Holy Blankenstein: Spirituality in Sci-Fi Soldier

(Johnny Dombrowski)

Phish has made a career out of one-upping themselves time and time over, and with Sci-Fi Solidier, they just did it again. To close a mind-bending fall tour, the band performed their most ambitious, multi-faceted and outright brilliant Halloween set of their lives. Sci-Fi Soldier is a work of utter genius—a profound piece of spiritual philosophy wrapped in the band’s irresistible humor and drool-worthy grooves—that delivers on multiple levels and represents the greatest piece of concept-driven art that the Vermont quartet has ever laid down.

The cohesive, set-long suite simultaneously hits as shock value comedy, science fiction adventure, and spiritual Truth. Though this work of art can be met on multiple levels of enjoyment, it can only be wholly appreciated when understood in its deepest intention. Woven into Sci-Fi Soldier’s comedy-laced adventure lays a spiritual philosophy that in terms of its story—and reality—can save the world.

In a production in which every detail was calculated, the comic book that Phish distributed before the show serves as a crucial accompaniment to the set’s trajectory, as it provides a road map of Halloween’s musical, lyrical and philosophical journey.

Central to the plot is the quantum theory of parallel, coexisting realities expressed through the metaphor of the Nine Cubes. The quantum field contains every possible version of reality, and which version is energetically attracted determines what comes to fruition in humans’ earth-based experience. When the sci-fi soldiers look into the Nine Cubes, they see Earth, “the homeworld of their beloved prophets,” Kasvot Vaxt, “tearing itself apart.” When confronted with the knowledge of Earth’s destruction, they are determined affect an alternate reality and save the planet.

The super heroes look to the “only entity wise enough to interpret what [they’ve] seen,” the oracle, Holy Blankenstein. The oracle explains that Earth has been destructed by “forces of the human’s own making;” a plague called “The Howling” was caused by all the thinking of the human race. Blankenstein instructs the sci-fi soldiers to time-travel back to Earth before its ruin and find a way to “put a blank space where [humans’] mind should be,” or in other words, get human beings to transcend the realm of thought and live in their true state of unitary consciousness in order to return the planet to balance.

Holy Blankenstein, whose name overtly connects to the sacred state of non-thought that is central to the story’s philosophy, illustrates one methodology to accomplish this goal through the creatures that inhabit his planet. He explains, “These creatures keep their brains in their knees. They clear their minds with the movement of dance and handstands in grand fashion. We can learn much from them. Clear your mind.” It is through this example that the metaphor “un-head the knee” is born. This term, while literally referring to the creatures clearing their knee-based minds through dance, is a clever figure of speech to describe the process of stilling the thinking mind in order to move beyond thought, itself, and live in pure awareness of Truth, the Oneness of all living beings.

(Johnny Dombrowski)

Through Blankenstein’s dialectic and the example of their prophets, Kasvot Vaxt, who “used music from their album I Rokk to travel the galaxy and share their teachings,” the sci-fi soldiers settle on a path of action. By playing music to get humans to dance, they will “put a blank space where their mind should be” and influence the human race to “un-head the knee,” or transcend the dimension of thought. If humans “get more down” and, hence, “clear their minds,” they will experience “The Unwinding”—the deconstruction of the illusion of separateness—enter their authentic state of pure consciousness and live the spiritual Truth of Oneness. These existential tenets echo spiritual sages throughout the history of mankind, and the way Phish integrates these ideas within their musical-comedic masterpiece is beyond genius and exemplifies why they are, quite literally, one of a kind.

Before he vanishes, Blankenstein leaves the soldiers with a cryptic number— 10/31/21, “likely an inflection point where the past and the future are precisely divided.” In preparing to time-travel back to earth on this date—fifty years before The Howling takes hold—and inhabit the bodies of their prophets, Kasvot Vaxt, the comic book heroes quickly realize that the Scandinavian band has been long gone from the planet by this time. But they find a connection to a band called Phish who “know how to play the music of the prophets,” and they decide that they will have to settle on a plan B. The sci-fi soldiers will inhabit Phish’s bodies on Halloween 2021 to influence humankind to see through the illusions of thought and separateness in order to save the planet. The music of the Halloween performance flows from there.

The way in which Phish integrates their hallowed 2018 Kasvot Vaxt set into Sci-Fi Soldier is a masterstroke. Nodding to their last Halloween show while weaving its story into an even more ambitious and complex performance ties together Phish’s past, present and future. In co-opting the former story into this one, they also recognize their career as a continuum and not simply one separate chapter after another.

But what about the music? Well…every single Sci-Fi Soldier song is absolutely fucking incredible. The set is beyond cohesive, a flowing artistic suite from beginning to end. The songs not only carry forth the sci-fi adventure narrative, they also craft a non-stop dance party strewn with deep Phish grooves from start to finish. This was the Halloween set of dreams—a conceptual masterpiece with riveting music that is laced with comedy and framed in a visually hypnotic production. What more can one ask for? Sci-Fi Soldier is absolute, one hundred percent Phish perfection.

(Johnny Dombrowski)

The band musically riffs off the established narrative laid down in the comic book to form the songs of the Sci-Fi Soldier set. Most of the songs clearly reference parts of the story, while a few are more opaquely connected. Musically speaking, assuming they continue to play these songs, Phish immediately infused their catalog with a plethora of potential launch pads, as they could take any one of these songs off the deep end. Most of them are thoroughly groove-based—several structured around simple vamps—and feel more open-ended then past Halloween originals. Though they form a more unified whole than any group of Halloween songs to date, it would not be surprising to see them take prominent roles in the band’s live shows immediately.

As the set kicks off with “Knuckle Bone Broth Avenue”—the name of the time-stream the sci-fi soldiers use to travel back to Earth—and “Get More Down”—the overarching instructions from the futuristic saviors to humankind—the rhythmic, dance-based focus of the set becomes immediately apparent. “Egg in a Hole” brings a heavier psych-metal vibe to the set as the soldiers speak of their journey to New Chicago to see the oracle, Blankenstein. “Thanksgiving” is a dose of self-referential groove-comedy in which Sci-Fi Soldier sings about Phish, often repurposing their exact lyrics, which becomes a pattern throughout the set. The refrain of “It’s a shame about the blood” may reference the effects of the Howling if the course of time is not altered by Sci-Fi Solider’s Las Vegas performance.

The overarching theme of the set—Truth beyond thought—comes front and center in “Clear Your Mind.” Trey, as Clueless Wallob, tells the audience that this song is very important on Sci-Fi Soldier’s home planet, and that he hopes they will heed its message. With this invocation, he brings the spiritual instructions of the comic book plot to life, asking the audience to clear their mind in order to see the Truth of their unified and limitless existence. This suggestion, though anchored in the fictional narrative, is completely in line with the lyrical motifs of so many of Trey’s modern, spiritually centered compositions. Here is where fiction and reality intersect, as this belief of moving beyond humans’ obsession with thought can simultaneously save both versions—fictional and actual—of 2021’s Earth-in-peril.

(Johnny Dombrowski)

The instrumental of “The 9th Cube” references the quantum model of parallel worlds and how the Sci-Fi soldiers were able to perceive Earth’s destruction and choose a different reality in which they save the planet. This piece hearkens back to a classic Phish sound, as its intricate twists and turns veer from the looser groove-based structures of the songs that precede it.

‘The Inner Reaches of Outer” combines lyrical wordplay with a Brian Eno-inspired sound to craft one of the more delicate and enchanting songs of the set. The inner reaches of outer may be a metaphor for the paradoxical and dualistic nature of human beings—that the deepest part of the individual self is, in fact, nothingness, and part of the greater whole of existence. This idea is also reflected when Blankenstein appears to the soldiers in both “being and not being.”

The conceptual apex of the set comes in the pairing of “Don’t Doubt Me” and “The Unwinding.” “Don’t Doubt Me” conveys the perspective of Holy Blankenstein, while doubling as an exhortation from Clueless Wallob to the Halloween audience. Both the music and the lyrical command to “Un-head the knee!” grow in intensity throughout the set’s centerpiece reaching a furious climax. A passage deep into the piece’s mounting peak brings the set’s theme to a head—

There’s nowhere to be
A far off white light hanging over me
But nothing is changing in the silent cold
Is it lonely?
Is it lonely?
Is it lonely?
Is it lonely?
Not if you un-head the knee!
Is it lonely?
Not if you un-head the knee,
Because then YOU become WE
When you un-head the knee.
Holy Blankenstein!

When the ego-driven obsession with thought is released and one moves beyond the thinking mind into pure consciousness, the illusion of the individual dissolves into the Truth of Oneness—“YOU become WE when you un-head the knee.” Holy Blankenstein, indeed. This is the crux of the set’s philosophy and how Earth is saved.

“The Unwinding,” which follows “Don’t Doubt Me,” represents the dissolution of this illusion. The individual moves through an unwinding of programmed thought and action when they are awakened to the Truth of their connected, unified and infinite existence. No longer is one burdened by the false constructs of self and other, and the experience of life becomes one of harmony and grace. The tranquil quality of this composition as juxtaposed to the intensity of “Don’t Doubt Me” illustrates this transition into human’s natural state of being. Tangentially, the band could really take this song into deep, abstract places as hinted at in this version.

The subsequent track, “Something Living Here” may very well also connect to this transitional process, representing the last vestiges of the dying ego. The repeated line “I twist humor to exist, and, no, I never asked for this” seems to speak from the deconstructed ego trying to hang on in the face of Truth that spells its oblivion. The line “Stuck in the waiting room and I want to go in” might speak to the individual’s natural desire to transcend itself versus the grasp of the egoic mind holding on for survival.

The narrative resolution of the set comes in the penultimate piece—“The Howling.” This revelrous throwdown serves as a celebration of a mission accomplished—the Earth has been saved and The Howling has been averted. The lyric “The Howling—Now it’s starting to feel good!” reveals that the sci-fi soldiers have affected a new reality in which humankind will live as One and the plague of thinking has been cured. Carrying a dance-floor-incinerating “2001”-esque groove, this track seems like it could serve as a staple in Phish’s live repertoire moving forward.

(Johnny Dombrowski)

The set concludes in very Phishy fashion with the almost-a-cappella song “I Am In Miami,” as the futuristic band sings of their return to their home planet of New Miami. Filled with clever wordplay and humor, this piece provides a perfect landing point for the deep, set-long journey through the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Unbeknownst to anyone, the music of 2021 has been pointing to the Halloween set since day one. Trey’s new guitar tones, Page’s synthesizers, Fishman’s voice samples—these were all stylistic building blocks of Sci-Fi Soldier’s sound, and Phish, simultaneously, used these elements to reinvent its post-pandemic sonic path. The creation of the set and the preparation for its performance pushed the band outside of their conventions and served at a catalyst for Phish’s most adventurous and successful year in a long, long time. In fact, this past fall tour is my personal favorite run of Phish since the late-‘90’s, but that’s another conversation for another day.

When the lights came up after the Halloween set I was in sheer disbelief. My first thought was, “That was the greatest thing of all-time.” Now, several weeks and many re-listens later, that thought has not changed one iota. It was, in fact, the greatest thing of all-time. Integrating every element of Phish’s artistic genius into a unified and fully realized, conceptual package, the Sci-Fi Soldier set marks a new creative high point for the ever-evolving, humanoid phenoms. The band met the moment with comprehensive mastery, flawlessly showcasing their multilayered production despite the countless variables within live music and performance art. But beneath the amazing music, persistent comedy, and visual effects of Sci Fi Soldier, there exists beautiful and universal Truth, Truth that both bands—fictional and real—hope we, their audience, will heed. Through an elaborate science fiction framework, Phish elegantly constructs a spiritual allegory, breaking new conceptual ground with their Halloween creation. The result was truly something to behold—an unparalleled performance that will go down in Phish lore and be talked about until 4680 and beyond.

 

(Johnny Dombrowski)

29 Responses to “Holy Blankenstein: Spirituality in Sci-Fi Soldier”

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  1. Yatuh Says:

    So much fun. It really was one of the weirdest pieces of art music. The set continued to pickup steam song after song. The unwinding might be the most beautiful piece of lyrical music they’ve ever put together which is weird Bc there’s barely no lyrics. Loved it

    Unwinding something living here and the howling is on constant playback.

  2. Cabinphever Says:

    Holy Blankenstien! I Loved it! So glad I was there for it! I really Got More Down! Thank God it wasn’t a cover album… What I really wanted was a whole set of Phresh Phish! Exactly what we got!

  3. Al Says:

    Never liked Halloween shows. Never.

  4. phishm Says:

    I totally dig on the Unwinding. It makes absolute and total sense. And yet if I tried to explain it I’d sound like I was a lunatic. Well done guys. I dig it.

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