The hiatus is over. The world is safe for trampoline high jinks and glowstick wars. The mighty Phish, once burned out and rudderless, has returned to fill the longstanding jam-band hole its absence created two years ago. And what's a rejuvenated jam band to do but jam hard over the course of a winding, bending 78 minutes?

The 12 expansive songs on Round Room, the band's ninth studio release, erupt from an impromptu recording session this past October at guitarist and singer Trey Anastasio's converted barn in Vermont. The record is Phish's loosest affair in over a decade, suggesting the time away from one another gave the foursome the peace of mind it craved. While Anastasio and lyricist Tom Marshall write well-rounded songs -- and have written better ones than these -- the musicians' need to explore and create as organic a groove as possible often usurps mere song structure, so that a countryish ditty like "Pebbles and Marbles" becomes a 12-minute exercise in the intensity of ebb and flow and improvisational riffing, complete with an out-of-control rockout at song's end. The mess of noise is less important than the spirit behind it. There's less pop (none of the great "Down With Disease," "Heavy Things" brevity) and more drama. Same goes with the deliberate "Walls of the Cave," which features Page McConnell's lonely classical piano initially, builds into a pretty "Year of the Cat" facsimile and then plows its way through five minutes of white-boy funk.

Phish originally intended to debut these songs live and release the soundboard recording, according to the New York Times, something exemplified by these glorified demos. The energy and enthusiasm are unmistakable and signal a return to Phish's essential mission -- to find harmony and purpose in the rock 'n' roll soup and not just to cook up that soup, a spirit that lacked in recent years. rock 'n' roll needed Phish, and it has them once again.


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