Ross Fish, an 18-year-old from central Jersey, has interesting standards. Whereas most of his peers attempt to specialize in DJing, hip-hop beatmaking, or other more accessible pathways to the creation of electronic music, Fish actually has a grasp on the melodic and technical components of the style. Though his age suggests this is a recent upstart, Fish has been working in various projects for years now. Alongside frequent collaborator Max Fishkin (Mass Fiction), his past efforts in Hey Zeus! showed a songwriter with a mind for structure and melody, even if his skills in those areas had yet to come to fruition. With the recent release of a new album, Dreams Feel Real, he has advanced from manufacturing snazzy electronic sounds to memorable songs. For many his age, this is a complex jump that results in failure or premature retirement. But for him it simply marks a beginning worth taking seriously.
The album begins enjoyably enough with some vintage chiptune, courtesy of “Outside Your Mind”. While the rest of Dreams Feel Real shows more technically advanced material, this is one of the more downright infectious efforts. The chorus, with Fish’s accentuated delivery and addition of moog-like synths and organs, raises the stakes from elementary to advanced. His melodic grasp here is commendable, with a voice that emits a nasally burst of emotion akin to Steve Bays or Rob Crow. “I’m thinking it’s time that you step outside your mind,” he sings, paving the way for an organ to momentarily take over before the chiptune beeps resume. The sentiments of romanticized regret and opportunism are the farthest from complex or thought-provoking, but the intentions of this pop-minded track would not have coordinated well with that. It is a fun and bright opener for sure.
“Francine the Dub Queen” features some help from Fish’s grandmother, even if the assortment of moogs and sampling is a bit beyond her years. But like her grandson, she may be ahead of them. Grime, dubstep, hip-hop… Fish has a grasp of them all. And while this solo release sees him taking more accessible ground in “Outside Your Mind” and the bouncy “Eyes on You”, tracks like “Francine the Dub Queen” and “Nihil ex Nihilio” resemble his past project, Hey Zeus!, in its incorporation of acid-induced electronica. For that, think Avalanches’ sample-friendly demeanor, but replace their summer-y vacation vibe with a darker, more dubstep-oriented approach. On “Francine”, his grandmother’s chopped-up vocal additions are great in the sense of novelty, but even that fact aside the track shows great leaps in terms of Fish’s developmental ability. This track flows with studied vigor, the twinkling synth pads and stuttering beats finding a cross between DJ Shadow and Justice that should entertain both the dance-friendly and beat-intense crowds.
“The Smoker” rides on its abrupt transitions, perhaps serving as a bit too hectic and transitional for the stoned state its title may suggest. The evolution from ramped-up electronica to a more subdued, pop-minded arpeggio is tasteful here, as are the subtle additions Ross makes to each verse of the former vein. Some of the transitions to broader melodic territory seem forced, but the actual melodies are never to be reckoned with. Cohesiveness will come in due time for Fish, but as his melodic and technical skills cast a shadow over most of his peers.
In terms of commercial appeal, I think the only track with more potential than “Outside Your Mind” for radio play is “Crack Me Up”. The song loves it some tremolo, as the keys and guitars create a stomping stampede of sorts before Fish gives in to a wholly reflective vocal melody in the verse. Like “Outside Your Mind”, it is not the most advanced effort by a long shot, but at least when Fish relies on simplicity he produces a melodically satisfying song. You have to love little touches, like the concluding sax or key-aided percussion, on top of general success.
Dreams Feel Real is an album worth listening to for several reasons. On one hand, it shows an artist that has gotten increasingly better over the past few years. This appears to be the first release of Fish’s where his experience has finally paid off into something cumulatively worthwhile. Some tracks are simplistic and poppy, while others are ambitious and require patience. However, for whatever lacks in cohesiveness is always made up for in melodic and technical appeal. In that spectrum, Fish has little to improve upon. This is precisely why his next release is on my radar.
Top photo by Charline Tetiyevsky. Album art by Stephen Cohen.
RIYL: DJ Shadow, UNKLE, RJD2, Kid Koala, Cut Chemist, Amon Tobin, Avey Tare, Pinback, Coldcut, Dr. Octagon, CFCF, Massive Attack, Bonobo, The Chemical Brothers, Gorillaz, Nightmares on Wax, Daft Punk, Mr. Scruff, Skalpel, Avalanches, Hot Hot Heat, Animal Collective, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Quantic