Yessongs, taken from the Close to the Edge tour, arrived in the world in 1973. Happy Birthday, Yessongs, my first prog love. And, what’s not to love? My two reasons why. Enjoy.
Thirty years ago this month, after being presumed dead in the wake of the ‘Drama’ album, Yes came roaring back into the music scene with ’90125′. Commercially, ’90125′ was a spectacular success, yielding their only #1 single as well as several other staples for that era of rock radio. ’90125′ also brought in scores of new Yes fans, and became a gateway to progressive rock for many who were previously unaware. However, with established Yes fans, ’90125′ proved to be a lighting rod of controversy.
For some established fans, myself included, it was a joy to have Yes back as an active band, even if their new album wasn’t a full-blown prog album. But to many established fans, this music simply wasn’t Yes.
At the center of the controversy was the new guitarist, Trevor Rabin, who was the only Yes rookie on the album. Rabin, while a fantastic talent in his own right, had significant stylistic differences with his predecessor, Steve Howe. As a co-writer of every song on the new album, his imprint on the new music was larger than that of any other member. And this music was a sharp departure from anything Yes had previously done. Thus, with the membership change and the change in musical direction, many older fans declared “this is not Yes”.
So was it Yes? Was it Yes save for the new guitarist? And what to make of this strange new music (in Yes terms, anyway)?
Yes, it was definitely Yes
A cursory examination of the membership makes it hard to declare the band that created ’90125′ anything other than Yes. Four of the five members on the album were Yes veterans. Three of them – Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, and Tony Kaye – were original members of Yes. The fourth, Alan White, had originally joined Yes more than a decade prior, and was firmly established in the band. Calling the band Cinema, as they were before Anderson’s return, would have been odd, to say the least. In fact, I’m willing to bet most of the “it’s not Yes” crowd would have said “well, it’s really just Yes” had they tried to get away with calling the band Cinema. Four established Yes veterans with Jon Anderson on vocals is, for all intents and purposes, Yes. And thus an album created by such a band is, for all intents and purposes, a Yes album. When Anderson reconnected with Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, and Bill Bruford in 1989, they may have called themselves Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe for legal reasons, but everybody knew is was really just another incarnation of Yes. Otherwise, why call the shows on your tour ‘An Evening of Yes Music Plus’?
One person who was decidedly a fan of the new band – Rabin himself – was also against calling it Yes. I have sympathy for Rabin’s position, given that he took the brunt of the criticism from the established Yes fans. Still, there was nothing else you could call this band, with four veterans in the lineup including Anderson on vocals. It simply would not have been credible to call it anything else but Yes. With a different vocalist – or with the pre-Anderson lineup, the Cinema name would have worked. Once Anderson came on board, Yes was the only name that would do. The band that did ’90125′ was not Cinema. It was Yes. Yes with a new guitarist? Sure. A Yes wherein the newest member had the most impact on his first recorded output with the band? Undoubtedly. But still Yes. There is simply no other credible band name for the lineup that recorded ’90125′.
Even with as radical a departure as this album was from its predecessors, it’s hard to think musically of ’90125′ as anything other than a Yes album. Certainly, it had a heaviness that was rarely heard on previous Yes albums. The intro to ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ telegraphed early on that this was going to be a different kind of Yes music. ‘Hold On’, ‘City of Love’, and ‘Changes’ produced more power chords than had been heard in any previous Yes album. The music also had much more of a 80′s feel to it, and Tony Kaye’s description of it as sometimes being dimensionally sparse was fitting.
Still, there were more than a few common threads with previous Yes works. And despite Anderson’s late entry into the project, there is no doubt that his creative impact on the final product was second only to Rabin’s. No other song exemplifies this more than ‘It Can Happen’, in particular when the Cinema version is compared to the final Yes version. The Cinema version of ‘It Can Happen’ appears, among other places, on disc 4 of the YesYears box set. The lyrics on that version were those of a rather sappy love song. Even keeping in mind that this is more or less a demo version, the music was relatively mundane. In contrast, it is clear that Anderson had completely rewritten the lyrics by the time the final version was recorded. The rewritten lyrics have much more of the trademark cosmic mysticism that infuses so much of Anderson’s output. Moreover, the music has much more in terms of ‘Yessy’ touches to it, beginning with the sitar intro. If a Yes fan had entered a cave in 1979 and emerged in early 1984 to hear ‘It Can Happen’ on the radio, he or she might have concluded that Yes had never broken up or had gone through the turmoil of the intervening years. The final version of ‘It Can Happen’ clearly sounds like a Yes song, and, 80′s production values notwithstanding. It would not be out of place in the earlier Yes catalog.
Various vocal arrangements on the album also tie in nicely with Yes music past. In ‘Hold On’, a multi-part harmony is sung on the verse that begins with “Talk the simple smile, such platonic eyes …”. This bears a lot of similarity to the final chorus of “Does It Really Happen” (“time is the measure, before it’s begun …”) from ‘Drama’. And of course, ‘Leave It’ is a vocal tour de force that begins with a huge five-part harmony that is unmistakably Yes (this was the second song I heard off of this album, and the one that told me “Yes is back!”). In the previously mentioned ‘It Can Happen’, Anderson and Squire alternate on lead vocals, with Squire singing lead on those portions that serve as a transition from the verses to the chorus. And finally, Anderson’s delivery on the album’s finale, ‘Hearts’, is not something that sounds unusual to the experienced Yes listener.
Other notable connections to previous Yes music includes the ebb and flow of ‘Hearts’, Squire’s bass work on ‘Our Song’ and ‘Cinema’, and the keyboard intro to ‘Changes.’ Had this lineup of musicians released these same songs under the guise of Cinema, I would have scratched my head and asked “why didn’t they just call themselves Yes?”, and I doubt I’m alone in that aspect.
What Rabin Brought to the Table
As we’ve already noted, ’90125′ represented a significant shift in direction for the band, possibly more so than any other shift in their history. And there is little doubt that much of that shift is due to the presence of Rabin. It’s one thing to bring a new member into a band. It’s quite another that the new member has such an outsized creative contribution to the finished product, and this was certainly the case on ’90125′.
I’ll start out by saying that I like Howe’s guitar work better than Rabin’s. In his book ‘Music of Yes’, Bill Martin described this difference perfectly, noting that Rabin divided his lead and rhythm guitar work in a fairly conventional manner, as opposed to Howe, who most decidedly did not. As a prog fan, it shouldn’t be surprising that I prefer the unconventional to the conventional. But that does not change the fact that Trevor Rabin is an exceptional guitarist in his own right. Nor does it change the fact that Rabin brought certain things to the table that Howe did not.
One thing Rabin brought through his guitar playing was a much harder edge (or heaviness, if you prefer) than Howe ever did. Much of ’90125′ flat out rocks, as Rabin had a knack for delivering a bone-crushing power chord at precisely the right moment. There were occasions on previous Yes releases where I wish Howe would have unleashed, one notable example being ‘Release, Release’ from the ‘Tormato’ album. Listen to Shadow Gallery’s version of this song on the tribute album ‘Tales from Yesterday’, and you’ll probably understand what I mean. Comparing live versions of ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ with Rabin to those done with Howe (sans Rabin) provide another demonstration of what I mean here.
The heaviness of Rabin’s guitar in Yes music was a good fit for its time and place. Yes was not going to survive as a band by doing the epics of the 70′s. They were going to survive by other means. And while this did pull them closer to the mainstream, they never fully jumped into it the way their prog-rock peers Genesis did in the 80′s. While Genesis largely ditched their progressive past to become to pursue top-40 hits, Yes under Rabin merely dipped their toes into the water a few times (with ‘Owner’ being the prime example on ’91025′) while otherwise producing album-oriented rock that was just outside the mainstream.
Another of Rabin’s strengths was his capability as a multi-instrumentalist. Although not known by many, Rabin did most of the keyboard work for the three albums that featured what we call the Yes-West lineup. While he was no Rick Wakeman (but who is?), I am comfortable saying he was actually a better keyboard player than Kaye. This stood out to me while listening to Rabin’s piano solo on the ‘Talk’ tour, in which he demonstrated a dexterity that Kaye never did during his time in Yes. While ’90125′ is more of a guitar-driven album to be sure, it does feature some interesting keyboard work, and the most interesting parts thereof were almost certainly played by Rabin.
However, where Rabin’s contribution to Yes really shines in comparison to Howe is in his abilities as a vocalist. Rabin was much more than a merely capable lead vocalist. With a rather smooth voice, he was indeed quite a good one. This gave Yes a previously unknown vocal versatility which was used to great affect on songs like ‘Leave It’ and ‘Changes’, where he and Anderson take turns singing lead. Rabin’s backing vocals on other songs like ‘It Can Happen’ added to the overall vocal picture in a synergistic manner. And on harmony vocals? Wow. Rabin’s voice fit with those of Anderson and Squire so perfectly it’s almost frightening. While I have no qualms saying Howe was a better guitarist, I similarly have no qualms saying that Rabin’s voice was a much better fit than Howe’s in harmonies with the voices of Anderson and Squire. From a vocal standpoint, the version of ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ that appears on ’9012Live’ is far and away my favorite, as the harmonies of Rabin, Anderson, and Squire are very powerful. Overall, the vocal dimension brought to Yes by Rabin infused the songs, both old and new, with an energy previously unknown to them.
When I look at the above and assess Rabin as a member of Yes, I can say two things for certain. Number one, he fit into Yes in a manner much different than that of his predecessor. Number two – he did so with virtual perfection given the time of his joining the band.
The Final Verdict
I’ll close out here by discussing two points that are seemingly contradictory. The first is that ’90125′ is not a progressive rock album, the second being that ’90125′ is a very important album to the overall history of progressive rock.
I described ’90125′ earlier in this piece as a work of album-oriented rock that was just outside the mainstream. Indeed it’s hard to imagine any work which includes the creative imprint of Anderson being within the mainstream, and even the band’s big hit from this album was unconventional compared to other #1 singles. The common threads with Yes music past as noted above also keep this album out of the mainstream of rock music. In contrast, the hard rock playing of Rabin and simplification of the other instruments in the band (most notably, Squire’s bass on several songs) push ’90125′ closer to the mainstream – and further away from prog – than any previous Yes album.
Despite the direction of the music, ’90125′ nevertheless earned its place as being an important album in prog history. Due to its popularity, ’90125′ literally brought millions of new fans to Yes. Not all of these fans became progressive rockers, but many did. It is not by any means uncommon to come across a prog rock fan who first came to the genre through Yes and ’90125′. I’ve met more than one fan who first became aware of Yes through this album, and subsequently took a liking to their back catalog. The connections to the old music within ’90125′ certainly helped in this aspect. So too did their willingness to respect their past during their live shows by playing many of their 70′s classics, such as ‘Roundabout’, ‘Starship Trooper’, and the previously mentioned ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’, among others. Contrast this with Genesis, whose 80′s music bore virtually no resemblance to their 70′s output, and who almost dismissively reduced their progressive past to nothing more than a medley during their live shows.
It is undeniable that ’90125′ served as a catalyst for introducing a new generation of fans to progressive rock, even if it was not itself full-blown prog. Moreover, it gave Yes a new (and rather long) lease on life. Love it, hate it, or feel somewhere in between, ’90125′ and the Yes lineup that created it are both owed a debt of gratitude for doing their part – no small one at that – in keeping the prog flame alive. And therein lies the true, lasting impact of this controversial album.
Someone with time on their hands and prog trivia on their brains should do some careful historical research in search of the answer to this question: “Which prog group has the most line-up changes all-time?” Three groups come to mind immediately: Yes, Asia, and King Crimson. And the three are, of course, bound together by all sorts of personnel connections and such, as well as having been around for decades, which surely is part of the ongoing drama of departing, returning, reuniting, breaking up, reforming, guesting, and so forth. Anyhow, legendary guitarist Steve Howe has announced that he is leaving Asia so he can concentrate on solo work and (it appears) his commitments to Yes. Just as (or more) interesting are his remarks on playing guitar. From the ProgRockMag.com site:
The pressures of attending to the requirements of two large-scale acts was also getting to him, he admits. “Over the last year I started to think, ‘Boy, when Yes extend a tour then Asia start a day early, I’m the guy getting squeezed.’ I couldn’t do it much longer without feeling that I was running on autopilot. I want to be in control of my musical direction and follow my calling.”
That calling will include the Cross Styles Music Retreat, during which Howe hopes to share his passion and experience of guitar with attendees. But he’s wary of the “unique” label: “It sounds like I’ve set myself up for a fall there,” he laughs. “All I’m saying is: I’m not educated, I don’t read music, I didn’t go to music school, I don’t have the theory. All I have is my experience, and presumably people want that, otherwise I wouldn’t be selling any tickets.
“I’ve done these things before. I walk in and say, ‘Don’t talk to me about demi-semiquavers. Don’t talk to me about time signatures.’ I play. Everything I do and everything I’ve learned is by ear.
“You don’t have to drive yourself mad reading dots. If you want to play classical music you should; but where I’m coming from, improvisation, composition. I’m bringing in an unschooled – I wouldn’t say rebellious, but individual – approach to guitar.
“I’m not going to pose that it’s going to be anything else. You get me, I play tunes and I talk about guitar. I’ve managed to make that interesting for myself for over 50 years, so there must be something!”
Howe states that he’s never believed in straight-out practising. “Playing scales would have driven me stark raving bonkers,” he says. “That’s not what I call music. It might be an essential part of keeping your muscles and fingers in good order and I don’t say it’s terrible. But my central thing is improvisation. Play stuff – make stuff up. That’s how I keep interested: by interacting with it, not just being a mechanical, physical observer.”
He didn’t enjoy his school days, finding London’s Holloway School “oppressive, violent, mixed with racial and religious prejudices.” But he’s never found that a lack of a “proper” musical education held him back – except when he tried to learn to play flute and discovered it was too distant from guitar to make the transfer comfortable.
As a result of being self-taught he does encounter people who are better technicians than he is. “But I don’t feel particularly threatened,” he explains. “What I feel is: ‘They’re very advanced in their technique – how advanced are they in their general view of music?’
“Guitarists can get fanatical about guitarists; but in the end we’re musicians. We make sound. It’s the sound that’s got to be pleasing – not how you made the sound. Who cares how you play it? What’s important is what comes out the other end.”
And one of the key lessons he hopes to impart at Cross Styles is: “Musicians are lucky; we can break the rules. There’s no such thing as the ‘music police’ – they’re not going to come round and say ‘You shouldn’t have played a D-flat, it should have been a D. You can do what you want – live and die by the musical sword!”
In addition to the retreat he’s planning a solo tour and a new Steve Howe Trio album and tour. “We’re just about to launch some dates. I’ve got two or three weeks of solo dates in June, which I haven’t done in a very long time due to my demanding schedule of keeping two bands happy. In September we’re doing the trio again. We should have a new recording before that.”
His desire to move away from the band environment is much more than just a whim, Howe notes. “My solo guitar work is pretty central to my musical existence. I’m not a blues, rock or jazz guitarist – I’m a guitarist, and the central thing is solo playing.
Read the entire piece. Glancing over his bio on Wikipedia (yes, I know, forgive me), I was a bit surprised to learn that Howe was the first player to be inducted into the Guitar Player Hall of Fame, and one of the few in the GP’s “Gallery of Greats”, which comes with being selected best overall guitarist at least five times (although it appears the criteria has now been modified). Howe’s playing has long intrigued me because of the obvious jazz influences; he was influenced by Wes Montgomery, as well as Chet Atkins, whose mark on Howe can be seen in Yes songs that have a country-type feel to them, quite unique within the prog realm.
One of the hardest things a serious music fan is ever tasked with is coming up with a list of five or ten desert island discs, i.e. the albums without which he or she cannot live. In fact, trying to put such a list together can be torture. I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the Geneva Convention is a prohibition on forcing prisoners of war to assemble a desert island disc list under duress. Such a thing could cause serious and irreversible psychological damage, and would thus be inhumane.
The trouble with desert island disc lists is that our moods – and thus our musical preferences at any given moment – are so incredibly varied. One moment you might want to listen to the intricacies of a well-played classical guitar piece, the next moment you crave the audio testosterone known as AC/DC. One moment you may want the sunny joy of Led Zeppelin tracks such as ‘The Song Remains the Same’ or ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, the next moment you want the dark, brooding heaviness of early Black Sabbath. One moment you want the folky feel of some acoustic Jethro Tull, while in another moment you want the cathartic release of an angry Tool song. These examples are just the tip of an infinitely large iceberg.
While I would have to inflict great pain upon myself to assemble a definitive desert island disc list, there is one album I can say would be on any final version that I came up with – Yes’s 1977 masterpiece, ‘Going for the One’.
“Why ‘Going for the One’?” you ask. The consensus on Yes albums like ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘The Yes Album’ is that they are great albums, if not outright masterpieces. On the other end of the spectrum, albums like ‘Union’ and ‘Open Your Eyes’ are generally considered somewhere between awful and God-awful. And then there are those Yes albums that are lightning rods of controversy – ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, ‘90125’, and to some degree, ‘Drama’. ‘Going for the One’, while generally viewed in a positive manner, doesn’t fall into any of these categories among the majority of Yes fans. But if you ask me, it is a masterpiece as much ‘Close to the Edge’. It crystallizes the essence of Yes – not to mention some artistic goals of first-wave progressive rock.
To really ‘get’ this album, it helps to understand the context in which it was recorded, both within the band’s history as well as musical trends at large. Recording for the album began in earnest in the fall of 1976 – the same year that the punk movement exploded onto the scene, in no small part as a reaction to progressive rock. The genre of progressive rock itself was beginning to show some signs of wear and tear – Peter Gabriel had left Genesis, King Crimson had disbanded, and the general excesses of the genre were beginning to turn the music-buying public looking in other directions. Meanwhile, punk was raging and stadium rock’ was beginning to step into the place formerly occupied by the proggers.
Within the band, Yes had gone through a tumultuous few years, including the release of the controversial ‘Topographic Oceans’, Rick Wakeman’s resulting departure, ‘Relayer’, a number of solo albums, a significant amount of touring, the easing out of Patrick Moraz and the eventual return of Wakeman. There was a need for the band to catch its collective breath, to reflect.
‘Going for the One’ has a very introspective feel to it. This is borne out in no small part by the album artwork, including the cover (shown above) as well as the inner gatefold.
A first thing to note is that none of the Roger Dean artwork is present –neither on the inner gatefold or the outside cover – save for the famous Yes logo. The front cover shows the backside of a naked man, intersected by varying geometric shapes of different lines, against the backdrop of two modern skyscrapers, symbolic of standing naked against modern world. On the inside gatefold is an idyllic scene of a lake at sunset. From the liner notes of the re-mastered CD, I am taking an educated guess that this is Lake Geneva, Switzerland, not far from where the album was recorded. Some sort of island (quite possibly man-made) having a rather large but bare tree sits in the middle of the lake. Individual pictures of each band member are also shown, with all but Steve Howe’s having a lake (the same one?) as a backdrop. The contrast between the front cover and the inner gatefold would suggest taking refuge of some sort, turning inward and reflecting.
In addition to its introspective feel, ‘Going for the One’ also very much has a classical music-like sound as well. In his excellent book ‘Rocking the Classics’, author Edward Macan describes progressive rock of the 1970’s as attempting to “combine classical music’s sense of space and monumental scope with rock’s raw power and energy.” ‘Going for the One’ accomplishes this spectacularly, better than any other progressive rock album of the 70’s, other Yes masterpieces included. The introduction of the harp and the church organ, the latter from St. Martin’s Cathedral in Vevey, Switzerland, are instrumental in the sound of this album. The sound here exemplifies the term “symphonic progressive rock.” Interestingly enough, this was the first Yes album since ‘Time and a Word’ that did not feature Eddy Offord in the role as a producer. There is little doubt Offord’s absence affected the overall sound.
The title track kicks off the album, and it is an outlier with respect to the remainder of the tracks – a straight ahead rocker. In yet another “first in a long time”, the title track of ‘Going for the One’ is the first Yes song under eight minutes in length since Fragile. Between ‘Fragile’ and ‘Going for the One’, the shortest Yes song was ‘Siberian Khatru’, clocking in at 8:55. Musically, the song is propelled forward by Howe’s pedal steel guitar. This is interesting in itself, as the instrument is most closely associated with country music, yet Howe makes it rock and rock hard here. Wakeman’s keyboard work, both on the church organ and piano stand out here as well. In general, every instrument here, as well as the vocals, proceeds at an up tempo pace that maintains itself from start to finish.
There are a two other things to note on the title track that are true for the entire album. One is that the production here is very crisp and clean. The second (which undoubtedly plays on the first) is that the soundscape is not as dense as on the album’s predecessor, ‘Relayer’. Instead of choosing to fill up every available recording track, the band has scaled things down a bit from their previous effort. This is done to good effect, as it gives the music a little more chance to breathe.
The classical-like sound referenced above makes its first appearance on the next track, ‘Turn of the Century’, and is prominent from here on out. The music begins with some light, exquisitely played acoustic guitar work by Howe. Jon Anderson has stated the song was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’, and lyrically it tells a story of a sculptor creating his lover in “form out of stone” after her death. Both music and lyrics convey a sense of deep loss, making this the album’s most emotional piece. The loss is most poignantly conveyed in the first half of the song, when the music is very melancholy. Around the halfway mark, Wakeman’s piano makes an appearance, along with Howe’s pedal steel guitar. This evolves into a very tumultuous transition. But what emerges on the other side, in the latter half of the song is bright and joyful. Howe takes over on a standard electric guitar with some very sunny lines, while Squire’s bass line does a great job of playing off of Anderson’s vocals. Moreover, this portion of the music is very joyful, indicating that our protagonist has emerged from his grieving and can once again experience happiness. Perhaps the sculpture of his lover has given him solace and peace, coming to life metaphorically if not in reality. The ending of the song has a bittersweet feel to it, as if again to acknowledge the loss while also acknowledging the ability to find joy in life once again after such a tragedy. All things considered, this is a very beautiful and delicate composition both musically and lyrically.
‘Parallels’ is up next, and is an underrated gem of the Yes catalog. This song features spectacular performances by Howe, Wakeman, and Squire, who take turns in showing off their chops on their respective instruments. Still, they never descend into self-indulgence or stray from the song’s logical progression. The song introduces itself proper with Wakeman’s billowing church organ from St. Martin’s Cathedral ( this is best played LOUD to get the full impact). Squire and Howe then chime in, the former with a typically excellent bass line, the latter with some crisp, clean lead guitar. From there, the song takes on a straightforward structure of two verses and two choruses, before transitioning into the middle section led by more of Howe’s crisp lead guitar. After another verse, the song segues into an instrumental section in which Wakeman and Squire are at the forefront. The interplay between Wakeman’s soloing on the church organ and Squire’s bass line is nothing short of brilliant. The transition out of this instrumental section is announced by the return of Howe’s guitar. After one final chorus, the song begins barreling toward its conclusion. Howe again steps to the forefront, his guitar firing burst after burst of clean, high notes. This is some of my favorite Howe guitar work in the entire Yes catalog – bright, sharp, and technically brilliant. Squire and Wakeman remain in the mix here with some fantastic playing of their own.
Another defining aspect of ‘Parallels’ is its conclusion – one of the best endings to a song I have ever heard. That ending is more easily described in non-musical terms. Imagine 18-wheeler, barreling down the highway at full speed. Now imagine that 18-wheeler not just coming to a full stop, but stopping on a dime. And imagine that 18-wheeler doing so with the grace and finesse of a ballet dancer. That’s the ending of ‘Parallels’ right there. It’s an extremely difficult combination to pull off, which makes its flawless execution here that much better.
If J.S. Bach had a rock band, it would sound like ‘Parallels’.
Moving on, we next come to ‘Wonderous Stories’. It’s the shortest song on the album, but also the brightest. It also marks the return of Howe on a guitar-like instrument called the vachalia, which last appeared on ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’. Like ‘Parallels’ before it, the song includes a verse-chorus structure, with the choruses featuring some of Yes’s trademarked harmony vocals. The middle section is marked by a rather vigorous Wakeman keyboard solo including synths that emulate a string section. The song resumes its verse-chorus structure once again, while a thick bass line underneath propels the music forward. Howe and Wakeman continue to supply the melodies on top. The vocals, which include both harmonies and counterpoints here, are stunning. As the vocals fade out, Howe enters the scene again, this time with some jazzy electric guitar to close out the song.
Finally, we come to ‘Awaken’. There are numerous superlatives which could be used to describe this piece. All of them are inadequate. Somebody will have to invent new ones.
Much like the album ‘Moving Pictures’ did for Rush, ‘Awaken’ brings together everything that is great about Yes and distills it into one coherent work of art. It has the epic scope of pieces such as ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Gates of Delirium’. It has the virtuoso instrumentation of numerous Yes classics such as ‘Heart of the Sunrise’, ‘Yours is No Disgrace’, and ‘Siberian Khatru’. And it has the classical feel of the preceding tracks on the same album. Moreover, it pares back some of the excesses of previous albums without paring back any of the artistic ambition.
To the uninitiated, Wakeman’s piano lines that open ‘Awaken’ could be mistaken for something from a piano concerto. After a few vigorous runs, the music begins a dreamy sequence, as Anderson’s vocals begin. As the introductory verses closes, a note of dissonance sounds before Howe takes over using a guitar riff that has a decidedly Eastern flavor (incidentally, the working title for ‘Awaken’ was ‘Eastern Numbers’). Anderson begins a chant, and the music takes a more serious tone. The most remarkable thing about this section is the drumming and the bass work. Alan White’s drumming with Yes has never been better than on this album, and on this particular track. Squire’s bass plays off of both White’s drumming and Howe’s guitar. The odd time signature here keeps things more than interesting, as it is difficult to predict when the next bass note or next drum beat will fall, and yet it’s also clear that there is a logical pattern behind the playing. It’s the kind of bass and drum work that sucks the listener in and keeps them hooked.
After two verses and two choruses of the chant, the music breaks into a blistering Howe guitar solo. Much like the guitar work on ‘Parallels’, the soloing here is full of bursts of sharp, high-pitched notes. However, the mood here is entirely different, expressing a sense of inner turmoil and urgency. This is another section of brilliant virtuoso guitar playing that illustrates why this album is among Howe’s strongest, either in or out of Yes.
As Howe gracefully exits the solo and returns to the main riff, another verse and chorus of the chant follow before the music begins a slow transition away from the Eastern motif. Wakeman’s keyboards step to the forefront, first mirroring Howe’s riff before segueing into the “Workings of Man” portion of the song. The church organ leads the way into this section, which has a much more European sound and texture, not to mention the lyrics. The tension builds here to a peak before Wakeman puts the brakes on the whole thing with a series of ever quieter notes, effectively bringing the first half of ‘Awaken’ to a close.
The transition to the second half of the song begins with a split-second of silence, before a single note of White’s tuned percussion blends into the first pluck of a harp by Anderson. From an initial quiet beginning, the band begins to slowly and painstakingly build tension in what is a textbook example of the technique. White’s percussion and Anderson’s harp start this section, soon to be joined by Wakeman, who is initially playing singular notes on the church organ.
A layer is added to the tension when Wakeman begins playing slightly longer (but still relatively quiet) runs. Squire also quietly enters, playing singular high bass notes, most likely on the six-string neck of the monster triple neck bass he uses for live performances of this song. These bass notes intensify and push the music forward, while Wakeman’s runs on the church organ slowly begin to lengthen, increase in volume, and sound more orchestral. Choral singers also join the fray, further building the intensity, which builds like a wave to a first peak before receding somewhat. At this point, Howe re-enters the picture on electric guitar, and leads the music to a second peak and a transition into what may be called the ‘Master of Time’ section of the piece. The build-up from the initial plucks on the harp to this point is powerful stuff, very mesmerizing and very emotional.
I have a personal anecdote I would like to share to illustrate the emotional punch of this section. In 2002, I attended my sixth Yes concert at an excellent Austin venue called The Backyard. I went with several former co-workers, including a friend of mine named Cheryl. While Cheryl is not a prog rock fan per se, she is much more of an astute listener to music than the vast majority of people. Musically, she is “switched in”. Toward the end of the concert, Yes performed ‘Awaken’. During the portion described above, I was mesmerized as normal, but for some reason I looked over at Cheryl standing next to me to gauge her reaction. Tears were streaming down her face, which was transfixed to the stage as she was as absorbed in the music as I had been just before turning my head. Amazing. I remember thinking “she gets it”, and was very impressed at that. Among my friends and acquaintances, I have musically usually been an outlier, as few of them have been interested in prog, and certainly not anywhere to the same degree as me. Some of them have even heard ‘Awaken’ in my presence and have given me strange looks that say “what the heck is this?” Yet here was Cheryl, on her first listen to ‘Awaken’, completely getting the gist of this incredible composition. As someone who had known this little secret for a long time, I found it very gratifying to see her reaction with no prompting or no explanation from anyone else – only the music was talking. It’s a moment I will not soon forget.
As the music progresses through the ‘Master of Time’ section, Anderson sings several verses and the tension continues to build, finally resolving itself with a shattering climax, with Wakeman’s church organ and the choral singers at the forefront. The dreamy section from the beginning is then reprised, and the final line of lyrics is one of my favorites from the entire Yes catalog: “Like the time I ran away, and turned around and you were standing close to me.” Howe then brings ‘Awaken’ to its final conclusion with some playful electric guitar lines.
Wow. What a piece of music. In my opinion, the finest fifteen minutes plus of music Yes ever committed to any recording medium. This is not to take away anything from some of their other masterpieces (and there are several), but to extol the virtues of this incredible piece of music. And by the way, I am in some good company when I surmise that this is Yes’s best work. None other than Jon Anderson himself has stated “at last we had created a Masterwork” with regard to Awaken. On the 1991 documentary ‘Yesyears’, Anderson refers to “the best piece of Yes piece of music, Awaken” and further states that it is “everything I would desire from a group of musicians in this life.” I’d say that’s a pretty strong endorsement.
In progressive rock circles, many references are made to the various sub-genres. Yes music (at least their 70’s output) is most often classified as symphonic progressive rock. No album exemplifies this term more perfectly than ‘Going for the One’, and no song exemplifies it more than ‘Awaken’. Other Yes works, such as the previously mentioned ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Gates of Delirium,’ possess the same scope but not the same instrumental timbre. ELP had some symphonic works that were their own interpretations of existing classical compositions while their own magnum opus, ‘Karn Evil 9’, sounded high tech for its time. ‘Thick as a Brick’ by Jethro Tull is certainly symphonic in its scope, and while great in its own right, has more of a folky feel than symphonic. In contrast to all of these, on ‘Going for the One’, Yes has created original compositions that, in many parts, could be easily mistaken for classical symphonic music by those not otherwise familiar with this type of music. A perfect fusion, you might say.
I’m still struggling to come up with the other four or nine or however many albums I need to complete my desert island disc list. And being immersed in the midst of a second golden age of progressive rock as we are now, completing that list will only get tougher due to the cornucopia of excellent new releases. But I can say without any hesitation, without any equivocation, whatever final form that list takes, it will most definitely include ‘Going for the One.’
Steve Howe has quit Asia to concentrate on Yes and other projects.
Prog magazine has more on this story.
As a sophomore at Lafayette College I became program director of the college radio station, and Larry Fast (Synergy) became the general manager. We had access to early releases and concert passes in one of the great periods in progressive music. To generate better distribution for college stations, I published a newsletter called The Rolling Paper that we distributed each month on campus and to all record labels.
We were fortunate to interview our three favorite bands between 1971 and 1973-Yes, Genesis on their first US performance at Lincoln Center, and King Crimson on the second Larks Tongue tour through the Bill Bruford connection with Yes.
We met and interviewed Yes at Dickinson College in 1971. I had seen Yes the previous summer supporting Jethro Tull ($5) with Tony Kaye and had been blown away by the energy of the band. By December the Yes album was taking off, and Fragile had arrived that week as an import from Jem Records. We requested an interview through Atlantic Records, and received a warm welcome from the band members who were delighted that we were holding import copies of Fragile in the US. For the next several years we were fortunate to have backstage passes to more than 20 Yes shows at area colleges, and later at the big arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Spectrum in Philly during their prime including several shows with Bruford on drums prior to his departure. We watched the band grow from being third on bills (Yes, King Crimson, Procol Harum ) to headliners for the Close to the Edge through the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour. Larry built a strong connection with Rick Wakeman through electronics and keyboards, and he went on to build some sequencers for him over the next few years. My connection was forged through and over beer, as Rick and I shared a fondness for brew. I was but a lightweight while Rick’s consumption of Budweiser was unrivaled and eventually unsustainable.
I thought it would be fun to revisit this interview 40+ years later and have condensed the original piece, but not changed the content. Read the rest of this entry
Once again, the AllAboutJazz.com site has another great piece about a prog musician: “Trevor Rabin: All Colors Considered”, by Ian Patterson. The focus is on Rabin’s outstanding new solo album, Jacaranda (one of my favorites of 2012), which is Rabin’s first solo excursion since his exceptional 1989 album, Don’t Look Away, which I played incessantly back in the day and revisit on occasion. Patterson begins by putting Rabin’s impressive career in perspective:
Whether taking a stance against apartheid in the early ’70s in his native South Africa or turning down the opportunity to play in super group Asia for artistic reasons, Rabin has always done things his own way and stuck to his principles at every step. Rabin is perhaps best known around the world for the mega-hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and his 12-year stint with progressive rock giant Yes, but there are a surprising number of strings to the musician’s bow.
While it would have been easy to carry on touring and recording with the legendary British group, Rabin felt that after a dozen years a new challenge was needed, and he said no to Yes. So it was in the mid-1990s that Rabin embarked upon another career as a composer of film soundtracks. In a little over 15 years, Rabin has recorded 40 film soundtracks of varying genres, winning numerous awards in the process.
Just when it seemed as though Rabin’s music would only be heard in cinema houses around the world, he’s back with another surprise in the form of his sixth solo album, Jacaranda (Varese Fontana, 2012). It’s his first solo album of original material since Can’t Look Away (Elektra, 1989), and it’s an inspired collection of guitar- based instrumental compositions.