals, the final three minutes of Scabbard begins with an acoustic guitar-driven interlude that screams Radiohead without losing Trey’s distinctive tone. Strings and synths come in to add more drama while layers of percussion build to a intense crescendo. When the drums fade out we’re left with a potent drone of bass, guitar and organ that brings the epic track to a close.
Anastasio has never made better use of the studio environment than he has on Scabbard, so much of the credit must go to noted producer Peter Katis. When Trey originally met with Katis, he told him he wanted to “do something totally out of left-field for him” and the pair have succeeded in a big way.
While Phish may have been killing it on the improvisational side this year and in 2011, the lack of new material was worrisome. Over the course of his career Trey has been a prolific composer who always seemed to have multiple batches of new material at the ready, but the well seemed to have dried up. Not only was Steam the only Phish song debuted in the last two years penned (at least in part) by Anastasio but, outside of Show of Life, the slew of Trey-written material unveiled by Phish in 2010 (Pigtail, My Problem Right There, Dr. Gabel, Summer Of ’89) was shelved as well. As the old saying goes, “If you aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backwards” so the track couldn’t have come at a better time. Scabbard marks a major evolution for the guitarist, who has gone in a more progressive direction that many Phish fans have been hoping for over the last decade. We’ll find out whether Scabbard is the exception or the rule on October 16th when Anastasio’s new album, Traveler, will be released.