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.


The Ladder by Yes

June 11, 2011

After the critical and commercial debacle of their 1997 album, Open Your Eyes, Yes regrouped. Vocalist Jon Anderson, drummer Alan White, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe were back, as was Billy Sherwood, who was retained as a second guitarist but no longer as the keyboardist. The group became a six-man band when keyboardist Igor Khoroshev was officially added to the group. The band also brought in outside producer Bruce Fairbairn, who unfortunately died just before the recording process was completed.

The Ladder returned Yes to their progressive rock roots and while it may not have been of the same caliber as their classic work, it was at least welcomed and ultimately very listenable. When taken on its own and not compared to their past work, it emerges as a fine modern Yes album.

There are two extended tracks, a few ballads, and overall the music has a nice hard edge to it. When you add in the usual level of competent musicianship and the tight production, you have an album that has withstood the test of time well.

“Homeworld (The Ladder)” is one of two tracks that clocks in at over nine minutes. It was the album’s first track and its classic progressive rock style sets the tone for what follows. “New Language” was the other longer song and used a jam from their previous album recording sessions to form the foundation for the song. The length of both songs gives the various band members room for solos.

“It Will Be A Good Day (the River)” and “Face To Face” may veer a little toward traditional rock, but both are catchy and melodic. Plus, they fit into the concept of the album well. “The Messenger” was a fine tribute to Bob Marley. “Nine Voices (Longwalker)” has some nice acoustic guitar work.

The Ladder may not explore any new ground, but at over three decades into their career at this point, I’ll accept the old. There may be better places to start when exploring the Yes catalogue, but at least there is nothing offensive, and in places there is some good music.

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


Open Your Eyes by Yes

June 6, 2011

Every time I have listened to Open Your Eyes, and I have to admit, the times have been few and far in between down through the years, I can’t help but think Yes should have taken more time and put a little more thought and effort into its creation.

Rick Wakeman had left the band again due to a disagreement concerning their Keys To Ascension 2 album. The band was planning a tour and decided to quickly record a new album to promote while they were on the road.

Chris Squire and Billy Sherwood had been working on a project together. Jon Anderson became interested and the music became a full-fledged Yes project. The result was Open Your Eyes. Other than being a weak album, it also had the misfortune of being released shortly after the second Keys To Ascension album, which only served to focus attention on it being one of the poorer Yes studio releases.

It was more pop than progressive rock and the emphasis, for the most part, was focused on the harmonies rather than the instrumental creativity that was always at the core of the best of Yes’ work. The songs also had an eclectic feel as they never settled into one style. Add that to a lack of creative depth, and you have the makings of a disappointing album.

There are basically two songs that are interesting. “Universal Garden” features some creative guitar interplay between Steve Howe and new member Billy Sherwood. It is one of very few Yes tracks to feature two guitars rather than the keyboard/guitar match-up. The album’s best track is its simplest. “From The Balcony” is basically Steve Howe’s acoustic guitar and Jon Anderson vocal. It proved that when in doubt, keep it simple.

Unfortunately the above two songs do not an album make. It was tracks such as the plodding “New State Of Mind” and the half-hearted “Man In The Moon” that were representative of the rest of the album.

Open Your Eyes is not up to the usual Yes standards, as the music does not just reach out and grab you. Groups like Yes, who have been around for decades, will issue a weak album now and then. In the long musical journey of Yes, this is one album best avoided as there are many better stops.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Open Your Eyes on Blogcritics.


Keys To Ascension 2 by Yes

June 2, 2011

Vocalist Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and drummer Alan White had an inspiration during 1996.They reformed as the classic Yes line-up, recorded live tracks from a three-night stand in San Luis Obispo, California, added a few new studio songs, and released Keys To Ascension. It proved to be a commercial and critical success.

If at first you succeed, stay on the gravy train. They returned a year later with more live tracks from the San Luis Obispo concerts, and more new studio songs, and released another album appropriately called Keys To Ascension 2 (a two-disc set). Unfortunately, Rick Wakemen wanted to release the studio tracks as a stand-alone album with a live bonus disc but was outvoted. He promptly left the band for the fourth time, if you are keeping count.

The quality is very close to its predecessor, but I tend to like the studio tracks on disc two a little better than the live tracks on disc one. All in all, it comes out about the same and is one of the better modern Yes albums.

The live “I’ve Seen All The Good People,” “And You And I,” and the just under 20-minute long “Close To The Edge” are like having an old friend come to visit. They have all appeared on numerous releases, and while nothing really new is added here, you appreciate their presence nevertheless.

The shorter pieces fare a little better, as they are changed a bit. “Time And A Word” is built around some masterful piano work from Rick Wakemen. “Turn Of The Century” is a Steve Howe guitar clinic, as he brings his classical guitar expertise to the forefront.

The studio tracks are built upon the epic and intense 18-minute long “Mind Drive.” It is as good as any extended track Yes has ever produced. It has distinct parts that explore the overall melody before returning to the basic theme. Eighteen minutes can be a long time for one song, but this is one of those occasions where Yes makes the length work in its favor. The other outstanding studio track was “Foot Prints.” Chris Squire carries the early part of the song alone and then settles in for some of the better bass lines of his career.

Keys To Ascension 2 was another album that reassured the Yes fan base that everything was fine. It remains a nice live update for some of their better known songs and a good introduction to some new studio material.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Keys To Ascension 2 [2-CD Set] on Blogcritics.


Keys To Ascension by Yes

May 26, 2011

The old Yes juggernaut pulled into the Freemont Theatre in San Luis Obispo, California, for three nights in March of 1996. It was the first time that their classic line-up of vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman had played exclusively together in 18 years.

The result was Keys To Ascension, which gathered live tracks and two new studio songs onto a two-CD release. It was a moderate commercial success, by Yes standards, in the United States and United Kingdom.

Keys To Ascensionis an essential modern-day Yes release, however, as it returned them to their progressive rock roots while bringing their sound into the present. The five band members quickly settled in to a groove and drew on 35 years of experience to provide some of the better live music of their careers.

The album’s seven live songs span the band’s career and include the famous and not so famous, the common and the uncommon. They returned to the long, extended, improvisational approach of their past, as five tracks lasted in excess of 10 minutes, and two were longer than 18 minutes.

The 10-minute version of “Siberian Khatru” is classic progressive rock and rivals the version found on Yessongs. Wakeman is always a treat when he keeps his extreme improvisational inclinations under control, and here he meshes well with Howe’s guitar playing. “The Revealing Science Of God” made its recorded live debut in all its 20-minute glory. Solos by all the principles combine and meander to make this a memorable performance. “Onward” was basically a throw-away track on Tormato, yet here it moves from a simple electronic song to basically an unplugged performance with Howe at the forefront. The fact that it is the album’s shortest track (at less than six minutes) enhances its appeal as its structure and control is a nice counterpoint to the rest of the music.

Two of the band’s most popular live songs make an appearance as well. I never get tired of “Roundabout” and while the version here may add nothing new, it still is a treat to hear Anderson’s vocal, which has not changed in decades, plus Squire’s famous bass lines. “Starship Trooper” always relies on the guitar/keyboard interaction, and here Howe and Wakeman modernize this eternal concert song.

The album ends with two new studio tracks, which added up to 30 minutes of music. “Be The One” is the shorter piece at less than 10 minutes and has a memorable melody and chorus. The 20 minute “That, That Is” has some nice acoustic work by Steve Howe but it tends to drag a little in parts.

Keys To Ascension is a sometimes forgotten Yes album. It remains an excellent look at five friends who proved that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Keys To Ascension on Blogcritics.


Talk by Yes

May 23, 2011

Any band that has existed for as long as Yes has usually produced a number of great albums, a few good ones, some average ones, and no doubt a few clunkers along the way. And so during early 1994, to channel Tennyson, Trevor Rabin led Yes into the valley of death and released Talk.

Just three years previous, Yes had consisted of eight musicians. Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe had left, leaving a line-up of Jon Anderson, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Alan White, and the aforementioned Trevor Rabin.

Rabin and Anderson co-wrote all of the tracks with some help from Squire on two tracks and Roger Hodgson of Supertramp on one. Rabin wanted to return the band to the polished rock of 90125 and Big Generator, while Anderson wanted to return the band to their classic progressive roots. What emerged was an unsatisfactory hybrid that probably traveled closer to Rabin’s vision, but ultimately proved unsatisfactory to both styles. It was a commercial failure by Yes standards, not even reaching gold record status for sales. The accompanying tour, likewise failed to fill halls that prior incarnations of Yes, including their Union Tour, had filled to capacity.

Rabin was the main culprit, as in addition to his writing chores he produced the album and played an array of instruments, including electric & acoustic guitars, keyboards, plus programming, and even provided some lead vocals.

“The Calling,” which led off the original album, is at least listenable. It was constructed in the “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” vein, and while it did not have its polish and appeal, at least it was a good try. The song is built upon a guitar riff which may not be memorable enough for a truly outstanding seven-minute song. Tony Kaye makes his only outstanding contribution on this track.

Things go south quickly thereafter. “I Am Waiting” is a seven-minute Journey rip-off; if I want good Journey music I will go to the source. The album just about hits rock bottom with “Walls,” which is amazing as it was composed by Anderson, Rabin, and Hodgson, who all created good, and in many instances, great music during their career. It sort of bumbles and whines along for five interminable minutes.

The final track was an attempt at a classic Yes epic. “Endless Dream” has three parts; two small sections with the 12-minute “Talk” in the middle. In the past some of their longer tracks have just flown by, but here it drags. The guitar and synthesizer parts, both played by Rabin, combine to drone on.

Talk is one of the weakest albums in the Yes catalogue. Rabin took pride in the fact that he mixed the entire album on an apple computer. He would have been better served to have remained in the studio. There may be some hardcore Yes fans out there who appreciated this release, but when exploring their music this is not a place to start or end.

Article first published as Music Review: Yes – Talk 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.