"All music on this disc was recorded live (no overdubs) during two multi-day jam sessions at Bearsville Studios in 1997."
So says the last of the liner notes in the booklet of The Siket Disc, without a doubt the greatest curio in the Phish discography. Not quite a traditional studio album, not quite a live album, and not quite an outtakes/b-sides compilation, this album is some strange combination of all three: a succinct collection of live-in-the-studio improvisations and sound experiments recorded during the sessions that would produce 1998's The Story of the Ghost. Originally available in 1999 and only through Phish's website, it saw a wider release in late 2000 after the Farmhouse album and the beginning of Phish's "first" hiatus. Probably because they still owed their record label a couple more and Elektra was afraid the might not get back together...but being in stores meant I was able to buy this before I was old enough to have a credit card to order it...so whatever.
In my review of The Story of the Ghost, I spoke of how the album felt like a missed opportunity to release something experimental and very different for the band. Fresh off their late winter '97 European tour, the band immediately entered the studio to begin sketching out another album. They were intensely inspired by the music they were now making, having finally arrived at the improvisational breakthrough they had been striving for throughout '96, music that was spacious and funky, with an emphasis on group interplay. At the same time, the music was also more challenging and more brooding than most of what had come before. The funkier aspects of this 'new' sound are in evidence on Ghost while the more spacey/psychedelic/ambient pieces make up The Siket Disc, which itself hews more closely to the 'spacey-guitar/keyboard loops-with-a-groove-underneath' improv style of '99 and '00. At any rate, with the added context of this release and the three CD outttakes from these sessions that float around, it was clear that Phish never intended to make the experimental/really different album I wish for. But I digress.
If the Siket Disc can be viewed as a rare glimpse into the non-pop songwriting side of studio Phish, then one must judge it by those standards. It's strange, riveting music and often sounds like what the band produces once they leave the moorings of a song and have sailed off into the jammy waters on the winds of inspiration. There's always that thrilling moment during the best Phish jams where you forget which song it was and the music takes on a character of pure invention, asking you to accept it at face value and comprehend it not as a mathematical equation of keyboard/bass/guitar/drums/melody/rhythm/texture but as something beyond those things. The Siket Disc is this, distilled. It loses something for the lack of context of a live show but gains something in the utter uncanniness of the music, familiar as the products of instruments but otherwordly, too. The average listener would listen to this album or any snippet of a live Phish improvisation and think it was boring, but they're only after a quick chorus or a rapid series of emotionally void guitar riffs. To those of us who savor Phish and music that is covered by the umbrella of improv/ambient/electronic/experimental/noise, The Siket Disc is incredible stuff. It's challenging not in the way that, say, Metal Machine Music or Steve Reich are, but in the patience and open-ness required for enjoyment. And, for what it's worth, this is the only Phish album that has music the majority of which you won't hear in live shows. The few tracks that did make it to the stage were relegated to a handful of shows or singular appearances. If you're a Phish fan and don't own this album, you're missing out on the drum-less lullaby 'Albert', the playful groove 'The Name Is Slick', and the throbbing-machine-bass-with-rocks-tumbling-down-the-mountain of 'Fish Bass.'
The Siket Disc is not for everyone. It's not even for most fans of the band. But what it does is offer a different view of Phish and a unique set of snapshots of their non-live improvisations. In fact, it leaves one wishing they would release outtakes/improvisations from other studio sessions, too. I know that this album helped deepen my love and understanding of the band; it's like nothing else in their discography. I consider it the hidden gem of their studio work and a minor masterpiece in its own right.