Magnification by Yes

June 13, 2011

Yes released its 19th studio album on December 4, 2004. Magnificationwas different from the 18 albums that had preceded it. Gone were guitarist Billy Sherwood and keyboardist Igor Khoroshev. Remaining members Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Alan White, and Steve Howe decided not to officially replace them, so Yes reverted to a four-person band for the first time in its existence.

Conductor Larry Groupe was invited to lead an orchestra, which substituted for the keyboards. It proved to be an inspired idea. While the concept may not have always worked, it made the album unique in relation to its other releases and was a welcomed change of pace for a band approaching the 40-year mark.

In many ways, the music feels like the soundtrack to a film. The classical/progressive rock fusion is similar to what The Moody Blues produced during its classic period, although it was a little lighter. Steve Howe plays more acoustic than electric guitar and the rhythm section of drummer Alan White and bassist Chris Squire fuse with the orchestra on most of the tracks. The result moves the group outside of its traditional progressive rock style.

The title song was the album’s first track and set the tone for what was to follow. At over seven minutes, the orchestra provides the connectors between the sections of the song, as classical orchestration meets progressive rock.

While not every track works, at least it is always interesting. “Spirit” Of Survival” is an up-tempo piece that reminds me of a James Bond theme. “Can You Imagine” contains Chris Squire’s first lead vocal for the band. “Soft As A Dove” uses a flute to compliment Steve Howe’s acoustic guitar work. “We Agree” is a peaceful song with more acoustic work by Howe, but tends to be just a little too close to easy listening for a classic Yes track. “Dreamtime” begins with some Spanish guitar before moving in a progressive rock direction.

Magnification is a nice stop in the career of Yes. It’s not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, but at least the group took some chances, which is a brave move for an established band.

Yes is currently in transition again. Jon Andersonleft during 2008 and David Benoit was hired as the new vocalist. Its new album, Fly From Home, is due next month, but that’s a story for another day.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Magnification on Blogcritics.

Union by Yes

May 18, 2011

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there were two different Yes bands. There was the official group of Chris Squire, Trevor Rabon, Tony Kaye, and Alan White. Then there was the unofficial group of Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, and Alan White. Both found themselves in the studio at the same time and Squire and Anderson decided to combine the projects into one release. The resulting album was titled Union.

The music was complex and interesting yet inconsistent. The two Yes bands were very different in sound and style, and while they might have united for the album’s creation, their various contributions made for a disjointed affair. In the final analysis, though — when taken separately — the tracks are very good. The critical reaction was mixed but the album was nevertheless a commercial success, receiving a gold record award for sales in the United States. The resulting tour was both a huge critical and commercial success.

The first two tracks are in the vein of the pop/rock Yes of 90125. “I Would Have Waited Forever” and “Shock To The System” are both polished rock. “Without Hope, You Cannot Start The Day” was the fifth track and follows much in the same style. They probably should have combined it with the first two tracks, actually, rather than separating them.

“Masquerade” was a late addition to the album as the record company wanted a Steve Howe instrumental. It may have been short at just over two minutes, but he quickly proved why he is considered one of the better guitarists of his era. This acoustic track was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Right in the middle of the album are two back-to-back tracks that are fine examples of creative, experimental progressive rock. “The More We Live – Let Go” and “Angkor Wat” have all the makings of classic Yes with guitar and keyboards combining to lay down the foundation for Jon Anderson’s vocals. “Angkor Wat” incorporated the Cambodian poetry of Pauline Cheng.

The album’s best known track spent six weeks in the Number One position on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks Chart. “Lift Me Up” treads the line between progressive and mainstream rock and was perfect radio fare during the early 1990’s.

The original album ended with “Take The Water To The Mountain.” It begins as a sparse track and gradually builds as instruments are added. The only problem is its length; at just over three minutes, it sounds kind of rushed.

Unionis a unique if inconsistent album. The union of Yes would be short-lived as Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe would quickly depart, returning the band to their 1983-1988 configuration. Yet it remains an interesting stop in the career of Yes.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Union on Blogcritics.

Big Generator by Yes

May 10, 2011

It’s not a good sign when a band takes over two years in the studio to produce a new album. So it was with Yes as tensions were running high between Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin. Anderson wanted to return the band to its progressive rock roots, while Rabin wanted to continue to move in a more mainstream rock direction, as represented by their commercially successful 90125 release. It got so bad that producer Trevor Horn quit part way into the recording process.

Big Generator was released September 28, 1987 and proved to be a commercial success despite being pulled in two musical directions. Both Anderson and Rabin left their individual imprints upon the album and produced some very good, if a little dated, music.

The pop side is best represented by “Rhythm Of Love” and “Love Will Find A Way.” The first has layered harmonies, soaring guitar lines, and is representative of 1980s arena rock. The second was a Rabin solo composition. The early use of strings on it leads to some catchy guitars and melody. It was the type of well-crafted commercial music that Rabin was so adept at creating. “Love Will Find A Way” would top the American Mainstream Rock chart.

Anderson’s influence can be felt on his own “Holy Lamb” and “Final Eyes.” “Holy Lamb’s” message of peace and ecology sounds dated but the music and Anderson’s vocal make up for it. “Final Eyes” is a nice slice of progressive rock, as Tony Kaye’s keyboards lead the way for another fine Anderson vocal performance.

“Shoot High, Aim Low” is the best track. It treads the middle ground as all five group members share the writing credit. The keyboards are airy and dreamy; plus, Rabin’s guitar work, both acoustic and electric, is moody. The dual lead vocals between Anderson and Rabin were some of the most creative of Yes’ career. It’s too bad that the band could not have been more united throughout the process, because this was an excellent track.

Big Generator is one of those lost albums in the Yes catalogue, as it is only partially admired by fans of both the classic Yes and the Rabin Yes. It may not be essential to the Yes catalogue of music, but it remains inoffensive, and in some places, a good listen.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Big Generator on Blogcritics.

Drama by Yes

April 29, 2011

A very different Yes returned on August 22, 1980 with their tenth studio album. Rick Wakeman was gone once again but the big news was the absent Jon Anderson, who had quit the band due to creative differences. He would quickly return and this would be their only album to date without his lead vocals. The band’s Fly From Here is due in a few months and it will mark the second Yes release without Anderson’s participation.

Drama would mark a change in the band’s sound, mainly due to their new members. Vocalist Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes had played together as The Buggles. Their song, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” had been a Number One hit in the U.K. and reached the American Top 40. If I remember correctly, it was the first video ever played on MTV. They were basically a new wave group and their style and approach would influence Yes. They would not be with the band very long, however, so although it was unintended at the time, Drama would be a transitional or connector album. It would become another commercial success reaching Number Two in their native country and 18 in the United States.

All five members of the band take writing credits on all of the tracks, although one must wonder if that was for the sake of convenience rather than reality.

The first and the last tracks come the closest to their progressive rock past. “Machine Messiah” clocks in at 10:27 and is reminiscent of their past extended tracks. It is a group effort, and the new members mesh well with the old. “Tempus Fugit” is an often-overlooked song in the band’s extensive catalogue. Chris Squire’s bass playing is nevertheless a highlight.

The center of the album travels in a different direction. “White Car” was an odd track at just under a minute-and-a-half in length but it has been performed live as a part of a longer piece. “Does It Really Happen” signals the beginning of the harder edged tunes. “Into The Lines” travels in a pop/new wave direction. “Run Through The Light” is a straightforward rocker that looks ahead to the work of Downes and Howe with Asia.

Drama is an often overlooked Yes album due to the band’s lineup. Still, it was energetic and polished, remaining highly listenable over three decades after its release. It may be different but it is also very good.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Drama on Blogcritics.

Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes

April 17, 2011

Yes released Tales From Topographic Oceans December 14, 1973. It was one of the most ambitious albums of their career and of the decade for that matter. It was both critically praised and panned at the time of its release. It would be a commercial success reaching number six on the American album charts and number one in England.

The original vinyl album was a two-disc release that contained one extended track on each side. It was similar to the classical symphonic style, except for the fact it was rock music. The concept was based upon Shastric scriptures and the songs explored the subjects of truth, knowledge, culture, and freedom.

Jon Anderson and Steve Howe took the writing credits for all the music and were responsible for the album’s concepts. Rick Wakeman was not pleased at being excluded, so not all was well with the band.

This is progressive rock at its most excessive and is not for the faint of heart. You can almost ignore the lyrics and just listen to the music. Then listen to it again and again and again. It is intricate, dense, ambitious, and exhausting. It is one of those albums that you will either love or hate.

The album begins with the 20-minute “The Revealing Science Of God (Dance Of The Dawn).” Again the lyrics are inane so it is all in the music. It is a very complicated piece and Alan White’s drumming is some of the best of his career. The philosophical statement is trying to understand the truth. The music reflects the bits and pieces of knowledge.

Track two is another 20-minute opus. “The Remembering (High The Memory)” is repetitive in places but Steve Howe’s guitar playing makes the journey worthwhile. The theme is the knowledge that is available around us.

“The Ancient (Giants Under The Sun)” comprises the third side of the original release. It focus’ on forgotten knowledge of forgotten civilizations. It is another launching ground for Howe’s guitar playing and Anderson’s philosophy. Wakeman does contribute some of his classic keyboards.

The album draws to a close with “Freedom Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil)” It is a 21 minute examination of the human condition through music. The music meanders and soars and allows the listener to collapse across the finish line.

The music is grandiose and the philosophy behind the music is difficult to grasp, or to even attempt at understanding. It is Yes at its most bombastic and takes some time getting used too. It all comes down to a matter of taste.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans on Blogcritics.

Close To The Edge by Yes

April 13, 2011

Yes released their fifth studio album on September 13, 1972. Close To The Edge continued its worldwide popularity established by their previous album, Fragile. It would reach number four in the U.K. and number three in The United States. They also emerged as one of rock’s top concert attractions as well.

Jon Anderson has stated that the album title was inspired by Herman Hesse’s book, Siddhartha. On the other hand, drummer Bill Bruford has stated it described the band’s state of mind at the time. Whoever was correct does not really matter as it remains one of the better progressive rock albums in history.

The lineup of vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and drummer Bill Bruford remained intact, but change was in the air. Bruford would leave as soon as the recording process had been completed in order to join King Crimson. He was replaced by former Plastic Ono Band drummer Alan White. He would prove to be a good match for the band and remains a member nearly four decades later. He would tour with the band in support of the album.

The album had a more unified approach, as opposed to the five virtually solo tracks contained on their last release. It was made up of three lengthy solo releases that flowed into one another.

The title track was nearly 19 minutes in length and took up the entire first side of the original vinyl release. It was a complicated piece that was broken down into a classical sonata form. The track was divided into four sections which explored different themes and variations. The lyrics were cryptic, which was to become the norm for the band. But it didn’t matter, as they fit the nature of the song.

The second track was the 10-minute “And You And I,” which was also divided into four parts. It was a delicate track that had a spacey sound and feel. Rick Wakeman’s keyboards and Steve Howe’s guitar provides the foundation.

The final track clocked in just shy of nine minutes. “Siberian Khatru” was basically a rock song, even though it may have been an odd rock song. Steve Howe’s guitar playing is brilliant and is one of the reasons Guitar World placed the LP at number 67 on its list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Albums Of All Time. Bruford’s drums and Wakeman’s keyboards are also up front and push the song along.

Close To The Edge should be a staple in any progressive rock collection. Thirty-nine years after its original release, it remains a defining moment in the career of Yes.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Close To The Edge on Blogcritics.

The Yes Album by Yes

April 9, 2011

The career of Yes took an important turn with the release of their third album. Their music moved closer to what would become their classic sound, becoming their commercial breakthrough, reaching number four on the British charts and eventually selling over a million copies in the United States.

Four members of the band’s original line-up returned for the third time. Vocalist Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Bill Bruford, and keyboardist Tony Kaye had coalesced into a tight-knit unit. The big change was that guitarist Peter Banks was out and Steve Howe was in. He would become one of progressive rock’s leading guitarists and be responsible for moving them away from their psychedelic-rock roots.

The Yes Album is the beginning of their producing extended songs with complex music. The songs would have catchy interludes sandwiched amidst the improvisational-type solos. The tight harmonies remained intact which gave the music a broad appeal.

“Yours In Disgrace” led off the original album and it was immediately noticeable that Yes had gone in a different direction. All five band members share the writing credit, as Howe’s guitar, Kaye’s keyboards, and the rhythm section of Bruford and Squire embark on their progressive rock journey, which continues down to the present day. The lyrics were also changing as the imagery was reflective of what was to come.

“Starship Trouper” was an ambitious nine-minute suite comprised of three parts. Anderson’s “Life Seeker” was organ-based, Squire’s “Disillusion” had a nice guitar/bass foundation, and Howe’s “Wurm” was made up of some guitar riffing.

The near seven-minute “I’ve Seen All The Good People” is classic Yes. It is one of their first songs where everything comes together. Colin Goldring provides the recorder sound which gives the song a unique and memorable sound. When I think of early Yes, this is one of the songs that come to mind.

The original album ended with the just-under-nine-minute “Perpetual Change.” It is more of a traditional guitar/bass track written by Anderson and Squire. It is a good, if not memorable track.

The Yes Album finds their sound far more sophisticated than on their first two releases. It is one of the Yes albums that I have returned to many times down through the years, and is an essential stop in their large catalogue of music.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – The Yes Album on Blogcritics.

Symphonic Live by Yes

May 29, 2009

Yes has returned with a new two-disc CD offering titled Symphonic Live. The music was previously released in 2002 as part of a DVD set of the same name. The group had decided to tour in support of their latest album release at the time, Magnification.

They brought in the European Festival Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Keitel, to back them in concert. The resulting sound retains the original structure and intent of their material, but the songs are enhanced with new textures and layers.

This version of Yes contains four fifths of their classic line-up. On board are vocalist and guitarist Jon Anderson, lead guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White. Keyboardist Tom Brislin fills in for Rick Wakeman, and he is missed.

I must say that I had lost track of Yes over the last 18 years or so. They were a staple on my turntable during the 70s and 80s, but their 1991 Union album was the last release I had purchased by the group, so it was nice to catch up. Also, since I do not own the music in DVD form, this album had to stand on its own without the visual presence of the group or orchestra.

I found Symphonic Live to be an interesting, creative, and a technically adept album. They wisely chose to mix in their hits and older tracks with some songs from their newest release and it all combined for a superior listening experience.

I had not heard the music from Magnification, so tracks such as “Don’t Go,” “In The Presence Of,” and the title song were all new to me. They contain all the elements of a classic Yes sound and seemed to fit the orchestral backing a little better than the older material.

They reach way back into their past for several songs. “I’ve Seen All The Good People” from 1971’s The Yes Album finds their harmonies in good shape. “Starship Trooper” from the same album receives a nice workout. “Long Distance Runaround” from Fragile is an excellent reminder of the guitar virtuosity of Steve Howe.

The album concludes with two of their best-known songs. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and “Roundabout” both benefit from reduced orchestration as they present the basic group at its best.

Symphonic Live brings Yes into the 21st century and it updates their classic material in a unique way. It proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks.