Yes embodies all that is/was right and wrong about progressive rock, and their saga - all the ups and downs, the interpersonal problems, the career choices - is an instructive one. They didn’t start out to be pompous or pretentious or any of the other pejoratives that mainstream critics lobbed at the genre; they began as a crafty pop unit, and I think that’s the key to understanding the success of their classic albums. Yes began by stretching and decorating the standard pop song format before realizing they had to abandon it altogether and use the classical model of intros, outros, recapitulations, etcetera. They found themselves writing longer, more involved pieces simply because they had to (content determined form), and perhaps because they caught a whiff of “anything is possible” in the early 1970s air. Thus came Fragile and Close to the Edge as the band ventured further away from the rock homebase. In their best work, you can hear the earnestness and curiosity that moved them forward. After that, with much encouragement from a growing fan base, they felt the need to keep delivering the Big Stuff, and that’s where it started to go wrong. It’s one thing to try to live up to the music, another to live up to expectations.
It’s the same old story, really. Rock band starts out making music that’s interesting and inspiring to themselves; rock band gets acclaimed; rock band realizes that the only way to support their increasingly lavish lifestyle is to re-record whatever it was that made them popular in the first place, whether they still believe in it or not. We might recognize this story in Yes more than once.
Dramatis Personae (and the best place to hear them):
Jon Anderson: Workaday rock singer cum Napoleonic bandleader cum bejeweled master of ceremonies. His high tenor voice might be an acquired taste to some, but my theory is that all singers are potentially an acquired taste, and if you don’t like Jon, toss your barbs and move on. In live performance and interviews, Jon’s banter can be “out there,” while insider accounts point to someone who can be very testily down to earth. “And You and I”, “Turn of the Century”
Chris Squire: The Big Fish. For a while, one of the most individual and inventive bass players in rock. His trademark Rickenbacker sound, picked not plucked, is as identifiable as Jimi’s Strat. Good second voice as well. “Roundabout”, “Siberian Khatru”
Steve Howe: Accomplished not just on standard rock guitar but seemingly on anything with strings, electric or acoustic. Underrated in the larger guitar-hero scheme of things. Trying to diagram the sentences from his later-period interviews would be a linguist’s nightmare - have the herbs caught up with him? “Yours Is No Disgrace” and everything else on The Yes Album.
Rick Wakeman: Cape-clad ale-slugging curry-tasting finger-flailing keyboard wizard. Funny chap. Has a genuine interest in Yes whenever he’s part of it, and a detached critical attitude when he’s away from it. Personally, I think the vast majority of his playing and writing (his solo albums are numerous) is stiff and over the top, but you can’t dislike the guy after experiencing his good humor. “Heart of the Sunrise”
Tony Kaye: The original Yes keyboardist, heard in all his Hammond glory on the first two albums. Good solid player. He was booted in favor of Wakeman, yet he was unapologetic in his lack of flash and technical curiosity, even when Rabin and Squire brought him back in the ‘80s. “The Prophet”, “Then”
Bill Bruford: The original drummer, and the first Yes member to actually quit. (Not “asked to leave.”) His playing with the band was still in relative infancy, but the jazzy touch and color put it miles away from most mindless rock drumming of the time. “Heart of the Sunrise”
Alan White: Took Bill’s spot and has been the band’s biggest fan ever since. Aside from the Relayer album, Alan’s playing has never really had much personality - he’s a traditional drummer in a non-traditional band. And he suffered from a constantly changing drum sound, depending on who was producing/engineering the record. “The Gates of Delirium”
Peter Banks: Original guitarist. I think he did a fine enough job on the first two albums. His departure had more to do with personal and professional clashes than his actual playing, as far as I can tell. “Astral Traveller”
Patrick Moraz: The only thing bigger than his keyboard arsenal was his hair. Very jazzy player; an excellent pianist and good with synths, too. Came in for one of the band’s best albums, did a couple tours, then was inexplicably dismissed. “Sound Chaser”
Geoff Downes/Trevor Horn: Der Buggles. Horrified everyone by taking the places of Jon and Rick in 1980. Downes did good work on keyboards; Horn turned out to be a far better producer than singer. “Machine Messiah”
Trevor Rabin: Technically immaculate guitarist; also singer, songwriter, keyboardist, producer, engineer. Could write and record an album all by himself, and some say that was the case with 1994’s Talk. Gave Yes pop appeal in the ‘80s; left in the mid-90s for a film composing career. “Changes”, “Endless Dream”
And now the main albums, which have been reissued by Rhino.
Rather than look at Yes’ debut as an embryonic progressive rock hypothesis, it’s better to hear it for what it really is, an experimental pop album delivered by guys who sound like they could, er, go on to play progressive rock or something. Chris Squire is the most confident one, his stabbing, trebly bass being the first thing you hear on the record, and Bill Bruford isn’t far behind, swinging his drums more than pounding them. Jon Anderson sounds a little strained but his voice is unmistakable, and the keys and guitars of Tony Kaye and Peter Banks (who would get the band’s first pink slip) are earthy without being too cliched. It’s obvious at first listen that the group spent days on arrangements, and it’s also obvious that they were halfway a cover band at this point. The spirited reading of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” is prefaced by an instrumental brouhaha, while the take on “I See You” jazzes up the Byrds original and has the best alignment of the Jon/Peter/Chris vocal harmony team. As a bonus track on the 2003 reissue, the band tackles “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, and man, is that a fun trip or what? (Personally, I can’t stand musicals, but an ex-coworker and I use to brighten our days by singing parts of this song together, having first heard it on the Yesyears boxset of the early ‘90s.) It’s fitting that the early Yes energy was spent on arrangement, which would be the grueling procedure for all their original masterworks.
Of the original tunes, though, it’s Slim Pickens. “Looking Around” is the grooviest of the lot, deep and purplish with the organ and bass riffs, and “Harold Land” borrows a saxophonist’s name to tell a pedestrian story of how war can change a person - simple story, but the music is pretty good. “Beyond and Before” is a curious hippie-rock hangover, and “Survival” starts with a light jazz intro before telling a touching tale of nature’s way. (Being an animal lover, I’m floored by “Where is the parent bird?”) Anderson comes to the fore in the drippy love songs “Yesterday and Today” and “Sweetness”, both of which are so fragile (pardon) that they barely exist. These ballads have the clearest production, though. Something like “Survival” has a really burbly mix, but then, for a band’s first studio trip, it’s forgivable. Elsewhere, I’m not keen on some of the choir-like vocal arrangements, which descend upon “Survival” and “Harold Land” like fanged angels. At least the bass and drums are often easy to latch onto as a distraction.
As mentioned, the showpiece “Something’s Coming” is part of the Rhino bonus track program, which also includes “Everydays” and a strange little song called “Dear Father”. All three of these get two takes each, bringing the CD time within a few seconds of 80 minutes. I mention this because while the original album isn’t quite a must-have, the CD reissue is a good value and nice preface for the Yes book.
This is immediately more affirmative: the originals branch out in scope, the covers are hip and swinging, and the band not only plays strongly but is well recorded. And there are extra strings and horns! Yep, this was the era when high-minded rock bands requested the orchestral stamp of seriousness, and Yes used the extra textures mainly for ballast and reinforcement. The real sound of the album comes from Tony Kaye’s Hammond organ, the crystal clear bass and drums, and Jon’s increasingly singular voice. (Doesn’t he sound wonderful in the chorus of “Then”, or the Ritchie Havens cover, or the lounge haze of “Everydays”?) At least half the album presents a solid case for the original fivesome, even the underrated guitarist Peter Banks, who acquits himself well despite the fact that the support squad overrides some of his parts.
The cover tunes: Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary” rollicks on a major Squire bassline, Bill’s jazz/rock feel, and propulsive Kaye keyboarding. The opening string fanfares would be laughable if the song didn’t deliver on their promise of joy. Stephen Stills’ “Everydays” is part lounge waltz, part psychedelic tapestry, with Jon in jazzy form and Bill clearly enjoying the swinging arrangement. (He gets Hi-Hat of the Year award.) The sudden death ending is great. These are the last cover tunes Yes needed to put on their proper albums, and fittingly, they both smoke.
The originals maintain the energy for the most part. “Then” is a candidate for best track, what with the memorable vocal melodies and a brash diversion in the middle. The lightly ominous “Astral Traveller” is another gem. Under the treated Anderson vocal about out-of-body hoopla, the organ and guitar riffage, Bill’s snareless snare rolling, and a terrific Banks solo are all fiery. “The Prophet” juggles a lot of riffs and changes of pace, including a Holst quote; Kaye does great work on organ (almost Emerson-ish, in fact), and the band’s vigor is enough to fend off the orchestral commentary and banality of the basic song. That’s part of Yes at its best, isn’t it - enriching the simple? The pop confection “Sweet Dreams” has a great Squire bass foundation and a Beatle-ish bridge. The duds for me are “Clear Days”, a vocal/piano/strings blurple that does away with itself quickly, and the title track, a turgid attempt at “Hey Jude” grandeur that falls short. That’s only two downers out of eight, not enough to ruin the ride. Thumbs up.
Yes turns the corner here in a big way, into the “setting up of other roads” such that a lot of people over the years thought this was their first album. Given the watershed of milestone tracks, it’s hard to think of a more essential Yes record than this (the title is apropos). New guitarist Steve Howe makes a huge impact with his wide influences - there’s country picking in the style of Chet Atkins, liquid jazz runs a la Hall or Montgomery, some psychedelic remnants, and a hell of a lot of Howe’s own originality. The guitar becomes the focal point for almost all the arrangements, and frankly, Howe never sounded this fluid again. Tony Kaye’s churning organ and piano thus move slightly into the background whilst Squire and Bruford continue their nervy dance. Anderson perches between ex-covers stylist and future cosmic messenger, his voice lonely, innocent, and confident all at the same time.
The flagship “Yours Is No Disgrace” mixes rocking riffs, walking bass, multiple guitars, a synth hook, close vocal harmony, obscure lyrics (hinting at the Vietnam dilemma), and light and shade dynamics. It’s not an epic as Yes epics would come to be known, and the music isn’t very complex; the length comes from the repetition of various sections (including an unnecessary mid-song reprise of the opening chords) and an extended workout in the middle. The whole structure can be heard as a series of discrete units pieced together, and as such - compared to later efforts - it’s rather simple. But what happens in the various sections is fresh, original, and plain catchy, including Anderson’s vocal, Howe’s space-jazz licks, and the locked-but-loose grooves. One can hear the joy the band must have experienced at assembling the whole thing.
The tripartite “Starship Trooper” is another successful stitch job, the opening song portion an Anderson fantasy with a fine arrangement. “Sister Bluebird, flying high above” sings young Jon with wonder, and he doesn’t even flinch when Heinlein’s troops appear either. Howe’s open-string arpeggios are brilliant, Squire takes the counterpoint role, and the whole reaches its peak in the “Speak to me of summer” part, with Howe and Squire escorting us through a nifty chord sequence, Bill jazzing it up, and Anderson cooing the album’s richest hook. The middle “Disillusion” part had been around in earlier days, and its re-emergence as an Appalachian guitar feature for Howe, with Squire’s silly poetry sung on top, is a little too arbitrary, but it leads to a nice reprise of the previous section’s climax. The denouement of “Starship Trooper” (called “Wurm”) builds three chords into a wave of sound before a twin guitar solo takes it out. Classic.
“Perpetual Change” is a semi-heavyweight song and a heck of a stage number as revealed on the Yessongs live set, although I could do without the glee-club vocals in the chorus, and the tricky 7/8 section is more clever than necessary. And what to say about “I’ve Seen All Good People”? Certainly overplayed and easy to take for granted, yet the guitar solo is tops. The live versions always seem to pummel out the charm that still resides in the studio rendition. Along with those four solid pieces, the album has a couple of minor moments, both of them positioned in the middle of each LP side. Side 1 contains Howe’s unaccompanied acoustic workout “Clap”, certainly a dazzling tune in its own right but it obviously tells us more about Howe than Yes. On Side 2, the short song “A Venture” walks the finest line possible between charming and awkward, yet it can’t be called a throwaway because it required some effort. The excellent fadeout finds piano, bass, and drums jousting around the beat in a light jazz way.
This is Tony Kaye’s last appearance for a while, his departure (he was synth-aversive) enabling Yes’ next step forward. When Kaye returned in the ‘80s, he took an anonymous role, subjugated by Glimmer Man Rabin. But let’s toast to the Hammond-happy Tony of these earlier albums, whose swirling sound was a vital part of the band’s makeup.
Enter a keyboard wizard named Rick Wakeman and suddenly Yes is a near-virtuoso band, able to render any musical trickery and ape any highbrow influence, assuming they wanted to. If the sins of progressive rock can be summed up by “pompous twits playing too many notes and getting too sophisticated” (not that I usually agree with this sentiment), it’s not Chuck Berry but rather the likes of Lizst and Stravinsky that provide the inspiration. Jon Anderson was on a Sibelius kick around this time, and that’s a funny image in itself - an idiosyncratic rock singer listening to “Finlandia” and imagining his band achieving similar grandeur. Anyway, Rick brought in Royal Academy finger training and more than a little theoretical know-how, and this coupled with Steve’s fretboard prowess threatened to push Yes immediately into note-a-holic territory if they weren’t careful. The thing is, they were careful here, and the complexities of Fragile never result in empty technical displays. At this point, Yes played only what was needed, minus a few diversions.
The album title references the breaking-up Earth on the cover (Roger Dean’s first painting for the band) and also hints at the program itself, which is split between four full-band pieces and five solo vignettes. The four group pieces are all strong classics, beginning with the ubiquitous “Roundabout”, a simple Anderson/Howe tune dressed up with driving basslines, hyperactive organ, and tight instrumental inserts. The dark verse slides into a bright chorus, and the middle section includes a minor riff surrounded by a percussion frenzy. The track was patched together from various takes; notice the tempo varies with the different sections. Maybe this is why it breathes in a way the stomping live versions don’t. I’m generally the sort of listener who prefers live takes, especially if you have musicians who take chances, but many classic Yes studio sides are more satisfying than their stage renditions.
“South Side of the Sky” is a edgy song about a perilous snowstorm. If Howe’s lightning lines aren’t dangerous enough, a subliminal stream of high-altitude wind courses underneath the final verses. One assumes that the heavenly middle section - transitional piano, light rhythms, wordless vocals - is to represent the afterlife for our doomed protagonists. It’s one of the best sequences on any Yes album, with Rick’s slow motion piano rhapsodies, Bill’s tasty backing, and the voices (led by choirboy Chris) in good array. An electronic pulse returns us to the jagged song, which eventually fades underneath a searchlight Howe solo. Excellent track.
“Heart of the Sunrise” is the album’s peak and one of the band’s definitive pieces. Several instrumental episodes are interspersed with a song of sorts. It’s an arbitrary marriage on paper, but neither the instrumental themes nor Anderson’s verses would mean much without the other. Tough to say what this track is - a complex ballad? A skewed classical takeoff? A schizoid rocker? That’s why it’s Yes, and why it’s such an achievement. Somehow, they get the extremes of Squire’s bass riffing and Anderson’s oblique soliloquies and the rest of the band’s angular motifs into a satisfying arrangement. Dig the “Rick-capitulation” part where Wakeman’s piano mingles with small reprises of various themes. Dig Squire’s bass counterpoint underneath Jon’s singing. And spend at least one pass listening to nothing but the drums throughout. From the first second to the last, Bill Bruford really shines. This track is also a rare example of Wakeman’s economy and grace.
“Long Distance Runaround” is the shortest group piece, a simple Anderson song that questions a relationship while at the same time maintaining much interaction between the instruments, from the jazzy instrumental theme to the drums and keys accenting every five beats against the basic four in the verses. Jon Anderson receives the only writing credit, but come on, it took the whole group to make the piece what it is. The end of the song spirals via Howe into Squire’s solo piece “The Fish”, where a simple riff in seven gradually adds a number of bass overdubs to become a pulsing, stereophonic, Rickenbacker orgy propelled by Bill on drums and percussion (milk bottles?). “The Fish” works as a piece of music, not a wanky bass showoff, although it would become pretty much that in live performance.
In other individual features, Howe takes a pretty classical guitar solo in “Mood for A Day” and Wakeman renders some Brahms on modern keyboards. Jon’s weirdly mesmerizing vocal round “We Have Heaven” accumulates textures a la “The Fish”. Bruford assigns the band a pointillist exercise in “Five Percent For Nothing”, the trickiest of the lot. Again, the abilities of the quintet could have led to a lot of needlessly complex playing in both the group and solo tracks, but everyone seems concerned with solid melodies and exploring communal arrangements where applicable.
As a bonus track, the Rhino reissue contains the dynamic rearragement of Paul Simon’s “America” that was recorded around this time. Anderson sings it well (except when he makes “Michigan” sound like “big chicken”) and the real attraction is the lengthy guitar solo at center. Full of repeated melodic hooks and twangy grit, it’s an American-ized solo - depicting a cross-country journey, if you like - with a groovy English rhythm section behind it. Another bonus is a rough mix of “Roundabout” that if nothing else reveals something about the band’s studio methods.
This artistic pinnacle consummates all Yes had been working towards in musicality, structure, dynamics, and atmosphere, all achieved through the semi-hazardous process of group composition. The Fragile quintet’s modus operundi involved five-way rehearsal room creation - a stray guitar bit linked to a keyboard idea, galvanized by a particular vocal melody or bass line, etc. The line between arrangement and composition was fine. Even specific songs brought in by individuals became part of the cellular recombination that was the group’s musical procedure. Steve Howe once compared the process to a cheese grater, which despite the easy joke is actually on the money: you didn’t know what the end result was going to look like, but everybody’s ingredients would be in there.
The lyrics on the last two albums had gradually become more oblique, and by this point, Anderson abandons literal consistency for a stream of consciousness, “nonsensical” approach. Any newcomer to Yes who expects traditional narrative or interpersonal lyrics will be pulled up short by all the poetic garble, to which the seasoned listener is already accustomed. How to process all the non-sequitur images, incomplete phrases, grammatical delinquencies, and repeated keywords? Jon once explained that he saw his voice becoming another instrument in the Yes orchestra, where the words didn’t matter so much in meaning as their actual sounds (which could then inspire personal connotations for the listener). I have a lot of sympathy for this idea, and it’s fair to say that the vocals take chances and avoid orthodoxy just as the instruments do. That being said, Hesse’s Siddhartha has been linked to the spiritual subject of the title track, and there’s vague Christian imagery in “Siberian Khatru” and elsewhere. But by and large, the lyrics don’t specifically mean anything any more than Squire’s bass parts can “mean” anything. Take from them what you can, or want. That may be a copout, but published interpretations of Yes lyrics, however insightful or imaginative their authors might be, never seem to explain the whole story, ignoring swaths of text so that a particular hypothesis may be followed. I did read one convincing argument of the “Close to the Edge” / Siddhartha connection, though I could also tell you that those lyrics are about harvesting bananas and you wouldn’t be able to prove me wrong. Let’s also note that the other band members were initially suspicious of Anderson’s new lyrical trips.
“Close to the Edge”: This 19-minute piece is broken into four titled sections (Solid Time of Change, Total Mass Retain, I Get Up I Get Down, Seasons of Man), although it actually has about six or seven distinct parts, not counting smaller links. However one tallies it, the whole thing works as an extended song in near AABA form. It begins with a thrashy instrumental jam followed by a main theme that will be drawn on later in the piece. Right away there’s an earful of Yes’ arrangement skills; as Howe plays the diatonic melody, the chord sequence beneath is reharmonized on every pass as Yes makes clear the intention of getting the most out of their motifs. Next up is the actual song portion, which mixes a tense minor key verse with a friendlier verse, and Anderson’s vocals go from robotic to casual to match. The title refrain is another important element of the composition, and it too will be adjusted for every appearance. The “Total Mass Retain” section repeats the song portion with a different bassline and eventually lands on a country-ish guitar riff, over which Wakeman replays the main CTTE theme.
The middle of “Edge” turns to a spacy passage that drops the rhythm to float various ethereal textures (Mellotron, guitar notes, bass tones) around. Simple keyboard chords creep into the soundfield to begin “I Get Up I Get Down”, a relaxed three-way vocal feature that is twice interrupted by cathedral-sized organ breaks. (No drums in this section at all.) After the second organ rhapsody, Wakeman spirals a Moog line into a big crescendo. There’s a great release from Wakeman’s fantasia into a recap of the main theme, where the rhythm section slams back in. Once happy and stated by guitar, the main theme is now transformed by keyboards into a dissonant harmony. Wakeman follows this with a rocking organ solo that leads into the final verse (Seasons of Man). The final refrain, more majestic than before, modulates into a convincing conclusion that lyrically reflects the spiritual quest reaching its destination or enlightenment.
Omitting many details, that’s the general thrust of “Close to the Edge”. A full-on analysis would take too much space, but the fact that it can withstand formal scrutiny speaks to its consistency. You can isolate various parts and say, well, that’s creative, that’s a nice melody, that’s a cool rhythm and so on, but what’s really amazing is how these things are developed. Never mind that the group virtually recorded as they went along; the modulations, extensions, and recapitulations follow an effective classical model. Rick Wakeman had a lot to do with that, and everybody else contributes nice details, like the contrapuntal bass parts and Howe’s knack for thematic recall. (Somewhere in Total Mass Retain, he revisits a lick he played in the opening jam.) Bruford mainly supports what’s happening above him and Anderson gets to stretch beyond just being a rock singer.
“And You And I”: Another four part piece, half the length of the sidelong title track. The first and third sections are folksy vocal/acoustic guitar songs dressed up with subthemes, and the second and fourth movements take on grand, pseudo classical airs. So in the space of a couple minutes, we go from Howe strumming a simple 12-string vamp and Anderson at his melodic purest (“Cord of Life”) to the vast edifice of “Eclipse”, one of the most heavenly Yes moments of all time. Then the process repeats: Howe plays another acoustic progression for Anderson’s verse (“The Preacher The Teacher”), then a majestic mountain called “Apocalypse” arises, capped by a light vocal/guitar coda. If the melodies weren’t so good, the overall song may have been a disaster, yet it’s one of Yes’ most original triumphs. They sound like an orchestra in the bigger parts with Wakeman’s chordscapes, Squire’s looming bass tones, and Bruford’s symphonic drumming. Meanwhile, Howe adds steel guitar to the soaring passages, and the whole song represents a peak for Anderson.
“Siberian Khatru”: My favorite Yes piece, and the closest thing to a rock song on the album, albeit in extended form. The catchy verses ride a bassline that recalls “Roundabout,” and Squire contributes another of his best lines during the chordal riff that opens and closes the track. (He also hints at Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the clockwork bass part before the final verse.) The solo sequence in the middle is pretty marvelous, parading Howe, Wakeman, and Howe again, over Squire and Bruford’s continually morphing backdrop. Much like “Yours is No Disgrace”, “Khatru” features a handful of different Howe guitar sounds, and his solo on the fadeout has long been a favorite of mine. (Or maybe it just sounds good because of what Squire’s playing.) In any case, without wanting to break the track down to pieces, I have to say it’s one of the band’s strongest works.
In sum, Close to the Edge uses the language and sound of rock but reaches beyond in form, shaping things largely around essential emotion and dynamics. Along with the atmosphere, there’s a lot to admire in everyone’s playing, especially Squire’s contrapuntal concepts. Howe overflows with ideas, Wakeman contributes much, and Anderson brings the post-hippie dream into progressive reality. Bruford draws little attention to himself but moves everything with his sharp sensibility. This happened to be his last album with Yes, as King Crimson beckoned.
The bonus tracks on the reissue include a couple of useless single edits and a studio runthrough of “Siberian Khatru” that provided much of the actual backing track on the album. The alternate version of “And You and I” has a different ending in a traditional IV-I climax that I quite like, although I wouldn’t trade it with the final version.
The old cliche about double albums says that “it would have made a great single album.” (And my quip about The Clash’s Sandinista: it’s a triple that would have made a perfect double.) Topographic, beacon of progressive rock excess, surely would have made for a great regular length LP, but that was never in the cards. Confident with the success of “Close to the Edge”, Anderson and Howe decided not just to do another sidelong piece, but to do four of them. To their credit, Squire and Wakeman were skeptical, and incoming drummer Alan White, one assumes, didn’t have any choice in the matter. Guitarist and Singer prevailed, everyone saddled up, and Yes history was made.
Topographic doesn’t have a shortage of ideas nor is there any major misdirection in those ideas, not within the quirky bounds of Yes. Howe and Anderson make a good writing team, and honestly, the album is stuffed with charming passages. Jon’s lyrical take on the Shastric scriptures is no less confusing than anything he’d sung before, and there is a new intimacy in many of his vocal lines. Each of the four pieces has at least two decent, “normal” songs buried within, along with instrumental parts that were worthy of what the band had been achieving on the previous two LPs. Take “The Remembering”: two folksy ditties, a nice keyboard dream sequence later on, a great guitar riff section, and a dramatic climax with crashing chords. Or in “The Revealing Science of God”, rocking band passages mix with isolated guitar/vocal prayers. “The Ancient” embarks the group on one of their most obtuse instrumental jams, later unveiling a nylon-string Howe solo that ranks with his best. “Ritual” has some decent threads as well. So what’s the problem?
All four pieces force the many individual ideas into unnecessary conjunction, a process that nearly removes all effectiveness of said ideas. It’s a case study in form and effect: the first iteration has impact, the second hammers the point home, and the third and beyond renders the initial idea ineffective. In other words, be brief and leave ‘em wanting more. The mark of Yes’ most effective works (and anybody’s work) is that they are economical enough to make you want to hear them again; the mark of Topographic is that the 20-minute playing times do that for you. For example, the peppy D-major melody near the beginning of “Ritual” is fine in itself, yet by the time the band finishes playing it endlessly, you wish you’d never heard it in the first place. Same goes for the main fanfare of “Revealing Science of God”, which repeats for no reason except to take up time. As with the ascending vocal/guitar bits in the same song, over and over again. It’s symptomatic of having the desired form dictate content and function. “Close to the Edge” had real development to justify its length; with any of these four, it’s a jumble of musical entities - good, bad, indifferent - that don’t demand expansion at all. Really, these are vulgar long forms. And it was Wakeman who recognized it, but then, he didn’t puff as much magic smoke as the others.
The better bet would have been to ditch the formal ambitions and let the individual ideas breathe on their own. Pull the folk songs from “The Remembering” and let them be what they are. Pull the Spanish guitar bit from “The Ancient” and have it as a separate Howe feature. Remove and compact the decent song elements from “The Revealing Science” and toss in Wakeman’s hot synth solo as a bonus. Hindsight: hack away all the sonic kudzu and there was an honorable single album right here. It would have been less ambitious formally than Close to the Edge, but it would have had lasting charm and an intimate, evocative atmosphere. Instead, the Ocean sprawl pushed the band over the Edge for no reason except that Jon and Steve were into the “epic” thing.
A lot of fans adore “Ritual”, and while I do like it, it embodies some of the main problems with the whole album. The opening minutes are given to endless theme repetition and a ponderous space-guitar break. The long-delayed song proper sounds like it was played and recorded underwater, and then there’s a multitracked bass solo, followed by a loony-toons percussion frenzy, followed by (finally) “Nous Sommes Du Soleil”, a fine song idea that should have stood on its own. “Ritual” ends with one of the better moments, a series of unlikely chord changes over which Howe’s guitar solo recaps thematic elements from throughout the album. (Oh, by the way, licks from both “Heart of the Sunrise” and “Close to the Edge” are referenced elsewhere in Topographic.) However, the overall course of “Ritual” is entirely arbitrary - a Frankenstein that didn’t need to be built.
Final notes: Eddie Offord didn’t give them the crisp sound of the preceding albums, although the Rhino remaster cleans it up a bit. Squire’s bass is not as prominent as usual, buried beneath multiple guitar tracks. Apart from some ethnic percussion here and there, newcomer Alan White makes barely any drumming mark at all. I don’t want to fault him for that, because look at what he walked in on. Better he be the guy lost in this mess rather than Bill Bruford, who surely would have thrown his sticks at somebody on day one. The two Rhino bonus tracks from the sessions are rough run-throughs of “God” and “Ancient”, and they only serve to reinforce the notion that the material did not deserve to be blown into epic proportions. It wouldn’t be frustrating if there weren’t so many moments here that could have been better served.
Rick Wakeman soon left the band in search of good ale and a solo career. Two albums in a row with members departing, making it four ex-members to five current ones. What’s starting to happen?
The joke here is that the band went back to basics, inasmuch as the exact same format of Close to the Edge might be said to represent the basics. The sidelong piece this time, “The Gates of Delirium”, trumps anything on Topographic and indeed is quite a match for “Close to the Edge” itself. The general gist of this war ‘n peace epic came from Jon, and the jangling verses - and the soaring plea for peace in the closing “Soon” section - are quite melodic. In the middle “battle” sections appear some intense musical engagements, featuring Howe’s dissonant chord clusters and brutal rhythm syncopations from Squire and White. While the Topographic epics beg severe editing, “Gates of Delirium” earns its pomp and circumstance, by which I mean that it needs to be a side-long piece. From start to finish, “Gates” works on all levels, and it’s one of the more focused, thrilling artifacts of prog rock.
Wakeman’s shoes were filled by Pat Moraz, a Swiss keyboard whiz who betrayed as much jazz and world music influence as classical, and he brought a breath of fresh air after all the textbook arpeggios and stiff synth crayolas from Mr. Rick. The hyperkinetic “Sound Chaser” touches on the fusion genre with Moraz’s hip electric piano and the guitar trio’s frenzied riffery. Not quite Mahavishnu or Return to Forever, yet you can tell Yes had their ears open. By the end of “Sound Chaser”, after Steve’s trebly Telecaster cadenza and Jon’s cosmic lounge lullaby, Moraz fingers a neat Moog solo, all burning jazz lines and bent, bent, bent pitches, whilst underneath, Squire and White buck tradition and get Funky, Brother. “To Be Over” stands out in a different way; light theme and counterpoint introduce a sort of campfire song set on a twilit beachfront, with Anderson’s vocal in clear relief against the band’s careful arrangements. Loony Hawaiian guitar enters apropos nothing and leads us suddenly into the next vocal section, where the magic really starts to happen. Grandiose, emotionally charged changes combined with a fairly personal lyric make for one of Yes’ most sublime moments to date. The pithy motifs that introduced the track are brought back for the extended fade, as unintelligible voices subliminally assure us that everything works out in the long run. Or something. Well done, laddies.
Relayer is an extreme record, assertively played and recorded with a (literal) garage band immediacy that puts the murky Topographic waters to shame. It’s CTTE’s lost brother, separated by said Oceans. Alan White, anonymous on virtually every other album, does his best work here, and it’s also a rare place to hear his natural drum sound. His partnership with Squire would never again be this adventurous. Howe is tough as nails throughout, and Moraz’s multi-kulti flair makes it a unique Yes entry. A lot of fans look back on Moraz’s stint as a positive fit for the band, yet for unclear reasons, Pat was nudged out of the picture a couple years later, and Yes was all the poorer for it, I say.
Rick’s back. The Anderson/Squire/Howe/Wakeman/White roster somehow managed to earn the “classic Yes” designation in retrospect, maybe because this lineup cut more studio and live sides than any other Yes configuration. I don’t think it had anything to do with their creative strength. After all, switch Bill for Alan and you’ve got Fragile and CTTE; then sub Tony for Rick and you’ve got The Yes Album. Whereas the vague blunderings of Topographic and Tormato have always been too controversial to merit undisputed “classic” status. Which leaves Going for the One, an effort that might reasonably be called The Last Great Yes Album.
It’s not without fault, though, the main problem being a murky mix further muddled by too much reverb. Witness the kickoff title track, one of Yes’ more direct rock songs, where any impact and subtleties therein are lost in a wall of ill-defined noise. Actually, the only subtlety is Squire’s half-time bass line during the outro vamp, the effect of which is subliminal compared to the non-stop pedal steel wanking of Howe throughout the entire song. Compare the album version with the studio outtake of just guitar, bass, and drums (released as a bonus track on the Rhino remaster): Squire and White are rawer, and Howe rips off gnarled improvisations over the chord changes. Who needs vocals or keyboards? (Actually, Howe was getting carried away with his “I’ll just solo all the time” strategy in this period.) “Parallels” had potential, based on a solid Squire groove, but the verbed-out mix, Wakeman’s overwrought pipe organ (over funk?!), and cliche flowerpower lyrics weigh the whole track down like a backpack full of wet gold-lame capes.
Three tracks manage to survive the dismal mixes. “Wondrous Stories” is the briefest of the lot, a fragile expose with the band treading eggshells around Anderson’s vocal. Anderson could have pulled off this intimate song with just voice and guitar, yet the restrained accompaniment from the rest of the band (minus Rick’s flashy solo) takes it to an artificial but enjoyable height. “Turn of the Century” is a myth-like narrative about a sculptor who “realizes out of stone” a tactile memory of his recently deceased wife. “Could she hear him, could she see him/Laughing as they danced…Did her eyes at the turn of the century/tell me plainly...” I just got a damn tear in my eye typing that. (If you’ve heard the song, you might understand.) She comes to life, at least in the sculptor’s mind, underscored by triumphant and bittersweet music. The arrangement is based on Howe’s beautiful acoustic guitar and turns to electric guitar, pipe organ, and orchestral percussion for the ‘transformation’ sequence. Anderson sings it all as the omniscient narrator, and it’s one of his best performances.
“Awaken” takes the cake at 15 minutes and is indeed Classic Yes. Jon stands on his crystal altar, singing a “star song,” addressing the “Master of Time,” and just generally flashing his Inquisitive Child of the Universe badge and demanding enlightenment. The music takes on ethnic tones (the Middle Eastern 12-string riff, the percussives) along with the most basic of Western chord progressions - the circle of fifths, presented differently in two appearances and featuring a nice re-harmonized bass part. The swirling dreamscapes that open and close the piece are very good, and the climactic statement of the fifths-cycle rattles the rafters. This carefully orchestrated piece presents an end-of-the-era demonstration of what is possible within progressive rock, provided your participants have some degree of imagination, competence, and (gasp) taste. It’s enough to make Going for the One an essential Yes entry, and the last one at that.
The blunt general consensus on Tormato is that it sucks. That’s because it sucks. The album has its ardent supporters, but so do astrology, the moon-hoax conspiracy theory, and communism. If you want to cavort with the misguided fringe, pack some pills, Chester. Them’s gonna be long hours.
What’s wrong with Tormato is that there is no focus, no vision, no reason for any of these songs to have been written, let alone recorded, let alone bunched together within a hideous album cover and released to the general public. The whole thing sounds like a B-sides collection, and lots of fun stuff can happen on B-sides, we all know. But these aren’t B-sides; they’re aural equivalents of lemonade-stand accidents posing as proper album tracks. The dangers of hallucinogens, waxed. If the song titles alone don’t make you pause - “Arriving UFO”, “Circus of Heaven” - then try hacking your way through the underbrush of Howe’s non-stop soloing (why play rhythm when you can just noodle the entire song?) and Wakeman’s awful synths. Beneath all that nonsense are the most banal and bizarre memos the band had ever issued to date. The intention seems to be presenting a variety of shorter songs than usual. Well, grab a sack of port, pull up a stone chair, and sing along with “Madrigal”. Bang your head to the incongruous drum solo (with fake audience cheers!!) of “Release Release”. Try not to giggle at Howe’s vocals in same. Observe how the noble sentiment of “Don’t Kill the Whale” is obfuscated by irrelevant guitar masturbation (badly out of tune, too), vague poetry, and muddled production. Did they cover all the drum mikes with blankets? Listen to the promising beginnings of “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” get decimated by an arrangement that is increasingly ridiculous and forced as it goes, the ultimate face-slap coming in the la-la-la’s that take the place of actual lyrics. Something hilarious happens in every track - it’s almost a comedy album. It is a comedy of errors. I cannot even begin to describe the utter horrors that are Rick’s synthesizer sounds on this record. It is to Yes’ major discredit that they dumped Moraz. For shame. (Not that he could have polished any of these stools.)
Is there anything to be salvaged? Squire’s “Onward” is a love ballad of some dignity and orchestral augmentation, but how much does it say about a Yes album when the highlight (nay, the sole non-awful point) is some softie fit for a wedding? There are a couple of seconds at the end of “UFO” that sound cool. Squire’s envelope-filtered bass on “Silent Wings” is cool. I’m really reaching here, you can tell. Going For the One sounded like the end of the line, the grand finale of the creative prog-rock era, but then you might think, any band that could create “Awaken” would surely have something else up its sleeve. Nope. Tormato pissed all over everything, and guess what, Jon and Rick had the decency to leave afterward.
Notice this: Yes does a murky-sounding mess of an album, Topographic Oceans, then Rick leaves, then the subsequent record is more muscular both sonically and musically. Few years later, Yes does a murky-sounding mess of an album, Tormato, then Rick leaves, then the subsequent record is more muscular both sonically and musically. What to infer from this parallel?
My (pretty obvious) theory is that the Rick-less band in both cases spent at least some time writing and rehearsing new material as a guitar trio (plus vocals), establishing a number of fresh tunes and/or ideas that were riff-based and strongly played, and this strength was ultimately carried over into the eventual albums (in the cases above, Relayer and Drama). The downside of my theory is that it indirectly and unfairly blames Wakeman for the horrible sounds and rudderless excesses of both Topographic and Tormato, and Rick at least recognized the topographic sham for what it was. But anyway, something appeared in the waters whenever Rick packed his bags, and whatever it was, ‘twas healthy for the band.
Of course, the Drama jolt was a biggie. Jon jumped ship along with Rick in 1979, leaving a literal guitar trio. With 1980’s concerts already booked and a new album in demand, Squire drafted Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes (aka The Buggles) into Yes. “There’s our new singer and keyboardist right there, let’s plug up the dyke and get to work.” Downes not only had a tasteful, up to date synth armory but also spent much time at the piano and Hammond, so that in itself was a boon for the group sound - part tradition, part future, no needless pasta or Royal Academy exercises. As for Horn, well, he sang. More soon.
The album itself, rushed or not, is pretty good. (Compared to its horrorshow predecessor, at least.) The Buggles infusion did bring in some pop elements, most of which are wombed inside firm exoskeletons of guitar trio riffage and prominent bass and drums. Squire, in high form on flanged Rickenbacker, plays consistently creative bass for perhaps the last time, while Alan lays solid bedrock for all the steely Howe parts that ultimately dominate. Downes reclaims Kaye territory, mostly a colorist, occasionally stepping out with inoffensive lead synth lines, and conducting the mini-orchestra of “White Car” all by himself on Fairlight. There’s nothing transcendent about any of the material, nothing arty, and none of the ethereal soundscapes that had once been a telltale component of classic Yes literature. No, the guys generally rock out here. “Machine Messiah” pounds out a metal riff, by gawd, and “Does it Really Happen” carries similar weight in crashing chords and thudding toms, offset by White’s tuned percussion and a funky reprise/bass solo. “Tempus Fugit” molds a few fretboard exercises, a killer bassline, and failed reggae into a bizarre new-wave pastiche; silly as that description may sound, Yes hadn’t played with such directness in years.
Back to the vocals. Horn was no Anderson, not as a lyricist and certainly not as a singer, but he tried to carry on at least a semblance of both. Mistake. Actually, Squire double-tracked a lot of the vocals on the record, giving it a subliminal stamp of authenticity, but when Horn croons alone (“Run Through the Light”), you can see why the purists - the Jonophiles - might break out into hives. Perhaps I’m lucky in being able to tune it out. The lyrics continue Jon’s tradition of profundity-by-misdirection in a fountain of goofball art-rock cliches, the kind of universalist crap Squire put over on “Parallels”. The technology-vs-man undercurrent of “Machine Messiah” is as heavy as it gets. But forget the “art” of it all: the only reason to worry with Drama is to hear Squire, Howe, and White sounding rejuvenated after the final dicey-ness with Jon and Rick. The album doesn’t hurt the Yes legacy, and it surveys a bridge into the 1980s, where a hit single loomed on the horizon.
(By the way, the Rhino reissue of Drama includes a few bonus tracks of interest. A couple of guitar-trio jams play out my introductory theory about how the sound of Drama was determined. There are also demos of the last material written and rehearsed with Jon and Rick - the infamous Paris Sessions. We can all thank our lucky moons that that material was abandoned.)
Don’t even want to touch it. 90125 was important to me at a young age, but so was Knight Rider. Tastes move on, and there’s nothing I can say about 90125 now except that it is a slick, hooky, moderately complex pop-rock album with some great moments. I might also throw a compliment toward Trevor Rabin’s super slick playing and writing, even if it had nothing to do with Yes’ democratic method of music making. Anyway, 90125 made Yes into a commercial proposition all of a sudden, which became a double-edged sword. Albums and tours passed, and there evolved the Rabin and Howe factions as the soap opera started to build up steam. Anderson fled Rabin’s camp and recruited Bill and Rick and Steve to access the old Yes sound; before long, as a truce, eight Yes members took the stage in a money-driven “Union.” There were two completely different Yes identities in the world, the classic ‘70s icon versus the newer Rabin model, and it backfired in that the band was unable to retain any consistency. It got pathetic in the 1990s after Rabin left, when the reformed ‘70s quintet went through its own dramas. Wakeman came and went again, a Squire-Sherwood collaboration gained some Howe and Anderson overdubs and got a Yes sticker slapped on it, a new keyboardist was jilted in favor of an orchestra, etc etc etc. Too sickening to recount.
The full details are readily available elsewhere, as in Chris Welch’s bio Close to the Edge. Yes fans who experienced the 1990s and beyond know firsthand the frustration and schizophrenia of this band trying to figure out just what the hell it wanted to be and who was going to be involved. Personally, I gave up in 1998. When the biggest Yes news of the new century was that they were finally playing “South Side of the Sky” live, you knew that they had died a creative death and become a nostalgia band, reliving the canon classics on a stage decorated with Roger Dean inflatables. If it made the audiences happy, all’s well in rockland.
Well-packaged, well-produced, comprehensive collection that sums up the ‘70s and continues through the Trevor Rabin years, the “two Yeses” and their Union, Rick’s third and fourth stints in the band, Billy, Igor, a symphony orchestra, etcetera. What a soap opera: As the Revolving Door Turns.
All potential beefs come down to the tracklisting. Atco’s 4-disc Yesyears set from 1991 faced similar critiques, but no comprehensive compilation is going to satisfy everyone, and page one of the rulebook says that no record label that plans on reissuing a band’s back catalog (as Rhino did with Yes) is going to include all tracks from any one album. So we get almost all of The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge. As to be expected. This is all studio stuff, by the way.
The only significant omissions I can think of are “Awaken” and “And You And I” - quite significant, in fact. Otherwise, the story is told pretty well. The selections from the first two albums go by very quickly, and then there’s a hodgepodge of the classic early ‘70s works (not in chronological order, I assume, due to CD timings and track lengths, which is forgivable). The uglies come out in the late 70s with the Tormato material and half-baked outtakes from the fateful, aborted Paris Sessions that followed. I don’t know how the Paris tracks earned a place in a pedestal history of Yes. Save this crap for bonus tracks elsewhere. Ditto for the brief-but-horrid “Last Train” from the Magnification (2001) sessions - holy cow, did we need more proof that Squire and Anderson cannot “jam” or sound “bluesy”? Regardless, the final stretch from the Trevor Rabin years through the precarious mid-90s is fairly well done, and hearing the highlights of all that arena rock in one fell swoop isn’t too painful. The Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe material from ’89 isn’t technically Yes, but Steve Howe was apparently the main consultant for this box set, and he always had the intention of letting the original “Fist of Fire” mix see the day, what with its super guitar parts and all. Dig it: “Fist of Fire” is still as dumb as its title, out of tune guitar or not. But Steve didn’t stop there, as one also finds “Clap” amongst the Yes Album material. Now, this is a guitar solo piece. By what right does it belong on a band compilation where space is precious? But Steve has ever been concerned with “thoroughbred” Yes and how it is presented, which means not forgetting whom the heavyweight guitar champ really was in that band. Whatever. With all the immortal guitar work Howe dispatches elsewhere, the inclusion of “Clap” screams insecurity.
In short, the box gives a decent overview, although it’s got that familiar Catch 22 - too much for the casual plebe, not enough for the devoted fan who wants all the individual remasters anyway. The booklet history from Chris Welch is typically good-natured and doesn’t bring up the ugly underbelly of Yes’ interpersonal politics, something he did cover in his contemporary Yes bio. The secondary essay by Bill Martin avoids the author’s usual anti-capitalism hysteria (I guess the irony would have been too obvious). I think the most relevant comments are made by a handful of next-gen musicians (from Primus, King’s X, etc) in their brief testimonials to the influence of Yes. Funny how they all point back to that certain era in the early 1970s.
You know what? I wrote a detailed review of this three-disc boxset not too long ago, and somehow I lost it. And I’ll be khatrued if I’m going to write it again. So here’s the quick verdict: the best selections are from the 1971 Crystal Palace concert with the Yes Album lineup. Before and after that, the sound quality and/or performances are distractingly flawed, so much so that this box didn’t even stay a week in my collection. I recognize Yes as having a great live history, but there’s little here that would convince anybody of that. For diehards only.
In 1994, the Yes lineup of Anderson, Rabin, Squire, White, and Kaye released an album called Talk. Trevor Rabin dominated the record, playing both guitar and keyboards, singing, writing, producing, and recording. As such – and this has been noted a thousand times before – Talk is essentially a Rabin album guest starring Yes. Jon Anderson sings well on it, and there are some good tracks, but it’s about as far as the ‘group’ could get from a five-way democracy. On the plus side, it demonstrates just how good a guitarist Rabin was/is. All the different tones and stylings (notably some of those pearly country licks) are really impressive, and Rabin can plug a Strat into a Marshall and make it sing as well as anybody. Compared to Steve Howe’s ever-thinning sound around the time of ABWH, Union (gag), and some of Keys to Ascension, I have to give the edge to Trevor.
Anyway, two things stand out to me whenever I revisit Talk (a very rare occurrence in itself). Number one, there’s a beautiful song called “I Am Waiting” (which also appears on the In a Word boxset) that is ruined by a mid-song heavy metal diversion that serves no purpose and the fact that the track just goes on far longer than necessary. The main theme and chords to the song, especially the “highways, starways” part, is lovely by itself and would have sat perfectly within and two and a half or three minute time range. But as is, it’s stretched out to the point of wearing out the themes, and again, that hard rocking bridge makes no sense to me at all. This is the problem with making and editing music on a computer – all it takes is an easy drag and drop, or cut and paste, to really mess something up. “Wouldn’t it be neat to fly this section into the middle of that other song?” No!
The second curiosity about Talk is that Tony Kaye only plays organ on the tracks, and not much of it at that. Rabin handles the rest of the keyboards and synths, of which there are a lot. In a later interview, Rabin explained this by saying something to the effect of “Tony didn’t have his gear there, and the keyboards had to fit in with what the guitar was doing, so why not do it myself.” Needless to say, Yes had produced several classic albums with two different players making the keyboards and guitar fit together, so I don’t understand that reasoning at all, and it seems at odds with any notion of Yes being an actual group. But here’s what I wonder: Rick Wakeman was originally supposed to be part of the lineup that made Talk. Now, would Rabin have put Wakeman in the same position, saying, “you just add some Mini-Moog here and there, and I’ll do the rest”? Or did Rabin see himself as “taking over” what Rick would have done? I don’t know, it’s all very fishy, and the only clear thing is Trevor’s obvious domination. I’ve heard that he replaced some of Squire’s bass parts, too. If you’ve got Chris Squire in your group, and you’re redoing the bass, then something’s wrong, especially if that group is named Yes.
Old news, I know. Just had to get that stuff off my chest.