Relayer: A Brief Retrospective

relayer

A visually stunning album cover. Profound and thought-provoking lyrics. Epic instrumentation and vocals. I could be describing almost any progressive rock album of note, but I am specifically referring to the underrated Yes album Relayer in this case. I say underrated because this album, featuring only three songs, all of which are worthy of the designation “progressive,” ended up wedged in between the controversial Tales from Topographic Oceans and the (relatively) lackluster Yes albums of the late 1970s/early 1980s.

First a brief comment on the sleeve design. Roger Dean is an integral part of Yes’ image, and his design for Relayer only bolsters the importance of his role. Inspired by images of war and the Knights Templar, Dean draws the viewer in to a world of fantastical images and drama, as the knights on horseback arrive to do battle with the twin snakes. Before one even listens to the album, he can already grasp its focus and themes: war and peace, victory and hope. Dean can capture in an image what Anderson, Squire, and Howe can capture in music.templar

The three songs are not only well-written, but they are also well-performed. This may seem like an understatement in regards to Yes, but this cannot be said about every song they released. The epic opener Gates of Delirium, inspired by Tolstoy’s even longer epic War and Peace, and featuring superb work on keys and synths from Patrick Moraz on his only Yes album, was best described by Jon Anderson: it is a “war song,” but not one that seeks to explain or denounce war, but rather a song that explores war’s aspects: there is a “prelude, a charge, a victory tune, and peace at the end, with hope for the future.” Sound Chaser, a frenetically paced tune featuring a true guitar solo from Steve Howe, solid drumming courtesy of Alan White, and a sizzling performance on bass guitar from the late, great Chris Squire, allows Yes to explore their jazzier side. The final tune, To Be Over, moves at a more relaxed pace, anchored by Howe’s electric sitar. It is a beautifully straightforward song, and it provides the perfect final touch on a visually and acoustically stunning album.

In sum, Relayer may not be the most renowned album in Yes’ extensive catalogue, but in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it is one of their finest works overall, and one that deserves more attention and respect.

YesYears: Twenty-Five Years Later

Remember YesYears?  It was one of the first really nice box sets to come out, back in the day when the only nice box set was that Bruce Springsteen one that had come out in the late 1980s?

yesyears
YesYears–a Nice Fiction that Every Member of Yes Loved One Another, Beginning to Present

YesYears came out on August 6, 1991.  Union had come out at the very end of April that same year.  Unless you were really connected to the internet (not that easy in 1991), Yes fans just had to guess as to what was going on that summer with the band.  Was Yes really an eight-person band?  And, how long would that last?  YesYears seemed to present the eight as living in harmony with one another.  After all, while the four discs did not include anything from Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, it did list them as a part of the really nice fold-out sleeve, tracing every aspect of Yes history from “The Warriors” to Yes incarnation #9.

Whether real or not, the packaging of YesYears certainly makes a coherent narrative of the band and everyone of its members from Alpha to. . . well, certainly not Omega!  Yes was alive!  Or, so it seemed.

At the time that YesYears came out, I was very poor (a second-year graduate student) and still listening to cassette tapes.  Despite the expense of the YesYears box set, I purchased the four-cassette package.  And, yes, it made a deep cut in my savings account.  Those were years when I would skimp on lunch (usually not even eating one) to spend the money on music or books.

Yes+Yes+Years+350639bAnd as far as I remember, I never regretted having bought that box set.  Sadly, though, the cassettes that came with it were not of the best quality, and I wore my copies out rather quickly.

Jump forward two decades.  Today, in the mail, all the way from an Ebay seller in New Jersey, arrived a mint condition 4-cd box set of YesYears.

Wow, it is a thing of beauty.

I know that many of the songs that had not been readily available in 1991–such as Abilene, Vevey, Run with the Fox–are now very easily available.  Still, the 1991 box set is really, really gorgeous.  I actually paid less for this mint condition version (including postage) than I did for the cassette version 25 years ago.

Just as in 1991, I have no regrets.  The sun is out, my kids are laughing somewhere in the house, and I’m listening to disk three of YesYears.

Still amazingly beautiful. . . even a full quarter century later.

Steve Howe — Anthology

The release of the excellent new Steve Howe Anthology happens today (March 10, 2015):

All told, Anthology takes in 36 years of music and 16 albums and is assembled, for the most part, in chronological fashion.  Rhino promises that Howe’s six-string prowess is on display via songs like “Pennants,” “The Collector,” “Maiden Voyage” (one of many featuring his son Dylan on drums), “Curls & Swirls,” and “King’s Ransom” from his most recent proper solo effort, 2011’s Time.  Anthology also features two Bob Dylan covers (“Just Like A Woman” and “Buckets Of Rain”) that might come as a surprise to those who only know Howe for his majestic progressive work. Also included are several tracks off Motif – Volume 1 , the 2008 collection of re-recorded highlights from the Howe discography such as “Devon Blue” and “Diary Of A Man Who Vanished,” a song that first appeared on The Steve Howe Album.

While culled primarily from Howe’s solo albums, Anthology goes back as far as 1967 with the psychedelic “So Bad” and also represents a pair of compilations.  “Sharp On Attack” has been pulled from 1988’s Guitar Speak, a now-out-of-print release which found Howe contributing a track alongside other hard-rocking guitar greats like Rick Derringer, Phil Manzanera, Leslie West and Ronnie Montrose.  A rendition of Yes’ “Mood for a Day” has been taken from 1993’s Symphonic Music of Yes, with Howe playing alongside the English Chamber Orchestra. …

Steve Howe, Anthology (Rhino, 2015) …

CD 1

  1. “So Bad”
  2. “Lost Symphony”
  3. “Pleasure Stole The Night”
  4. “Pennants”
  5. “Look Over Your Shoulder”
  6. “Surface Tension”
  7. “Sensitive Chaos”
  8. “Running The Human Race”
  9. “Desire Comes First”
  10. “Luck Of The Draw”
  11. “Maiden Voyage”
  12. “Walk Don’t Run”
  13. “Momenta”
  14. “The Collector”
  15. “Just Like A Woman”
  16. “Buckets of Rain”

CD 2

  1. “Distant Seas”
  2. “Curls & Swirls”
  3. “Meridian Strings”
  4. “Simplication”
  5. “Rising Sun”
  6. “Westwinds”
  7. “Ultra Definition”
  8. “Ebb And Flow”
  9. “Dorothy”
  10. “Sketches In The Sun”
  11. “Diary Of A Man Who Vanished”
  12. “Devon Blue”
  13. “King’s Ransom”
  14. “Bachians Brasileiras No. 5 (Aria)”
  15. “Beginnings”
  16. “Mood For A Day” – with The English Chamber Orchestra
  17. “Sharp On Attack”

CD 1, Track 1 included on Mothballs, RPM Records, 1994
CD 1, Tracks 2-3 from Beginnings, Atlantic SD 18154, 1975
CD 1, Tracks 4-6 from The Steve Howe Album, Atlantic SD 19243, 1979
CD 1, Tracks 7-8 from Turbulence, Relativity ZK 90885, 1991
CD 1, Tracks 9-11 from The Grand Scheme of Things, Relativity 88561-1163-2, 1993
CD 1, Tracks 12-14 from Quantum Guitar, Resurgence RES130CD, 1998
CD 1, Tracks 15-16 from Portrait of Bob Dylan, Eagle EAGCD087, 1999
CD 2, Tracks 1-2 from Natural Timbre, Eagle EAGCD166, 2001
CD 2, Tracks 3-4 from Skyline, Inside Out IOMCD113, 2002
CD 2, Tracks 5-6 from Elements, Inside Out, 2003
CD 2, Tracks 7-8 from Spectrum, Inside Out IOMCD215, 2005
CD 2, Tracks 9-12 from Motif,Vol. 1, HoweSound, 2008
CD 2, Tracks 13-14 from Time, 2011
CD 2, Track 15 TBD
CD 2, Track 16 from The Symphonic Music of Yes, RCA Victor CD  09026 61938 2, 1993
CD 2, Track 17 from Guitar Speak, IRS CD IRS-42240, 1998

Yes Special- Interview with Geoff Downes and Heaven and Earth Review

Legendary progressive rock band Yes, one of the most influential and respected bands in the genre have outlasted many of their contemporaries, crossing from West Coast psychedelia into epic traditional progressive rock symphonies, new wave FM rock, back to progressive epics and beloved anthems over the course of their 46 years, evolving band line-ups and 21 studio albums.
Their latest opus, Heaven and Earth (released in the UK on 21st July, and in the States in July 22nd) marks the first studio release with Jon Davison (who replaced Benoit David back in 2012) on vocals, and Geoff Downes third studio album, firmly consolidating his place as their keyboard player with the classic line up of Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White.
I was lucky enough to grab a brief chat with Geoff recently to talk all things Heaven and Earth, and the impact that Jon Davison has had on the band,
‘It’s a bit different from other Yes albums, Jon has been given a freer run, and it very much reflects his style. It’s a different album from Fly From Here, and the stuff we did with Trevor (Horn), working with Roy Thomas Baker has another style, something that a diverse band like Yes can bear.’
I asked Geoff about the writing process of the album,
‘It’s all new material; we had a clean slate that enabled us to take it in a direction that felt natural to all of us. Yes is fantastic music, and it’s nice to be able to make a contribution even at this stage in the bands career, Benoit wasn’t so much of a writer, whereas Jon has really contributed to the album’
I think Geoff was being overly modest, as he and Trevor Horn had a massive impact on one of my favourite Yes albums, 1980’s Drama,
‘Drama, that came together in the studio, I’m very proud of it still, it sounds very fresh, and its what Yes needed at that point to move into a different arena for this type of music’
Of course with Geoff back on keyboard duties it’s nice to hear some of the Drama songs performed live,
‘Its good to play tracks like Tempus Fugit and Machine Messiah as they fit nicely into the set, we performed a few on the Fly From Here tour, and hopefully we’ll do more going forward’
I did wonder, which tracks from the new album would make it into the live arena?
‘We start rehearsals next week, we’ve practiced some of the songs so we have an idea which ones will work, we may only do a few from the album, certainly Believe Again, maybe one of the shorter songs and move them around in the set.
We’re playing classic albums in full, we’ve toured with that show for a while, so we’re changing it a bit, dropping Going for the One, focusing on Fragile, Relayer and lots of the Yes album.’
Heaven and Earth is a very different Yes album,
‘It’s very fresh, some fans don’t see beyond the 1970’s, but Yes were different in the 80’s and as different again in the 90’s, each different period of the band were interesting musical chapters, and this is another piece in the jigsaw. Hopefully it will bring in new fans to Yes’
Roger Deans striking artwork, with his black and white Yes logo (which to mind recalls the original Time and a Word album cover) is another Yes mainstay,
‘Roger Dean is very much synonymous with Yes, apart from that period in the 80’s where the very hi-tech album sleeves represented the albums, he’s very much a part of the scenery’
As Yes have only recently brought their show to the UK, I asked Geoff when he thought they might return,
‘We more likely to come back to the UK towards the start of next year, we are rehearsing for the US tour, then we tour the Pacific Rim, which will take up the rest of the year’
How did Geoff feel about returning to the Yes fold for Fly From Here?
‘It felt very natural, we started working on Fly From Here and it turned the clock back 30 years, the reunion of the 5 Drama guys, and it came together very easily the guys were all very helpful, it’s a great band. Jon coming in was not an easy job for him performing Jon Anderson’s songs and producing an authentic sound of Yes is a difficult role. My role as the keyboard player isn’t as critical as the vocal sound, and when we do the vintage albums the fans really like it, and Jon (Davison) has really worked’.
Of course Geoff has been the driving force behind Asia for over 30 years as well,
‘We’ve just done some Asia dates in Japan, and we had the new album Gravitas out at the start of the year, I think I’m busier now than I have been for a long time. Its great that in the past few years I am still involved in the bands that I was working with 30 years ago, it’s like my career has come full circle. We did Fly From Here, Asia still tour and of course we reunited the Buggles for some gigs a few years ago’
Buggles, the most misunderstood and underrated new wave band of the late 70’s/early 80’s, would Geoff ever consider a new Buggles album?
‘I still see Trevor and speak to him, and if the planets align, our diaries match up and we get the time it could well happen, never say never. The old stuff (from Buggles) still gets played a lot, and it’s nice to be involved with a timeless song (Video Killed the Radio Star), the same applies to Drama. I am really proud of that album; a lot of people were sceptical about these two pop guys joining Yes. In hindsight fans view Drama in a different light. I think it paved the way for Yes in the 80’s, my style of synths was techno, samples and it formed a bridge between Yes of the 1970’s and the work they did on 90125. Those changes helped sustain the bands longevity and shows it musical legacy could outlive the 1970’s when so many other bands folded’
There’s been a lot of interest in the Yes back catalogue recently with the 5.1 remixes
‘A lot of the progheads are into the 5.1 sound, like with Genesis fans some don’t like the pop Genesis. You have to look on each band as a whole, each album and each line up has a valid contribution to the bands history. I would like to hear Drama in 5.1, the album was heavily overdubbed at the time, and so it would reveal a lot of detail’.
Thanks to Geoff Downes for his time.

Heaven and Earth by Yes – the verdict!
1) Believe Again (Jon Davison, Steve Howe) 8.18
2) The Game (Chris Squire, Jon Davison, Steve Howe) 7.07
3) Step Beyond (Steve Howe, Jon Davison) 5.45
4) To Ascend (Jon Davison, Alan White) 4.53
5) In a World of Our Own (Jon Davison, Chris Squire) 5.31
6) Light of Ages (Jon Davison) 7.57
7) It was All we Knew (Steve Howe) 4.21
8) Subway Walls (Jon Davison, Geoff Downes) 9.21

So, I don’t think a Yes album has been as eagerly anticipated as this one since the last one! Fly From Here, Yes’ first studio album in 10 years, and the only one to feature Benoit David on vocals. Musically and spiritually it was the sequel to Drama, only 30 years out of sequence, and with Trevor Horn on production duties, Geoff Downes on keyboards and the music made of Buggles demos (interesting alternative versions exist on Adventures in Modern Recordings 2010 remaster, which shows a different version again) received a mixed reception, which was seen by some as very much a holding pattern it can now be seen very much as Drama can be seen now. A bookend on a previous era, and a bridge to a new Yes. With Downes firmly ensconced in the keyboard position, and Roy Thomas Baker finally getting to finish a Yes album, the band is as stable as Yes can ever be. However the attention isn’t on the new old boy in the band, or the established Squire/White/Howe axis who have been the mainstay of this Yes era since 1996’s Keys to Ascension, the attention is always going to be on the vocals, and the fact that the vocalist isn’t Jon Anderson.
Much has been written, and will no doubt continue to be written about whether Yes are Yes if Jon Anderson isn’t on the record. To my mind if it says Yes on the album sleeve, and sounds like Yes on the record, then it’s a Yes album.
Jon Davison is the Yes singer, and he also writes a fair bit to, which can be seen in the credits above. Jon Davison has put his stamp on the Yes sound as firmly as his illustrious predecessors and his vocals add to the unmistakably Yes sound on display.
As Geoff Downes states in the interview above, each member of Yes adds something to the chapter they are writing, and this is as true on Heaven and Earth as of its 20 brethren.
There’s plenty of continuity here with former Yesman Billy Sherwood involved in mixing the harmony vocals, and Roy Thomas Baker (producer of abortive sessions in the late 1970’s) adding his considerable experience to the mix.
So what does the album actually sound like? And more to the point is it any good?
Well, if you can imagine the leap between the sound of the distinctly average Open Your Eyes, compared to the amazing beauty contained in its follow up The Ladder, then this is that leap from Fly From Here.
First of all if you’re looking for a quick hit, look elsewhere, this album is a slow burner. A grower, one that teases you and tempts you, revealing its secrets slowly and seductively, listen after beguiling listen. You’ll find songs slowly sneaking into your subconscious, humming tunes, singing along as you play the album.
Opening with one of the longer tracks Believe Again, which has been trailed as the teaser track for the album, you can tell instantly that its Yes, but that the goal posts have moved. Downes synths are to the fore, and then in come the vocals, similar enough to Jon Andersons to keep an element of continuity. Lets face it, if you’re Yes and you are hiring a new vocalist you need someone who can handle the older material and hit the heights Olias of Sunhillow used to hit at his peak. You wouldn’t hire Lemmy would you?
Jon D is different enough from Jon A to put his own stamp on this album, and Believe Again comes across to me anyway as a message to the fans saying believe in us, we are still the Yes you know and love. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but with Davison’s work making an impact straight away, and the band working in symphony from the get go, this is a Yes line up with chemistry, bouncing off each other, and whilst Believe Again is at the more commercial end of the spectrum, it’s still a powerful piece, with the vocal harmonies and musical counter play working really well. Howe’s guitar and Downes synth interplay is to the fore, and is something that really stands out throughout the album.
Geoff Downes isn’t the new keyboard player, he is the keyboard player. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing with this Yes line up, and to be honest I wouldn’t want anyone else in.
The Game has some fantastic work from Howe and some wonderfully direct lyrics. The themes are the same, but the vocal and lyrical approach is different throughout. Jon Davison isn’t trying to be Jon Anderson or Benoit David. He doesn’t need to be. He is the Yes frontman and lyricist and his identity is all over this album. His performance throughout is assured, confident and fits. If you liked his earlier work with Glass Hammer, this is right up your alley. The Game is taut, sharp, direct and punchy, a classy piece of rock.
Step Beyond, with its funky keyboard sound, its powerfully insistent vocal work, and the taut chorus, with some fantastic guitar work from Steve Howe, and with Downes nagging keyboard riff, combined with some truly classic Yes vocal harmonies, and a great instrumental interlude, only clocks in at under 6 minutes, yet it’s got a funky drive, some great drum and bass work from Squire and White and some catchy lyrical moments, it might be brief, but there’s so much going on here, both musically and lyrically, it could well be a new classic Yes anthem, and seems destined as a live staple.
That’s one thing that is really noticeable throughout the album, the sharpness of the harmonies, the work Billy Sherwood has done with Howe, Squire and Davison has brought all the classic harmony power that is a hallmark of Yes to the fore, and with Thomas Bakers production, the vocals have some real power.
To Ascend, has some beautifully direct lyrics, more of those gorgeous harmonies, and some beautiful acoustic guitar work from Davison, that mingles with Howes exquisite performance, whilst Downes majestic piano and keyboard work soar, all the while underpinned by the rock steady Squire and White, its glorious chorus, it’s musical crescendos and Davison’s performance is sublime, a true classic Yes track amongst all the adventure on this album.
In a World of Our Own, with some great musical work by Yes, Downes keyboards shining throughout, White kicking back with a funky dirty blues beat, Howes guitar cutting through the sound left, right and centre, with some languid blues and Davison’s honestly direct lyrics, as different as his predecessors as possible, with it’s tale of love gone sour, this is Yes gone film noir, meant to be listened to in a seedy underground blues club, black and white, smoky atmosphere, Davison as the blues singer, a lazy swing underpinning the whole track. Its Yes Jim, but not as we know it.
Light of the Ages is a suitably cosmic traditional Yes title, with some beautifully gloriously languid slide guitar work from Mr Howe, that stretches out throughout the track, whilst the synth work from Geoff Downes is amazing, however this is Jon Davisons track, and ironically the closest he comes to sounding like Jon Anderson at any point, with it’s spiritual lyrics, and it’s slow build to a majestic finale, this is one new Yes track that could have snuck onto to anything from Fragile to Tormato, and enhanced any album it sat on, here it is a highlight amongst highlights. Just when you think Heaven and Earth can’t get better it throws you another curve ball, and musically the band is reaching higher and higher, pushing further and further, and pull you along. Whilst Davisons vocal performance is the marzipan on top of this particular cake, and the Light of the Ages really shines with some glorious soloing from both Howe and Downes.
The only thing that’s a touch disposable is It Was all we knew, which is a bit of a weak link in the album, the musical performance is great as ever, however the track itself is a bit anonymous, despite the great harmonies, the lyrics are a tad clichéd and the track does tend to sound a bit nursery rhyme in places, even Howes spirited solo doesn’t lift the tone. I guess that’s my one complaint about this track, whilst the rest of the album is full of musical mood swings and counterparts, this just meanders on, almost Yes by numbers, which is a shame as if there were more going on, it could be great.
Now speaking of greatness we come to the finale, the epic, the closing 9 minutes plus Subway Walls, a Downes/Davison track, one crafted by the (relatively) new boys, and boy is this a statement of intent.
From Downes symphonic and dramatic synth work that opens the track, with its powerful riffs and it’s orchestral overtones you know you are in for a treat, and it doesn’t disappoint. A meditation on the meaning of life,

‘Is the meaning in the stars or does graffiti on the subway walls hold the secrets to it all’

That is the new Yes right there, encapsulated in that wonderful lyrical couplet, not just astral travellers any more, but also earthbound voyagers.
Heaven and Earth encapsulated in a nutshell, the answers aren’t just beyond and before, they are also here and now, for us all to see if we open our eyes.
The performance on Subway Walls, with some fantastic work from White and Squire, the lynchpin that holds Yes together, allows Downes and Howe the freedom to fly, and climb as they spar from about 4 minutes in, building and pushing each other, and taking the band with them, as they go from the subway to the stars and back again in 9 sublime minutes. Davisons vocals again are superb throughout, and the harmonies again majestic.
Heaven and Earth is probably my favourite Yes album of the past 20 years, more organic than any of the Keys to Ascension studio work, more fun than Magnification. This is the sound of a band working in harmony unlike Fly From Here. Yes haven’t sounded this good since the Ladder back in 1999, or Talk back in 1994.
It could have been so easy for Yes to return to what they did best in the 1970’s on this album, but that is not why Yes are still here. Nearly 50 years into a musical adventure that shows no sign of ending, they are still pushing themselves to make the best music they can, like the superb musicians they are. Managing that difficult balancing act of staying true to the Yes name, with all its attendant history, both good and bad, and yet managing to make new, interesting, and exciting music for them and us.
This my friends is the true meaning of progressive rock, something pushing forward, ever moving, ever evolving. Yes, once again have shown us what progressive rock means, and I thank them for it.

 

***

Readers: You might also like Nick Efford’s take on Yes in Concert: https://progarchy.com/2014/05/10/yes-sheffield/

Aa well as Erik Heter’s retrospective on 90125 (30 years later): https://progarchy.com/2013/10/27/90125-at-30-a-retrospective/

John Wetton: “It’s clearly elitist, this prog thing.”

The group Asia (website) has a new guitarist (20-something Sam Coulson) and a new album, “Gravitas,” which is due out on March 25th. The band talks about their new guitarist (their fifth? seventh? twelfth?) and the new album:

The more eye-brow-raising interview, however, appeared on the Huff-and-Puff Post earlier this week. A couple of interesting excerpts; first, from John Wetton about aging and songwriting:

Most of this band are in their sixties–we’ve got one exception who’s twenty-six, but most of us are getting to that respectable age now. We can’t come up with punk anthems, we never have done. What we do is we reflect the internal conflict that people get. Look at “The Heat Of The Moment.” It’s an apology. “Only Time Will Tell” is about a relationship falling apart because of infidelity. My complete change-around as far as lyric-writing came in 1971 when I had three records that I listened to all summer. One was Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the other one was What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and the last one was Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys. The one that hit me the hardest, really, was Blue by Joni Mitchell because she wrote every song in the first person. It’s all like she’s reading straight out from her journal. For me, who had been brought up on art rock where you’re observing other people from a distance, it catapulted me into the world of, “Why don’t you write it from your own experience? To this day, if I hear someone bleating on about fame, I want to hear about their fame, not someone else’s. If it’s coming from the horse’s mouth, great. If it’s coming from the horse’s ass it’s no good at all.

And this, about prog and classic rock:

MR: I also have to ask you, you said “classic rock,” but Asia also falls under the category of progressive rock, which I think allows you the freedom you talked about before to do anything you want with your music.

JW: Yes. We have a foot in three trenches, really. We’re classic, we’re prog, and we verge on pop at times. We certainly can have singles that will appeal to people outside the prog fraternity, which they probably don’t even like. It’s clearly elitist, this prog thing. The bands that we came from, certainly all of them were prog. They died in the war of prog. But Asia, when it came out, reached far beyond the prog circles. To this day our audience is so varied, we get real kids at concerts, we get people our age and everyone in between. It’s great, I love it. And we still have a fairly broad spectrum as far as gender. Usually, we don’t have a room full of beards and sweaters, it’s usually a good mix of women and men. Very, very healthy audience. It’s great.

Wetton also states, a bit later: “My favorite male artist of all time is Don Henley because it’s like he’s reading poetry that comes straight from himself and it’s so gorgeous.” Huh. I cannot say I saw that one coming. Not that there’s anything wrong with Henley’s music; I enjoy some of his solo stuff and a fair amount of the Eagles’ music as well. But not expected.

Here is the video for the album’s first single, “Valkyrie”. The positives: Wetton sounds great; his vocals are impressively strong and clear at the age of 64. The song itself is quite decent, with the distinctive Asia “sound”: soaring keyboards, big chorus, and lyrics tinged with semi-mythical elements. The negatives: the video is rather (very!) low budget, the song sounds quite a bit like most Asia songs of the past couple of decades, and young Coulson seems underused. What strikes me odd, as I’ve read about this new album, is that while the band members talk about Coulson bringing a harder, even more metal-ish, sound with him, it doesn’t show up in the first single or in the clips of the other eight tunes. And, of course, none of them really sound prog-gy at all. Come to think of it, when did Asia last really incorporate anything obviously proggy in its albums? The mid-1980s? I’m not sure, because I stopped listening for about 20 years or so, and have only regained interest in the past couple of years.

Personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for the first three Asia albums. In part, because of my age; I was in junior high school when the self-titled debut album appeared in 1982 (32 years ago this month), and in high school when Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985) came along. I thoroughly enjoyed all three albums, and they were in my regular rotation, along with Kansas, Queen, Styx, and some groups I’m too embarrassed to mention here. Through Asia, I learned about ELP, but I didn’t discover King Crimson until many years later, and when I did, I thought, “Wow, that was John Wetton?!” Part of me wonders if the mega-success of the first Asia album didn’t create some problems, creatively, for Wetton and Geoff Downes; it certainly led to lots of conflicts, break-ups, and such over the years. Whatever the case, I am curious about this new album, but I’m trying to have modest expectations. I am thankful, however, that the group didn’t do a cover of Henley’s “Boys of Summer”.

90125 at 30 – A Retrospective

149178_f_1Thirty 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’.

 Musically?

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’.Trevor+Rabin+rabin

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 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.

jjhODespite 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.