Phish not only has the most critical fan-base in the history of rock, but also the most divisive. At the heart of anyone's personal journey with the band is the acceptance that people may enjoy this music for inherently different reasons than your own. Thus the enigma for the band itself lies in deciphering what that base emotion is that serves as the foundation for the wide swath of their fan-base - the proverbial "it" if you will. And after the dichotomous reaction to the debut of songs off Fuego last Halloween, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any fan expecting to hear it on this 2014 release. Yet for all intents and purposes, it's here. And while all fans will describe something different when hearing it on this album, it is undeniable. Fuego is potentially the last thing I was expecting it to be, and that makes it all the better.
Pulling no punches by opening with the incendiary title track, the band wants to make sure they grab everybody from the get-go. Combining power with compositional obscurity harkens to 1997 and "Fuego" sounds like it could be in a three-piece attack squad with that year's "Vultures" and "Carini." The jungle-trap breakdown in the middle of the tune sounds so natural it's surprising they've never really touched on that feel before, and when it drops back into the descending groove and chanted "whoas" you get that satisfactory release that's been lacking in new Phish songs for a solid decade. The latter of those parts sounds oddly similar to Benevento/Russo Duo's "Play Pause Stop," a song that Anastastio and Gordon used to play with the duo in 2006, but let's move on…

"The Line" is the first shoulder-shrug moment of the record, and fans of the song are quick to defend its "super-cool" back-story of a Memphis basketball player blowing some free-throws. That doesn't make the Glee-style swing feel any less corny, and the recycling chord progression at the end could have easily been chopped 45 seconds earlier. Things stay a tad too peachy with "Devotion to a Dream" - one of those tracks that sounds more like a poor high-school jam-band imitation of Phish than the genuine article. But things pick up again on "Halfway to the Moon," a dark and slanky cut that I've loved since first hearing the band debut it in Saratoga in 2010. Four years has been plenty of time to figure out the necessary idiosyncrasies of this one, and the result is one of Fuego's shining moments. Written by McConnell, this is easily one of the keyboardist's greatest creations and it fleshes out the overall feel of the record in a way that would have been very beneficial back on Halloween. The groove is reminiscent to one of those great Vida Blue pockets from the early 2000s.
"Winterqueen" steals half of the opening riff to "Rainbow Connection" and that's actually the least Disney moment of the song. Despite the nice addition of some horns, there's little to stop this track from sounding like it should have been the second song played during the ending credits of Frozen. It's not terrible though, as that word is reserved for "Sing Monica" - this is the kind of song for people who still think the production of Sesame Street Live they saw in 1988 was the best concert of their life. At this point you're probably thinking that my song descriptions somewhat clash with the high praise I gave in the introduction. Well first off, things are great from here on out. Secondly, despite some of their cornball natures, all of these songs do flow in an ideal arc throughout the record. Thirdly, every Phish album has some stupid shit on it.
Played by both Phish and with his solo band, Gordo's "555" has yet to do it for me in the live setting, but the studio does wonders for its complexion. What originally sounded like Rhode Island Reggae has turned into cream-dream era Robert Palmer, complete with horn and boisterous backing vocals. Anastasio uses a very minimalist touch here, and it opens the tune up perfectly for the rest of the instrumentation. "Waiting All Night" sounds like late-night drift-expansion at its finest. The lofty psychedelia again rings of '97, this time a partner to "Roggae," but even deeper into the "check-to-make-sure-the-top-of-your-head-is-still-there" category. Expect this one to pop up in more than a few late second sets this year. "Wombat" was the fan favorite at Halloween, but the cheeky novelty doesn't hold up so well on repeated listens. It's still a great groove, but goofball in a dumbed-down They Might Be Giants kind of way. "Wingsuit," the Halloween opener takes on the closing role here and it's a far more natural fit. Containing the beautifully simplistic self-referential line, "what's new is old/what's old is gone," this one feels like it was the best track left of off Pink Floyd's The Division Bell.
Now sure, depending upon one's level of jadedness you can still find a way to absolutely loathe this record. But honestly if you're at that point, then it's really time to find another band to obsess over. For the rest of Phish's dedicated fan-base though, you should be honored that your favorite band is somehow finding a way to be sonically relevant after 30 years, and be relieved to know that they still got some of "it" in their bag.