My Yes obsession was spurred on through other college friends who were Yes fans, but another driving factor is that Yes is one of the few bands that my lovely wife also likes. On one of our early dates we went to see the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe offshoot of the band play at the now defunct concert grounds on City Island in Harrisburg, PA. It wasn't long until I'd bought the entire back catalog and was actively seeking out solo albums and related projects. All told, I probably own over a hundred CDs and tapes that were bought because they were related to Yes in some way, and I've seen the band in concert at least half a dozen times.
As the years passed, a string of mediocre-to-bad albums from both the full band and its various solo members cooled off my desire to own every note they ever played. But recently I got ahold of the "Studio Albums 1969-1987" boxed set, and the improved sound quality (and pile of bonus tracks) has reignited my interest in their music. At least long enough to make me want to write a web page about the band. Like all things written by Yes fans about the band and their music, this page is sure to be overly-opinionated and likely to start fights with other Yes fans. It's a risk I'll have to take.
So off we go, starting with the debut album...
To be honest, they didn't really get off to an auspicious start with this first album. In fact, neither of the band's first two album made much of a dent, at least not here in the U.S. The music sounds a lot more dated than their later albums do. This first one in particular sounds like fairly typical '60s British pop music, although with great vocals and some musical flair that hints at what is to come. The Bruford-driven, high-energy intro section of the Beatles cover "Every Little Thing" is a highlight. "Beyond and Before" is a pretty good song that Squire bought to the group from his previous band. The overly precious ballad "Sweetness" is a low point in the Yes catalog. The rest of the album all kind of blurs together to me. Overall, this album's not terrible, and after listening to it many times over the years I've developed some appreciation for it, but it's far from the band's best work.
That orchestration led to a rift in the band. In order to make room for those backing orchestral instruments, something had to go, and that something was usually Peter Banks' guitar parts. I've gotten the impression from things I've read over the years that Banks was not the easiest guy to get along with, and he certainly didn't get along with Anderson and Squire. This issue pushed things over the edge, and he soon found himself kicked out of the band. I've always felt bad for him, since he was a really good guitarist and a creative songwriter, but his dismissal paved the way for Steve Howe to join the band, leading to what might be my single favorite Yes disc. And Banks would be just the first of many, many musicians to be kicked out of (or to quit) the band.
The cover shown here is the American version of the album. The original British cover was apparently deemed too racy for the U.S. because it featured an artsy, forced perspective picture of a naked woman lying on her back. So a new group photo of the band was taken for the American cover. By that time Peter Banks was gone, so the U.S. version of the album has Steve Howe on the cover, even though he didn't play a note on the album. And thus the later revisionism that Howe was the "original" guitarist of Yes began.
With the addition of Howe on guitar the band must have felt like they were re-inventing themselves, so despite the fact that they already had a self-titled album they called this, their third album, The Yes Album. Something just made the band gel around this time, and they were able to craft an album that not only helped popularize the 70s "progressive rock" sound, but was one of the best records to come out of that genre. They stretched out more on this disc, and took more chances. The songs are longer and feature extended instrumental breaks and unusual structures. And yet the music manages to remain very catchy and pop-radio friendly, and the vocals are amazing. They were truly firing on all cylinders. Having Eddy Offord as their recording engineer certainly didn't hurt - he was responsible for a lot of great sounding albums in the early '70s, and this album represents some of his finest work.
Yet before the ink on the cover was even dry, they were already changing the band line-up again. This time it was Kaye (whose wall-of-organ sound helped define this album) getting the boot, because the band coveted young keyboard whiz Rick Wakeman, who had already made a name for himself as a session musician (that's him on David Bowie's "Space Oddity") and through his work with The Strawbs. Gradually Yes was adding more virtuoso players and turning themselves into a progressive rock powerhouse, so Wakeman was a natural fit.
Musically, the band went in a slightly different direction on this album. There were a few group efforts, the best known of which are probably "Roundabout" and "Long Distance Runaround". The album closer, "Heart of the Sunrise", is one of the most powerful songs they ever recorded and "South Side of the Sky" is a fan favorite. But in between those tracks, each musician got an individual showcase. Wakeman introduced himself to Yes fans by translating a movement of Brahms' 4th Symphony into a multiple-keyboard solo track. Anderson came up with an avant-garde, multi-layered vocal and percussion piece that foreshadowed his first solo album. Squire's "The Fish" was a bass solo that formed the tail end of "Long Distance Runaround" (I was always disappointed when I heard that song on the radio and they didn't play Squire's part) and Howe chipped in another acoustic guitar piece similar to the one he did for The Yes Album. Even Bruford came up with a 16-bar percussion pattern that the rest of the band overdubbed parts on, which went by the title "Five Percent For Nothing" (apparently that was Bruford's opinion of the money they paid the band's agent).
In the end, this somewhat experimental album was a success both artistically and commercially, and it set the stage for the band's most ambitious album yet. Oddly, while I liked the songs "Roundabout" and "Heart of the Sunrise", Fragile was never one of my favorite Yes albums. That is, until I heard the remaster and realized that the original CD release sounds like listening to the album with big wads of muddy cotton stuffed in your ears. Whoever was responsible for mastering that original CD should have whatever they were paid for the job taken away retroactively, with interest, and that money should be used to buy copies of the remaster for Yes fans who were ripped off by that original CD. It's that bad.
I seem to remember reading a quote somewhere from Bill Bruford where he indicated that the band intentionally set out to write the multi-movement, epic title track, but were as surprised as anyone else that it turned out as well as it did. Drifting up from a bubbling sea of synthesizers, the song burns through a hectic instrumental opening before settling down into the driving Total Mass Retain section. It then drifts through the atmospheric I Get Up I Get Down before a blast from the pipe-organ-like keyboards launches into the frantic Seasons of Man finale that finally fades back into that synthesizer sea. Brilliant.
I've never been wild about the mellow and acoustic "And You and I", the ten minute track that starts side two. Most Yes fans seem to love it, and it's been a concert staple since the album came out, but there's just nothing there that really grabs me. But I do like the wicked closer, Siberian Khatru. From the blistering Howe guitar riff that starts the song to the odd time signatures and Anderson's inscrutable lyrics, that track does it for me. All in all, Close to the Edge was definitely a major step forward, both for Yes and for progressive rock in general.
I just wish the recording quality was a little better. It's certainly listenable, and I've heard live albums from the early '70s that sound worse, but for such an important document of one of the cornerstone bands of progressive rock, it's just a shame that this album doesn't sound better. Maybe it just needs a remastering job, but I doubt there's much they can do to really make this one shine. If slightly poor sound doesn't put you off and you enjoy bands that extend and improve their songs in concert, and you're looking to pick up most of Yes' best early songs in one place, this is the album to have.
(Update July 2015: Huzzah! A better sounding version of YesSongs is finally available...sort of. See the entry for Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two, below.)
Of course, Yes being Yes, by the time they were on the Close to the Edge tour, the band's line-up had already changed again. Bruford had gotten an offer to join a new version of King Crimson and decided he'd rather do that. At this point Yes had only been around for four years, and they'd already lost three fifths of their original members. As Bruford's replacement, Yes found drummer Alan White, who had been touring with John Lennon and others. White's style is more straightforward rock, at least compared to Bruford's jazzy leanings, so he brought a new element to the Yes sound which could first be heard on some of the tracks here. Squire must really like his playing - although the band would continue to find other guitarists, keyboardists and even singers over the years, Squire and White have formed the basic rhythm section of Yes ever since.
When Anderson first explained his concept to the rest of the band, Howe was enthusiastic so he and Jon did most of the composing. Squire and White seemed along for the ride, but Rick Wakeman made no secret of the fact that he thought the album was a bloated, padded-out mess. When the band played the whole thing in concert, casual fans weren't exactly thrilled about sitting through an hour and a half of weird new music when they just wanted to hear "Roundabout" and "I've Seen All Good People". Soon, songs from Tales were being dropped until the band was just playing "Ritual" or skipping the album entirely. Relations between Wakeman and the rest of the group reached the breaking point in a famous incident where Rick got so bored performing the music from Tales that he had dinner on stage while playing. The rest of the band was not amused, and soon Rick was gone.
Whether you like the end result or not, Tales is certainly a epic album, with musical themes that repeat and vary across its four lengthy sides. There are some nice moments and melodies there, but you have to be pretty patient to find them. And Wakeman was right - the music was padded out in order to make it fit the double album format. The thing is though, when I heard the recent remaster I developed a whole new appreciation for this much-maligned record. I never really realized how muffled the original CD release was, which probably went a long way towards giving me the impression this was a boring album. And the remaster restores a minute or so of ambient ocean noises and floating guitar licks that build up into the chant that opens the first song, which really helps set the mood for the album. They shouldn't have cut that bit in the first place.
This album is as close as Yes got to being a jazz fusion band. In fact, a jazz fan that I used to work with once asked me who the fantastic fusion band was when I drove to lunch with Relayer in the CD player. The album returned to the Close to the Edge format with an epic side-long track on side one, and two shorter pieces on side two. The epic "Gates of Delirium", a track that Anderson came up with and wrote the melody for, was inspired by War and Peace. Its opening eight minutes feature lyrics about war over propulsive music, followed for several minutes by a musical depiction of battle with sounds soaring and crashing over a bed of intense instrumentation. It finally fades into the mellow "Soon" section which is the aftermath of the battle, where Jon warbles away about how the light will soon come to us. Or something like that.
Side two of the original album started with Sound Chaser, which as the title implies is another intense musical workout. Howe's guitar work on that song is probably the most insanely out-there stuff he's ever played. After all that sound and fury, the album concludes with the relaxed and melodic "To Be Over", which seems to be a meditation on death. Heavy stuff. On a lighter note, I discovered one drunken evening in college that if you cue up the "Jupiter And Beyond the Infinite" section of the movie 2001 and start Relayer up just as that title card is shown, the two go together remarkably well.
Unfortunately, the CD era has not been kind to this album. The first CD release was kind of muddy and had this annoying crunching noise in the background that was especially obvious towards the end of songs. The first remastered CD had slightly improved sound, but faded songs out early to hide that crunching noise. The newest remaster included in that Studio Albums box seems to have finally gotten rid of the extraneous noise, but now the album is too top-heavy - too much treble, not enough bass, not powerful sounding enough.
The band regrouped in 1976 for a tour (on which they briefly played some of the material from the solo albums), and then turned to the business of recording a new album. Realizing they were way overdue for a line-up change, they gave Moraz the boot and mended fences with Wakeman, convincing him to re-join the band. Fans were thrilled at this reunion of the "classic" line-up (the first of many reunions), and so Going For the One is a favorite of many fans (including my wife). But it's an album that I've never really warmed up to. To me it seems like the beginning of the slide that would eventually lead to the band's break up. Interestingly, on this album they also broke their long-standing relationship with cover artist Roger Dean, instead going with the very distinct style of Hipgnosis (best known for their Pink Floyd album covers). They also ditched Eddy Offord, brought in new recording engineers and decided to produce the album themselves.
Of the five tracks on the album, three of them seem like attempts at shorter, pop material. The lyrics of the title track appear to be Anderson's musing on athletics, and how people get so caught up in competition that they miss the true spirit of sport. It's not a bad song, but Howe's out-of-control screeching on slide guitar just ruins the track for me. "Turn of the Century" is a longer, somewhat syrupy ballad about a sculptor pining for his lost love which features some good acoustic guitar work. "Parallels" is a song that Squire wrote for his solo album but decided not to use there, which features some harsh sounding pipe organ and is another song that grates on me. I prefer the rehearsal version included as a bonus track on the recent remaster, which features more bass and less pipe organ. I've heard a bootleg demo version that is even more stripped down, and I liked that one even more. Which makes me wonder if my dislike of this album is mostly a matter of poor production.
Side two on the original album started out with "Wondrous Stories", a flat-out attempt at a short, catchy pop song, done airy-fairy Anderson style. Surprisingly, that's the one song on the album that I actually like. Many fans point to "Awaken" as the album's master work, and at 15 minutes it's as close as this album gets to the grand epics of old. It definitely sounds like they were trying to create a prog epic, but I only find bits and pieces of it to be interesting, and the repetitive chiming bells section just goes on way too long before building up to the big pipe organ finale. I saw one review of the album that said "Awaken" borders on self-parody, which I have to agree with. The band seems to like the song though, because they keep bringing it back on later tours as a sort of "lost masterpiece" song. Even as recently as 2013 they were playing the full Going For the One album in concert. All in all, this is an album I rarely, if ever, get the urge to listen to, but many fans love it.
Musically, the album is all over the place. There's the ultra-goofy environmentalism of the album's only single, "Don't Kill the Whale". Before I actually obtained a copy of the album (it was out of print for a long while), I found a book of Yes sheet music that had the lyrics for that song, and I thought it had to be a joke. "Don't kill the whale, dig it, dig it", really? There's the faux-baroque harpsichord piece "Madrigal". There's the shrill rocker "Release, Release" with its weirdly overdubbed applause to make it sound live. There's a keyboard showcase about UFOs. And strangest of all, there's Anderson's cringe-inducing "Circus of Heaven", complete with his young son complaining that the heavenly circus has no clowns. It's just...wow. What were they thinking? It didn't help that they had a falling out with Eddy Offord, and had to bring in a different recording engineer half-way through making the album, resulting in less-than-stellar sound.
All that said though, there's still stuff to like on this album, and it's kind of hard to believe now that this was once considered by most to be Yes' worst album by far. It gets off to a fairly decent beginning by mashing together two OK songs called "Future Times" and "Rejoice". "Madrigal" is actually a pretty little song, despite sounding completely out of place. "Arriving UFO" is a neat keyboard workout (back in the early home computer days, I even came across a file where someone had arranged the song for the Commodore 64's sound chip). Squire's heartfelt ballad "Onward" is pretty good. And the lengthy closing track, "On the Silent Wings of Freedom", is a good, proggy rocker that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an earlier album and points the way towards Drama. Despite the highlights though, Tormato was definitely a big step down, and an indication that this once-great band was running out of steam.
To fill the void, Squire put together this double live album, taken from the tours supporting the last couple records. It includes one song from Tales (Ritual), one from Relayer (Gates of Delirium), the three shorter tracks from Going For the One (the title track, Parallels and Wondrous Stories) and one song from Tormato (Don't Kill the Whale), with one "oldie" (Time and a Word) thrown in for good measure. Even though it's a double album, it only had room for seven songs because it includes two side-long epics. In fact, this version of "Ritual" is so long that it spilled off the end of one album side and had to be continued on the other side. It's introduced by Anderson, who spends a few minutes chatting with the crowd and giving credit to everyone who worked on the tour, while the band jams behind him. It eventually builds to the point where Anderson ad-libs the line "Don't point that funk in my face!" It's hard to figure out what late '70s Yes was thinking sometimes - they must have been smoking something interesting backstage.
The quality of this live recording is good, definitely better than the sound on YesSongs, but there just seems to be something lacking here. Maybe it's that none of the songs on this one were big hits for the band, or that these songs came from the tail end of the band's "classic era" and just weren't as good as their earlier material (although I was really excited to hear the live version of "Gates" when I first got this album). Whatever the reason, this just isn't an album I think of very often when the mood to listen to Yes strikes. Even when I was a rabid Yes fan in college, the only reason I listened to this one was because I had spent a small fortune to obtain a Japanese import copy of it, and because I liked the cover.
After this live set came the "hits" compilation Classic Yes and a retrospective called Yesterdays which featured early singles, rarities and tracks from the band’s first two albums. After that, everyone thought Yes was done. But soon Squire, Howe and White were approached by a couple of young Buggles...
Possibly in an attempt to legitimize this new version of the band, they went back to using Roger Dean artwork for the album cover. It didn't help. Many long-time fans, particularly in England, were absolutely outraged that Yes would release an album without Jon Anderson as the vocalist, despite the fact that the band was already on its second guitarist, second drummer and now their fourth keyboard player. For my money, Drama was the best thing the band had done since Relayer. Working with Horn and Downes seems to have brought a real energy to Squire and Howe, and they did some of their best playing in ages. The ten minute "Machine Messiah" is one of the meanest sounding songs in the band's catalog. "Does it Really Happen", "Run Through the Light" and "Tempus Fugit" are all great songs as well, which blend Yes' prog-rock past with the energy and sci-fi attitude of new wave, updating the Yes sound to fit the era. Plus they took that "I am a Camera" demo and turned it into a masterpiece called "Into the Lens".
The album was good, and the tour supporting it was successful (especially in the United States), but Horn quickly got tired of being criticized for "replacing" Anderson, and singing in Jon's range was straining his voice. And really, he didn't want to be a rock star in the first place, he was more comfortable behind the scenes. So Yes once again broke up, with Horn going off to be a producer and Howe finally bailing on the band to chase pop success with Downes in the newly formed "supergroup" Asia. That left just Squire and White holding the reins of Yes. Those two managed to put out a Christmas single called "Run With the Fox", and then it looked like Yes was finally dead for good... or at least for a few years.
At a party, Squire ran into Jon Anderson and played him the Cinema demos. Anderson liked what he heard and volunteered to be the band's vocalist. Realizing that Cinema now contained three previous members of Yes, Squire convinced their original keyboardist, Tony Kaye, to join the band so they could call it Yes. Rabin, having seen the backlash Horn got about "replacing" Anderson, wanted to keep the name Cinema so it wouldn't look like he had usurped Steve Howe's spot in Yes, but he eventually gave in to the name change. Trevor Horn was brought in to produce, and 90125 (named after its catalog number) was born.
This was a big shift for the band. The music sounded very slick and cutting edge for its time and was decidedly more pop-oriented, although the band added little progressive rock touches here and there like the shifty intro to “Changes”, the instrumental workout "Cinema", the experimental, nearly a capella "Leave It" and the sentimental “Hearts” which some fans felt was as close as the album got to the spirit of Yes of old. Many long-time fans had a hard time accepting the album, but it brought the band a whole new, younger audience with the song "Owner of a Lonely Heart" becoming their first number one single in America, and videos for that song and "Leave It" in heavy rotation on MTV. "Hold On", "It Can Happen" and "Changes" all got a lot of radio play.
90125 was far and away the band's most commercially successful album. In a sense, this was a bad thing because the band would spend the next couple decades trying to chase pop success, much to the chagrin of their long-time progressive rock fans, while the fickle pop audience they gained with this album quickly abandoned them. But on the other hand, this album revived their career and made them rock superstars. Without 90125, Yes would have ended in 1980 and might be mostly forgotten, or remembered only as a '70s art rock band who had a few great albums and a few minor hit songs.
So to maintain interest in the group in the meantime, 9012Live - The Solos was released as both an audio EP and a video tape. It features performances from the tour supporting 90125. It's been a long time since I've seen the video, so I'm not entirely sure what was included there, but the audio version features the songs "Hold On" and "Changes", along with "solo" tracks from each band member (most of the tracks aren't truly solo - they have backing from the other band members). Tony Kaye contributed a fairly sparse, almost new-agey sounding keyboard solo called "Si". Rabin's track is a flashy, rapid-fire, finger-picked guitar solo called "Solly's Beard". Anderson sang the "Soon" section of "Gates of Delirium". Squire played "Amazing Grace" on the bass, which segued into a drum and bass duet medley with Alan called "Whitefish". The medley features the "Fish" section of "Long Distance Runaround" plus quotes from a few other older Yes songs, including some riffs from Drama.
It's more of a curiosity than a real album, but if you like the Rabin-era band and can find a copy, it's a fun listen. I'm kind of surprised that a more substantial live album from this era was never released, considering how commercially successful the band was at the time. Yes in their prime were a great live band, but unfortunately other than YesSongs, they haven't really released very much in the way of great live albums.
In hindsight, I can say that Big Generator is a better album than I gave it credit for. I've always liked the high energy pop song "Almost Like Love". Many older fans hailed the dark, moody song "Shoot High, Aim Low" as one of the few moments of "real Yes" on the album. But personally I'll take the one-two punch of "Final Eyes" and "I'm Running" on side two. Those two longer, more experimental, multi-part songs always struck me as sounding like prime Yes, despite being aimed at more of a pop audience. The album's final track, the mellow "Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence)", is about as Jon Anderson-ish as a song can get.
There was a lot of hoopla about the album when it first came out, but it has kind of shuffled off to the recycle bin of forgotten Yes albums since then. I used to have a homemade cassette with 90125 on one side and Big Generator on the other that I listened to a lot in college and kept in my car for a few years after graduation. But the Big "G" is not an album I spin very often any more, and I doubt you'd find many Yes fans who claim it as their favorite. Back when newsgroups were still a viable part of the internet, many on alt.music.yes disparagingly called fans of the 80s era band "Generators", so you can tell it wasn't a particularly popular album with the older fans. Those who defended the album Drama called themselves "Panthers" after the cats on the album cover. Newsgroups were pretty weird. I miss 'em. But I digress...
That "Studio Albums 1969-1987" boxed set ends with this one because all the albums up to here were recorded for the same label (Atlantic). After this they would record a couple albums for the Arista label, and then be relegated to the land of independent little record companies that went broke more often than not. But this a good dividing point in the band's catalog anyway, since after this Yes would never quite be the same commercial force they once were. They still had some big tours and big-selling albums ahead, but due to infighting, poorer output and growing audience apathy, Big Generator was pretty much the end of the line for Yes as a major act, and the beginning of them as more of a niche/nostalgia band.
An album was released under the ABWH banner and they toured with a show they called "An Evening of Yes Music Plus" (which was also the title of the live 2-disc set from this tour that was released a few years later). The tour was great - it was the first time I saw any version of Yes live, and it was an outdoor show with an open field as the audience area, so I got as close to the band as I ever would for a Yes show. The ABWH album has its moments, although it oddly sounds even more "80s" and overproduced than 90125 and Big Generator. The song "Brother of Mine" was a minor hit, and both "Themes" and "Order of the Universe" are worth hearing if you're a Yes fan. The song "Quartet" features a few not-so-subtle references to older Yes songs and albums, to make it clear what band this really was. The rest of the album I could take or leave. Strangely, Yes have included ABWH songs on latter-day compilations and live discs, so I guess this album has been retroactively added to the official Yes catalog.
Eventually ABWH started work on their second album, while the Squire and Rabin-led Yes tried to come up with a follow-up to Big Generator. Neither side was making enough progress to suit their record labels, so someone came up with the idea of slapping the two half-finished albums together and promoting it as a "super Yes", which lead to...
The real winners on this album are the Rabin-penned songs. "Lift Me Up" was a hit, and the moody "The More We Live - Let Go" scored some points with long-time fans. But album's masterpiece was "The Miracle of Life". It sounded like Rabin trying to out-prog the Yes of old while simultaneously crafting a super-catchy pop song. Great track. The rest of this album has, mercifully, been mostly forgotten. My stock quote about Union was that it should have been called Onion, because it made Yes fans cry at the wasted potential. I remember excitedly leaving a mall with the new CD, putting it in my car's CD player for the drive home, and having that excitement gradually turn to dismay. When "Miracle of Life" finally came on, I figured "that's got to be the ABWH guys", only to find it was actually a Rabin song. My heroes had let me down. As a side note, during an early listen I accidentally hit the "track repeat" button without knowing it during the Anderson new-age song "Angkor Wat". Half an hour later, I was wondering whether the song was ever going to end.
Although the music was a disappointment, the album's packaging was nice - a Roger Dean cover, a thick liner note booklet and even artwork on the CD itself. And the supporting tour is held by many fans as one of the best in the band's history. Eight key members of Yes past and present, on stage together, playing music from all across the group's catalog. Bruford's electronic drums decorating White's standard rock kit. Wakeman's flashy synth arpeggios complementing Kaye's organ chords. Rabin's rockin' riffs contrasting with Howe's more classical approach. And Squire grounding it all with his bass while Anderson fronted the band and even played some harp. All on a rotating stage that gave everyone in the audience a decent view. If they had included Peter Banks, Patrick Moraz and the Buggles and it would have been perfect. Makes me wish they would take that tour out on the road again before old age forces them all into retirement.
Squire has a songwriting credit for "Real Love", but that's one of the dullest songs in the Yes catalog. The so-so pop song "Walls" was pushed as the single from the album, but "The Calling" was the song I actually heard on the radio a few times, possibly the last new song from Yes that I ever heard get airplay. It's a nice enough pop song, but I've heard an extended version of it that includes an atmospheric middle section that really added to the song - I wish they had used that version for the album. "I Am Waiting" is a beautiful, melodic love song that alternates between drifting, dreaming sections and harder driving sections. My wife and I had it played at our wedding (since we're both Yes fans). "Where Will You Be" is a fairly exotic world music influenced track that sounds similar to music that Rabin wrote for his solo albums Can't Look Away and Jacaranda.
But the album's crowning achievement is the long, multi-part Endless Dream. It starts with a blistering instrumental section, then goes into the "Talk" section which takes up the bulk of the song and features some neat production tricks like growling guitar bouncing from ear to ear. That builds to the "Endless Dream" finale before gracefully sliding to a halt to end the album. In interviews around that time, Anderson called it something like "a return to real Yes music", and I have to agree, it's a keeper. My wife and I got a chance to see the band on the Talk tour, and it was the second best seats we ever had for a Yes show. It was at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland, and apparently ticket sales weren't too good. So as we walked towards the entrance, a scalper offered to upgrade our lawn seats to something like 10th row seats just right of center for $20, which we did. Great show to support a sadly underrated album.
Long time fans were predictably excited. So the band signed with another small independent label and released the two-disc set Keys to Ascension. Disc one and the first half of disc two featured live recordings from the San Luis Obispo shows and the rest of disc two was filled out with two new studio tracks, the ten minute "Be the One" and the twenty minute "That That Is". The lyrics to the latter sound like Anderson's attempt to get some "street cred" as they deal with the problems of inner city life (drugs, police, drive-by shootings, etc), which just doesn't sound right coming from the cosmic, British and well...old white guy Jon Anderson. But the music is good and it's possibly the best studio track from the Keys albums. Despite rumors quickly circulating that the live tracks were heavily overdubbed (if you listen closely, you can sometimes hear Howe playing two guitar parts simultaneously or Anderson singing both lead and backing vocals, etc), many fans hailed this album as a real return to form and the best thing that Yes had done in years. But the overly glossy live tracks didn't really add much to existing live albums (except for a nice new arrangement of "Onward" from Tormato), and while I liked "That That Is", in general the new studio tracks sounded like the band was trying a bit too hard to come up with something proggy just to please fans.
But the first Keys to Ascension album sold fairly well, so in late 1997 the band released a second volume, again as a two disc set. Disc one was the remainder of the overdubbed San Luis Obispo "live" recordings, including the first official live version of "Turn of the Century". Other than that one song, the live disc was completely superfluous. Disc two contained new studio material including another 20 minute epic called "Mind Drive" that some fans hailed as a masterpiece, which centered around a drum pattern that White had used as his solo spot on the Union tour and which dates back even earlier to a supergroup project that never got off the ground called XYZ that featured Squire, White and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.
Many fans, myself included, were starting to feel ripped off from having to buy these expensive 2-disc sets just to get a handful of new studio tracks. Rick Wakeman agreed, stating that he felt the new studio material should have been released as a separate album. Eventually the new studio songs from both sets were released on a single CD called KeysStudio, but by that time fans who wanted this music probably had already bought it. Wakeman once again left the band. It's a shame, because if they'd just released the best material and arranged it a little differently, this could have been a real return to form and a new start for Yes. Picturing an album similar to Genesis' Three Sides Live but with three studio sides, I tried putting together a playlist with Mind Drive as side one, Footprints, Children of Light and Sign Language as side two, That That Is as side three and from the live recordings Onward, America and Turn of the Century as side four. That would have actually been a really good album. Oh well.
Sherwood has claimed that Open Your Eyes was an attempt to bridge the "pop Yes" and the "prog Yes", but to most it just sounded like an attempt to replicate the commercial success that the band had had with Rabin, a goal at which this album failed miserably. I guess there are some people out there who enjoyed this album, but pretty much everyone I knew hated it. I certainly hated it. The songs are vapid and annoying, the production is harsh, the mix is bad and the album cover makes the Talk cover look creative. Most of the songs on this disc are just unlistenably awful - if proof were needed that without Rabin Yes' days as hitmakers were through, this album is that proof. It's far and away the worst thing Yes has ever released. It made long-time fans look back at Union with fond and nostalgic eyes, it's that bad. I took to calling it Open Your Wallet because it was obviously rushed out right after the Keys albums in an attempt to milk more money from fans.
The best part of the album, and I'm not joking when I say this, was a "hidden" track at the end of the disc where they took a new agey soundtrack of chimes, birds, crickets, waves and whatnot and overdubbed occasional outbursts of the vocals from the album. The band played that over the PA system before shows on this tour (which the wife and I saw twice - in Hershey, PA and in Philadelphia, both times getting stuck with the worst seats in the house). So when it was announced that a special "Surround Sound" version of the album was going to be released, I bought it just to hear that ambient track through my home stereo which was set up for surround sound. Of course, the surround disc didn't include the hidden track, and as far as I could tell the songs all seemed to be identical to the regular version. This album just couldn't get anything right.
Despite that dark cloud hanging over it, the album has some good songs. The lengthy "Homeworld" that opens the disc was written as the end credit music for a computer game of the same name (how far had Yes fallen that they agreed to write video game soundtrack music?), but was hailed by many fans as a real return to form. My favorite bit of the album is the trilogy of "Lightning Strikes", "Can I" and "Face to Face", which segue into each other and feature everything from rock to pop to world music, and even a return of Anderson's experimental vocals on a bit of music that sounds similar to "We Have Heaven". The end of the album featured a couple more nice longer-form songs.
Like Talk, this was a pretty good but sadly overlooked album. By this time the mainstream music audience had pretty much forgotten about Yes, and even long-time fans don't seem to give this album much credit. I'm as guilty as anyone - even though I like the album, it's one that I rarely ever listen to. I didn't go to any of the shows on the tour to support this album, but I've got an excuse - my daughter was born in 1999, so going to concerts had to be put on the back burner for several years. By the time I started going out more, Yes had stopped touring. But more on that below.
Unlike the Keys to Ascension "live" tracks, the recordings here actually sound live and don't appear to have been heavily overdubbed, making this the first real live album from the band since 1985's 9012Live, and first full length live album since YesShows in 1980 (unless you count the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe live release An Evening Of Yes Music Plus from 1993). As such, it's worth picking up if you're a long-time fan of the band. The performances are generally pretty good. It features several of the songs from Ladder album (Homeworld, Lightning Strikes, The Messenger, It Will Be a Good Day, Face to Face) mixed into a set list of hits and fan favorites. There's even a brief excerpt from Tales From Topographic Oceans and an unexpected run-through of "Cinema" from 90125.
This album makes me regret not going to see any shows on this tour. I wouldn't get to see the band play live again until 2013, and by then...well, we'll get to that.
After the underwhelming Symphonic Music of Yes, this didn't seem to bode well to me, so I didn't even bother buying the album until I found a cheap copy in a used CD store four years after it came out. I can't say I regret waiting. The album's nice enough, and I like the title track well enough to include it in a playlist I put together of latter-day Yes highlights, but overall this album is just a bit too bland for me. The same fans who had loved the Keys albums held this one up as the best work the band had done since then, but while I can point out a track or two that I like (and a track or two that I don't like), I can't really say much of the album makes an impression on me one way or the other. Basically, if a more mature, mellower version of Time and a Word sounds appealing to you, then you'd probably like this album. If nothing else, it lends a nice symmetry to the Yes catalog.
The band toured for a while with an orchestra in support of this album, and eventually Rick Wakeman re-joined them for something called the Full Circle tour, where the band played their greatest hits and deep cuts from throughout their catalog. Which leads to...
A grand tour followed, complete with a custom-built Roger Dean stage. Sadly, Jon Anderson was starting to develop vocal problems, which first lead to the band taking a break for a while, then lead to a "temporary" replacement vocalist and finally saw the band decide to continue on without Jon (much to the shock of many long-time fans).
But in 2014, a full decade after that 35th anniversary tour, the band threw Anderson fans a bone by releasing this three disc set of recordings from that tour, complete with Jon doing the singing. A matching DVD/Blu-ray video of the tour was also released, but I just got the audio CDs since I don't watch music videos very often. Maybe sometime down the line when I'm feeling nostalgic I'll go for the video.
Anyway, this set does a pretty nice job of covering the band's entire career. It has the hits like I've Seen All Good People, Yours is No Disgrace, Roundabout, Starship Trooper and, oddly (since Rabin wasn't involved) Owner of a Lonely Heart and Rhythm of Love. It also has some of the "catalog" songs that fans would expect like Going For the One, Long Distance Runaround, Wonderous Stories, and And You And I. It even has the requisite Howe solo acoustic piece in Second Initial.
But where this set really delivers the goods is in the unexpected deep cut department. Fans had been asking for a live version of the epic Mind Drive, and this album has it. How about an Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe song (The Meeting) to go with that? There's a live performance of the full Ritual which, granted, they had done before, but who thought they'd do it again? They even dig into that bonus disc that came with the 35th anniversary hits package and played Anderson's "Show Me". A personal highlight for me is a performance of the Beatles cover Every Little Thing from their first album - that's something I always wanted to hear them play live but never thought they would.
On the down side, you can hear the weakness in Anderson's voice here and there - in the opening song, he almost seems to be shouting "Goooing for the WAAAN!" instead of singing it. Also, the slower tempos that would plague the band's latter day live performances are already starting to creep in here. And for some reason they decided to play the horrible, loping arrangement of "Roundabout" from the recent hits package. And whoever edited the audio recording did a terrible job - tracks fading out and going into the next track at full volume, small gaps between tracks that should be seamless, abrupt endings.
But overall, this is a pretty nice documentary of the classic Yes line-up near the end of their prime.
I personally think this is the best album Yes has released since Talk, possibly since 90125. That might seem like damning with faint praise to some fans, but let me be clear - I like both of those albums, and I like Fly From Here a lot too. The title track is a side-long suite that started life as a three or four minute song that was never completed for the Drama album, but which the band played live on that tour. Horn added a couple new, related sections, Howe came up with an instrumental break and the band used another old demo called "Fly From Here Part 2" to conclude the piece. It's a real return to form - this song is the sort of thing Yes used to create in their prime.
"Life on a Film Set" is based on another old Buggles demo and is easily my second favorite song on the album. Howe chipped in an acoustic guitar piece called "Solitaire" which is nice, and the closing rocker "Into the Storm" is also a good track. There really aren't any songs I dislike on this one and several that I think are great. This is just a solid album from start to finish, and if Yes would have called it a day after this disc, it would have been a fitting conclusion to a grand career. Unfortunately they didn't, but we'll get to that. I kind of wonder if Drama wouldn't be held in higher regard by some fans if it had been a double album with the "Fly From Here" suite as side three and "Life on a Film Set", the never-finished "Do We Really Have to Go Through This" and "Into the Storm" as side four. That'd be a hell of an album.
Predictably, the same haters who hated Drama also hate Fly From Here. They bash the vocals, they bash the fact that the band was reduced to using old Buggles demos, they bash Geoff Downes because he's not Rick Wakeman, but most of all they bash Squire for having the nerve to record another album without Anderson. Don't listen to them - this is a great album.
Of the more recent recorings, the only one I've bought (so far) is this In the Present album, which was recorded shortly before Fly From Here was released and which features Benoit David on vocals. To be honest, the main reason I bought it was because I had a Best Buy rewards certificate that was about to expire, and also because I had really liked Fly From Here. Much to my disappointment, none of the songs from that album appear on this live recording. But the biggest shock came when I started listening to disc one and heard them plod through "Siberian Khatru", taking it at a tempo that could charitably be described as "leisurely". Most of the performances on this album sound like the band is half asleep. I don't know if Roger Dean was making some sort of subliminal comment when he put a turtle on the cover, but it's very appropriate.
The set list is so focused on oldies and Benoit David's voice sounds so much like Trevor Horn that, if they hadn't played Owner of a Lonely Heart and if the performance wasn't so sluggish, this could have been passed off as a lost recording from the Drama tour 32 years earlier. I can't imagine why anyone thought this show was worth documenting with an official live album. Based on this one, I don't see myself buying any more live albums from recent performances, although I may still buy some of the archival stuff. The live album from the Union tour looks particularly attractive, since I saw that tour and enjoyed it so much. Really though, there's only so many times you can hear "Roundabout", "Starship Trooper" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart" played live before you say "OK, enough's enough".
Worse yet, Squire decided to follow up Fly From Here with a new album, and let Davison have a hand in the songwriting. The result is the Heaven and Earth album, which came out in the summer of 2014. Apart from Davison, the band line-up is the same as it was on the previous album (Squire, Howe, White and Downes), but where Fly From Here was one of the band's better releases from the last couple decades, Heaven and Earth for the most part is bland, plodding and forgettable.
After Fly From Here, I really, really wanted to like this new Yes album. But it's just too slow paced, pedestrian and boring. Most of the album sounds like a bad neoprog band trying to imitate Yes. It gets a little better towards the end - the song "Light of the Ages" tries real hard to sound like classic Yes (it fails, but at least it tries). The second to last track, Howe's "It Was All We Knew", is a wistful and nostalgic look back at youth from the perspective of age and is a pretty good song. The final track, "Subway walls", is more in the style of Yes of old, but its mid-pace tempo robs it of a lot of its potential punch. Still, it's probably the best song on the disc.
If a sign were needed that it's time for Yes to hang it up, this album is a big, flashing neon sign in that direction. Maybe if they brought Anderson and Rabin back and got Horn to produce, they could come up with one last great album, but I'm not holding my breath. Especially since Squire and Howe have hinted that, having finally wrestled the band away from Anderson's "dictatorship", they have no intention of ever letting him back in. Oh well.
One of the first things I bought was this three disc live set which I had been curious about for years, but had put off buying due to high prices and reviews that said the sound quality was pretty questionable. But now that 10 years have passed, new and used copies can be found on the web for reasonable prices, so I took the plunge.
It turns out it's a pretty good set. It focuses a lot on rarer material, like several tracks from the pre-Fragile band, after Howe had joined but before Kaye was replaced with Wakeman. Those recordings make up most of disc one, and hearing "Astral Traveller" with Howe and a 15 minute long "America" with Kaye is worth the price of admission right there. We also get a couple previously unreleased tracks in "For Everyone" and "It's Love".
Disc two jumps over the YesSongs period (since it's already pretty well documented) and jumps to the mid-70s. There's a performance of "Sound Chaser" with Moraz on keys, and some rare stuff like "Future Times/Rejoice" and (god knows why) "Circus of Heaven". The disc closes out with a 25 minute long medley that the band played in 1978 and a loose jam called "Hello Chicago", before yet another recording of "Roundabout".
The third disc is a little less essential. There's a version of "Awaken" from back in the day, if you're into that. I was excited to hear the live tracks from the Drama band, including the never-before-released "Go Through This" and the early "Fly From Here", but the sound quality is just slightly better than the awful Dramashow bootleg that I paid way too much money for years ago. Apparently a lot of this boxed set was sourced from radio broadcasts that Steve Howe had taped and saved. The set finishes off with four tracks from the Rabin era, but the only one that's really of much interest is "Shoot High, Aim Low".
All in all, I'm glad I bought the set, but I'm also glad I waited until the price came down to something reasonable. If you're a collector of Yes bootlegs, odds are you've probably already heard a lot of this material, although this set might have better sound quality.
The recordings are presented "warts and all", so we get things like audience members screaming for the people in front to SIT DOWN, and Anderson's microphone cutting in and out during a couple songs in the last show, etc. But overall this set is just fantastic if you're a fan of the 70s Yes lineup with Howe and Wakeman (although there's no Bruford - these shows were all recorded after Alan White joined the band).
The set list is exactly the same for all seven shows (with the exception of two songs being switched around on the first show): Firebird -> Siberian Khatru, Ive Seen All Good People, Heart of the Sunrise, Howe's solo spot (Clap & Mood For a Day), And You And I, Close to the Edge, Wakeman's solo spot (excerpts from Six Wives of Henry VIII), Roundabout, Yours is No Disgrace.
While Howe and Wakeman's solo spots vary from show to show and even the group songs are a little different each night, there are some fans who didn't want to shell out for a 14 disc set of seven near-identical shows (even though the overall price works out to less than $10 a show). So the album was also released as a "highlights" 2-CD set with what the compilers deemed to be the best performance of each song edited together to sound like one concert.
Either way - 14 disc monster box or 2 disc highlights package - if you're a fan of early Yes and like concert recordings, you need to get a copy of this.
At any rate, they've had their highs and lows, their great albums and their terrible ones, and their periods of inactivity, but amazingly after 45 years the band is still active. Their concerts have been taking the songs at a slower tempo, but they're still worth seeing. Here's hoping that maybe in a few years Anderson and possibly other surviving ex-bandmembers find their way back into the band for a 50th anniversary tour. If nothing else, Jon, Chris, Bill, Tony and Peter (RIP) can know that they started something really special back in 1969, which (with the help of many other musicians) has kept on going for nearly five decades and created tons of good music that has entertained millions of people. That's more than most rock stars ever accomplish.
The tour with Billy Sherwood as bassist is still going to happen, since the dates were already booked and tickets were already sold, and since it was Squire's desire that the band continue. So this will mark the first time Yes goes on the road with none of its original members, and only two musicians (Howe and White) from the "classic" years. How long this line-up of the band will continue is anyone's guess. I kind of want to see them because I know it might be my last chance to go to a Yes concert, but on the other hand I feel like the "real" Yes died with Squire. Maybe they can coax Anderson back into the line-up - I'd probably go then.
The odds of another album coming out under the Yes name seem pretty slim now. After 45 years, it seems like this might be the end of the line. Someone on a progressive rock site that I read suggested that all the surviving members should get together and create a final Yes album as a tribute to Chris, which I think would be a great idea. Unfortunately, we're probably stuck with Heaven and Earth as the last Yes disc, aside from the inevitable archival releases.