Why isn’t Fischer-Z one of the most popular bands in the universe? Since their debut album, WORD SALAD, was released in 1979, band leader/singer/songwriter John Watts has continued to grow as a songwriter, often switching gears during his musical journey while still maintaining artistic integrity. Perhaps even more importantly, his lyrics are always honest and relevant, which is often reflected by the musical arrangements that surround them. Watts is not a man who continues to recycle the same musical ideas that initially brought the band to the public’s attention four decades ago. F-Z’s catalog is not filled with carbon copies of “So Long,” the band’s most recognizable hit from 1980. Instead, Watts has continued to move forward, adding new layers to songwriting while thoughtfully stripping other layers away. In some ways, he’s constantly reinventing himself without abandoning what drew people to his talent in the first place.
While he’s released albums under his own name as well as Watts, The Cry, and J.M. Watts, he’ll always be best remembered for his releases under the Fischer-Z moniker. While the band’s first three albums may have been more of a ‘band’ project, John has been the sole original member of any configuration of the band ever since. With a catalog that is roughly 20 albums deep, it is sad that a majority of Americans have absolutely no idea who John Watts and Fischer-Z are. Then again, it doesn’t help that only the first two F-Z album were released in the U.S. At the very least, the band should be cult heroes here in the States alongside fellow British artists like The Jam, The Motors, Interview, Nick Lowe, etc. Watts’ songs are sharp, melodic, and wholly original. You can hear classic influences (Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, etc.) but it goes much deeper than that. Echoes of Folk, Avant-Garde, Post-Punk, Pure Pop, World Music, and other genres can be detected inhabiting Watts’ songs. In short, John Watts writes great Pop hooks and thought-provoking lyrics. Like Ian McNabb and a select few others, John Watts defies typical music industry logic and continues to release albums that are just as good – if not better – than anything he has released in the past.
2019 gives us SWIMMING IN THUNDERSTORMS, the third F-Z album in a row (after 2016’s THIS IS MY UNIVERSE and 2017’s BUILDING BRIDGES) and, unsurprisingly, it is one of the finest of his career. It is an album that is bold, confident, intelligent, heartfelt, hook-filled, and beautiful. While the two previous albums set the bar pretty high, SWIMMING IN THUNDERSTORMS leaps over that bar with ease. The album is both intimate and adventurous. If you like Fischer-Z because of their Pop edge, there’s plenty here to enjoy. If you love their musical depth, then dive in. If Watts’ lyrics speak to you, then come in and listen. Filled with some truly mesmerizing tracks, SWIMMING IN THUNDERSTORMS is a prime example of why full-length albums are still works of art. Off the top of my head: “Big Wide World” is a modern Pop gem with some subtle synth work that links the song to the band’s early albums. “Stamp It Out” twists that formula with electronics front and center, creating a bed for John’s stirring vocals. “The Islamic American” is one of the most immediately catchy songs on the album, a vaguely Power Poppy anthem that is far too short. “Wary” has an early ‘70s Soul vibe to it and features a vocal performance from the soul (no pun intended). “Stolen” revisits the Reggae rhythms that infiltrated some of their earlier songs. “No Bohemia” is a touching – and quite powerful – piano ballad. “Half Naked Girl In The Windowsill,” “Love Train Drama”… too many great tunes to mention.
I have to admit that I expected SWIMMING IN THUNDERSTORMS to be good, but it is much more than that. It is truly magnificent. This has comfortably landed in my Top 5 albums of the year with ease.
Keep on truckin’,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee
SWIMMING IN THUNDERSTORMS