The pioneering prog rockers’ first new album in seven years stands above much of their later work. This is a subtle reinvention and a worthwhile addition to the canon.
Label: InsideOut Music, Sony
Time: CD1: 8 tracks, 48 minutes
CD2: 3 tracks, 14 minutes
Most Yes fans probably anticipate a new release with cautious expectation. The talent that made this band so distinctive and seminal means that there must always be hope – even if guitarist Steve Howe is the only surviving member of the classic line up; but that hope has been dashed so often in recent years (yes, hastily recorded Heaven and Earth, I’m looking particularly at you). And the more that the band releases sub-standard music, the more it waters down the Yes experience generally.
When they released “The Ice Bridge,” the lead track from The Quest, it raised expectations for this release, because it does so much right. It starts as if it will be a cover of ELP’s “Fanfare to the Common Man,” then moves quickly into a driving rhythm, showing that energy has returned to the band. Anyone having to deal with the legacy of Rick Wakeman’s complex, emotional solos has a daunting task in front of them. However, this track’s end section, where keys and guitar trade solos for some while over a decent riff, takes the keys as far as we can expect from Geoff Downes.
The follow-up track “Dare to Know” sets the tone for the rest of the disc; very little comes out in the way of memorable hooks or choruses, but the sound is still enjoyable in a wallpapery way: it’s comfortable, consistent, bright and very easy to live with. Several guitar lines echo work that Steve Howe put into the classic albums.
The track is the first of three to feature orchestra. Here it generally sits in the background and offers the sort of fills that would have been done by keys in the past. The lighter strings feel natural, but there are intrusive stabs. The orchestration continues in “Minus the Man”, where it feels much more in keeping, acting as Mellotron often would. It also helps to echo the mood of the late bassist Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water, as does the moment when Jon Davison sings, “eventually” with just the same phrasing that Squire used on that solo album. However unwelcome previous singer Jon Anderson’s sacking was, Davison has kept his spirit alive well here.
One part where Davison messes the mood a little is using words like “technology” in the lyrics. Yes music is about creating an ethereal, metaphysical mood, normally with words that don’t make any real sense, but help to create an atmosphere. He gets it right in “The Western Edge,” the other co-write with a returning Billy Sherwood, using lyrics like “We are one constellation” and “time expanding ripples on the surface of my mind” – almost as Jon Anderson-like in its pretension as “exponential ancient overdrive” from the opening track.
“The Western Edge” is another highlight with its languid drive topped off by some free-flying guitar lines that bring Topographics to mind. The classic Yes sound is also helped by a burst of the fizzy sort of synth tone that Wakeman loved to use.
Given the presence of Howe and keys player Geoff Downes, it should be no great surprise that while this is Yes in name, it is far more like Asia in practice – short songs and high production values with a dusting of rock culture that shows itself in only brief instrumental breaks and lines. Less prog, more AOR.
“Music to my Ears” shows this well. At heart it has a typical song construction: intro, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus with a couple of instrumental breaks thrown in. But listening to it, the first and second verses feel completely different because so many harmonies come in second time round. By playing with arrangements they take a simple melodic structure and make it seem more unusual, a real tapestry of sound.
“Leave Well Alone” opens with sparsely-plucked koto notes from Howe before the track busies up with slabs of keys chords and piercing guitar lines. It is probably the least-appealing track on the main disc. The pensive and largely acoustic “Future Memories” is much better, running along on some guitar that sounds very much like Steve Hackett picking.
Downes told biffbampop.com that he considered his “A Living Island” to be a good way to close the album, citing its “big majestic chord sequence” and trying to achieve a similar “spiritual experience for the listener” to tracks like “Awaken” and “And You and I.” Don’t get taken in by that. It is nowhere near those songs and not even a standout here.
This is a not-quite-double-album. InsideOut Music requested a fifty-minute disc, and trimming it down to 63 minutes is a commendable effort. But it has left a second disc comprising what Steve Howe called “high-quality reserve tracks.” It says much for the main set that I can’t find one track (except possibly “Leave Well Alone”) that is poor enough to make way for the lovely “Sister Sleeping Soul,” the opener from the bonus disc and arguably the most memorable melody on the whole release. That said, the other two tracks are undistinguished enough to have been left off completely – especially Beatles tribute “Mystery Tour.” Such backward-looking lyrics sit badly with this band’s forward-looking aesthetic. In this writer’s opinion, it should have been a 68 minute single disc release.
Steve Howe’s production creates a terrifically fresh, crystalline sound across the whole collection with plenty of space. It feels just right for a 21st century Yes. Despite the lack of memorable hooks, that pace, consistent quality and overall sound means I’d rate it above Ladder-era material, where they sounded tired and a pastiche of themselves. This is a subtle reinvention and a worthwhile addition to the canon.