Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 20: Magnification (2001).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"For many years people kept saying to us we should record with an orchestra, because the music really lends itself to orchestration. … A lot of fans and people around us kept saying: ‘You must do this again.’"
-- Alan White, Kuno Online

"It seemed to me that since we were looking for an orchestra partly in place of a keyboard player, I suggested one day, why don’t we do that with the record; instead of having a keyboard player, why don’t we use real instruments when we want them; if we want strings, why don’t we have real strings. So the penny dropped. … [W]hen I pointed it out, the guys said, well, that’s a pretty good idea."
-- Steve Howe, Notes from the Edge

"They are my favorite band of all time, so it really is a dream come true. … I could've played it safe, and not pushed the envelope. But I did what I thought would work. … The mixed rhythms and difficult meters aren't as prevalent, but the contour of the melodies and harmonies is probably more mature than before."
-- Larry Groupe, composer/conductor, San Diego Union Tribune

Beyond 2001
Rating: ****
Best song: "Spirit of Survival"
Produced by Yes and Tim Weidner
Executive producer: Jordan Berliant
Cover by Bob Cesca; logo by Roger Dean
Engineer: Tim Weidner
Additional engineering by Nick Sevilla, John Elder
Orchestra recorded by Charlie Bouis and Le Mobile
Orchestral music written, arranged, and conducted by Larry Groupe
Orchestrations: Larry Groupe, Bruce Donnelly, Frank Macchia

Jon Anderson: vocals, MIDI guitar, acoustic guitar
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Alan White: percussion, piano, vocals

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Spirit of Survival
Don't Go
Give Love Each Day
Can You Imagine
We Agree
Soft As a Dove
In the Presence Of:
  a. Deeper
  b. Death of Ego
  c. True Beginner
  d. Turn Around and Remember
Time Is Time

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Fans with a solid knowledge of Yes history couldn't really be blamed for being skeptical about this project. Yes, after all, had tried working with an orchestra way back on 1970's Time and a Word with questionable results. And after that album, the band began shedding some of its original members in favor of more versatile musicians who could make the band itself sound like an orchestra, without the need for outside assistance. 

But that was then, and this Yes is somewhat of a different animal. On Time and a Word, the band employed an orchestra for help in achieving the bigger sound the members were seeking. Thirty-one years later, and having proven as recently as the 2000 "Masterworks" tour that they can still tackle their famous '70s epics and still make five people onstage sound convincingly like 50, this Yes has chosen to step back a bit from the usual fire and flash, confident in knowing that they can sound orchestral on their own if they want to and thus giving them the luxury of revisiting the band-plus-orchestra idea out of choice, rather than necessity. The members' musical maturity also has helped them to know what they want to hear from the orchestra this time around, so that the end result is an integrated sound that doesn't leave the orchestral parts feeling tacked on as an afterthought, or even as padding. In short, Magnification is an album this seasoned band couldn't have made in 1970, when they were young and still finding their footing. 

The idea for a symphonic Yes album seems to have been born a few years before the release of Magnification, if interviews with Jon Anderson and Chris Squire around the time of the album's release are to be believed. If so, it seems that the decision to make the album at this point in their career was a pragmatic one as much as an artistic one, since there was no longer a keyboardist in the fold after the band parted ways with Igor Khoroshev following the "Masterworks" tour. The band obviously was left with a decision to replace him or find a viable substitute for the keyboard role. Before long, a poll showed up at Yesworld, the official Yes fan site, asking readers whether they thought Yes should pursue an orchestral route for their next project. Fan support was virtually split down the middle, far from a resounding "yes," but reportedly at management's prodding, the band moved in that direction anyway. 

To their credit, the remaining four members of Yes took great care in weaving the orchestral contributions firmly into the album's musical fabric. Rather than simply farm the work out to an unknown entity and not give it a second thought, the band took an active role in making sure their orchestral leader would be an active part of the collaborating process as well as have solid credentials to back him up. The right person for the job turned out to be Emmy-winning composer Larry Groupe, a self-professed Yes fan who had been best known for his scores in the films The Contender and The Usual Suspects, in addition to a wealth of TV music. After sending a tape of some of his work to the band, the band members asked him to take their rough compositions and work out the basic orchestral arrangements. After doing so and sharing the results, the band was impressed enough to put Groupe in charge of not just writing and conducting the orchestral parts on the emerging album but also of writing orchestrations for the old Yes classics that were to be played on the upcoming tour. The results are here on Magnification for all to hear: gorgeous instrumentation that easily makes for the most satisfying, best-integrated rock/symphonic collaboration since the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed came out way back in 1968. 

As for the band's input, it's their most consistently high-quality collection of music since Drama and their most varied and beautifully written collection since Going for the One. Anderson's voice resonates in crystal-clear tones and unusually high emotion; Squire puts down the anchor for the music with his expressive, often thundering, always fresh and high-energy bass lines; and Steve Howe is tastefully restrained for the first time in ages, working as part of an ensemble rather than pushing other people out of the way and, in the process, actually coming off sounding uncharacteristically precise and thoughtful on his guitars while still displaying his penchant for showcasing a variety of instruments, even throwing in a few new ones this time around. Alan White's drumming was rather static on The Ladder, and here on Magnification it's certainly not overly adventurous or at all groundbreaking, yet he gives the songs just what they need -- no more, no less. His forceful off-beat snare/cymbal punctuations and short fills on "Spirit of Survival," for example, leap out from an otherwise straight-ahead 4/4 beat with as much effect as any overlong, tedious drum solo could have done, and perhaps even more so. (The K.I.S.S. Principle reigns again!) The harmony vocals, shared by Squire, Howe, and White, are unusually polished and tight. And the compositions themselves stand out because they don't sound blatantly retro, as the Keys to Ascension albums did, nor do they indulge in overt artist-stealing-from-himself nostalgia, as was the case on The Ladder. (To be sure, there are reminders of past Yes music dotted throughout Magnification, but these are matters of bits and pieces resembling the spirit and style of past compositions rather than taking outright verbatim quotes from them.) Indeed, this album marks a fresh direction for the band, making the release one of their most truly forward-looking and "progressive" in many years, despite the lack of complex arrangements and technical wizardry. It all seems more real, spontaneous, and from the heart, abandoning most notions of how a Yessong somehow has to sound in favor of just making good, high-quality, genuine music. 

Speaking of eschewing nostalgiac piftalls, Roger Dean is gone this time around, after creating three Yes album covers in a three-year span that, with their blue backgrounds and generic molten-rock landscapes, were as interchangeable as they were unimaginative. Instead, we're given a series of attractive computer-generated graphics from Bob Cesca, beginning with a dark chart of the stars on the album cover -- including, naturally, Dean's classic "Yes" logo. A series of sketches on the inside pages of the booklet tells the story of an "Inter-Dimensional Reality" machine, or IDR, that an inventor tries to build based on an ancient talisman discovered in Tibet. This talisman, we are told, "supplemented or magnified perception during ages of harmonic convergence." The inventor, however, seems to fail to reach his goal, as it is noted toward the end of the booklet that "devoid of harmonics, the machine proved to be worthless." This comment helps to tie the story in with the music and thus create a kind of loose concept around the album, wherein music can serve to magnify one's perceptions of worlds and realities (hence the album's title) but cannot do so if the music lacks "harmonics" -- which explains the album's gorgeous melodies and harmonies and its minimum of dissonance. 

On the surface, then, it may seem ironic that Magnification contains some of Anderson's darkest lyrics in recent memory. "We Agree" focuses on the injustice of turning one's back to the plight of "refugees" (whether in the political or spiritual sense is unclear), and "Spirit of Survival" decries no less than greed, fear, hatred, blind obedience, the reckless nature of youth, and the accelerated pace of the modern world. "Give Love Each Day" even seems to impart a sense of resignation to the way things are with repeated lines like "some days it's a sad world; let it be." But, in vintage Anderson fashion, a ray of light ultimately pierces through the darkness in each song, which in turn serves to underscore the overarching theme of functionality-through-harmonics, illustrating that no matter how dark and discordant the world may seem, a true "harmonic" solution can always be found. Seen in the context of the lyrics, then, it's likely that Anderson is appealing for "harmonics" not just in music, as we originally may have thought, but in today's world as well. And if so, bless him, for what could better serve this world of road rage, ironic detachment, shallowness, ignorance, get-it-at-all-costs self-centeredness, brutality, and in-your-face, nothing-is-sacred vulgarity that passes as entertainment (including, poignantly enough, much of today's popular music itself) than a gentle reminder to be loving and respectful and treat others as we would want to be treated? Anderson's resolution in "We Agree" is to see "through the eyes of child" in order to "perpetuate this song of love"; the solution in "Give Love Each Day" is, not surprisingly, giving love each day. And even in "Spirit of Survival," wherein "the gods have lost their way," Anderson states his certain belief that "there is a safer place" to be found -- probably an inner refuge, but a safe one nonetheless. 

The sense of prevailing goodness is established immediately in the music and lyrics with the opening title track. Anderson sings that by magnifying our perceptions -- perhaps, the listener can surmise, by becoming more introspective and aware of one's own true self, which in turn would help us to act more mindfully toward others -- we can break out of our confusion and fruitless searching for answers to life's problems, as we come to realize that "everything is love." The musical mood is just as joyous, almost festive, with Howe's crisp, jangly acoustic guitars dancing lightly to set the scene. A few chords from Squire's bass follow, and then the orchestra makes its first appearance, setting a laid-back but uptempo 6/8 feel that will crisscross with straightforward 4/4 sections throughout the piece. Summery flourishes of flutes and strings permeate the early composition, along with some friendly wordless "aaaah" vocals from our backing singers, and then suddenly we shift tempo for the first time, into a section marked by a subtle rhythmic "beeping" tone (this may be Anderson's MIDI guitar, as it sounds a little too "electronic" to be a flute or piccolo) that strongly recalls similar moments from the past -- Rick Wakeman's single-note accompaniment on the "Total Mass Retain" section of "Close to the Edge," as well as Wakeman's recurring "chirping" sound during the "starlight, movement" bit of "The Revealing Science of God." After a few more shifts of tempo, the song enters a bouncy homestretch, complete with some understated banjo work from Howe! You have to really listen for it, but the banjo is indeed there, and kudos to Howe for introducing yet another color to the vast Yes palette, as this is the first known appearance of a banjo in Yes music. It's worked in quite tastefully here. But this nearly countryish mood eventually gives way to a markedly different grand finale, in which the band and orchestra collapse into a formless mess of jumbled sounds that slowly lurch upwards in search of harmonic reunification. As they do, the drums slow things to a halt, a forceful grinding chord brings resolution, and the harmonics of Magnification prevail over dissonance, in a section that bears a strong resemblance to the grandiose orchestral climb at the end of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." 

But before the dust can settle completely, Anderson's unaccompanied voice rises from the depths in a lonely, nearly plaintive tone marking the beginning of the album's heavy hitter and first of four big highlights, "Spirit of Survival." In a driving 4/4 led by Squire's relentless eighth-note spy-flick bass line, this is no less than a vibrant cross between "Peter Gunn" and "Live and Let Die," complete with the latter's aggressive orchestral blasts, woofs, and dramatic crescendos electrifying the proceedings, but then even going a step further by adding some head-banging, start-stop, cymbal-choking power chords as well as an abundance of sharp and abrupt contrasts between loud and soft passages. In Yes terms, this piece rocks like the title cut from Big Generator fused with the driving bass-guitar intensity of "Tempus Fugit." It is easily Yes's most aggressive presentation since the Rabin years, and it also picks up on one of the best musical elements from that YesWest era: incredible backing vocals. Howe's voice has left much to be desired in the past, and White was rarely heard, but here, on the chorus of "Spirit of Survival," they both blend with Squire's tried-and-true vocals so strongly and seamlessly that they create the illusion of a single, heretofore-unheard voice in the Yes canon, much as some of the backing vocals on Big Generator took on a sound and personality all their own. But it gets even better: Howe's guitar breaks simply smoke, even if it does sound as if it still causes him great strain to coax each note out of his instrument. His last solo is especially energetic by middle-age-Howe standards, as it seems to (intentionally) skip and bounce along out of control while feeding off the centrifugal force of Squire and White's relentless backdrop. For a wonderful few moments, memories of Howe in his prime come into view, which is something not witnessed very often in the past two decades. 

We barely get a chance to rest after the aural assault of "Spirit of Survival," as a lone, wailing viola crossfades directly into the next track, the poppy "Don't Go." This is a lightweight and gently humorous piece, with some quite contemporary lyrics from Anderson, a compressed transistor-radio type of vocal effect in mid-song, and even a honking horn after Anderson cheerfully sings of a woman stealing her best friend's car, noting "that's what friends are for." Most of the music is minimalist in style, built around staccato quarter notes in a midtempo 4/4, and the lyrical message is simple enough -- don't take love for granted. It's a cute and harmless enough piece, but it almost seems as if it would have been more at home on the forgettable Open Your Eyes album, its simplistic poppiness nearly calling to mind that album's "Man in the Moon." 

Soon enough, though, we get back on track, as "Don't Go" moves without a break (yet again) into the second of the four big highlight pieces, "Give Love Each Day." Here we get our first full taste of Groupe's input, as the song opens with two minutes of a graceful, effortlessly flowing solo orchestral performance that encompasses moods as varied as the sugary strings of a Burt Bacharach composition on one hand, and a stately muted trumpet reminiscent of John Williams' Saving Private Ryan score on the other. Ominous droning basses briefly add their statement, as does a distant ringing gong. A crescendo climaxes with the crashing of cymbals, and after a few more moments of pensive string lines, the band enters gently, with some electronically treated guitar lines, then a tambourine, then Squire's trebly bass lines, and finally Anderson's powerfully emotive voice. Howe's guitar soon takes on a glassy sound in short, successive note values, recalling a bit of '80s King Crimson, as White's drums join this freely breathing composition of open, vast expanses of atmosphere. The backing vocals are again supreme, and Anderson absolutely soars in goosepimply beauty over the chorus and in his closing exhortation to "give love each day," seeming to have rediscovered his old knack for making even plain and simple words sound heavenly, including lines that would be mundane in the hands of a less-gifted vocalist: "You are the center of my day/You are my guide in every way/We were meant to be/All because our love has always been there." Howe's later guitar solo, again tastefully restrained, exudes a sense of regal simplicity and honest emotion, and finally, as the song rises to a gentle but resounding major-chord orchestral resolution, the listener is left to bask warmly in -- and maybe even feel a bit choked up over -- the beauty of one of Yes's strongest compositions in ages -- along with "Spirit of Survival" and the album's next two songs. 

This is a perfect spot for a rest, and quite appropriately, Yes gives us our first break in the music following "Give Love Each Day," thus effectively wrapping up the first part of the album. But now, get ready for a jolt in the second part. No, I'm not talking about the presence of a piano, which White plays to open "Can You Imagine," accounting for one of a very few actual keyboard presences on the entire album. No, the big surprise here is that Squire gets to sing lead on "Can You Imagine"! Yes! This piece dates back to Squire and White's days in the ill-fated XYZ project in the early '80s, which also included Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. Yes had already recycled an old XYZ riff for their 1997 epic "Mind Drive," and now on Magnification, an entire song from those sessions is reworked into a Yes composition, with Squire still singing the song, as he did on the original. It's a real treat, sounding remarkably like a long-lost track from Squire's 1975 recording Fish Out of Water, one of the best Yes-member solo albums ever made (and there are lots of them out there). Over the years, as he has proven to a less-noticeable extent as Yes's bedrock backing vocalist, his husky tenor seems to have lost nothing with age, even going pitch-perfect on a few high notes during this brief but lovely piece about "seeing life from the other side" -- which in the context of Magnification makes a direct reference to the album artwork's IDR concept. Squire sings through the lyrics twice -- once with a sparse accompaniment of rhythmic piano, restrained steel-guitar licks, and occasional string glissandos; and then again with a heavier setting of guitars, bass, and drums taking center stage. Not surprisingly, Anderson proves he's every bit as good of a backing vocalist as a lead singer, accompanying Squire's voice just as well as Squire has done for Anderson over the years. 

As this brief piece fades out, we move directly into "We Agree," the final big highlight of the album. After Howe's delicate acoustic guitar sets the piece in motion, a somber oboe spins the piece in a moodier direction for Anderson to begin his don't-turn-your-backs dissertation to follow. Here more than anywhere else on the album, we get to hear Howe's newfound willingness to work as a team player even when he is a featured performer, all the while maintaining his unique musical voice. He contributes a little bit of everything -- from some gorgeous steel work, to classy jazz noodling, to a guitar-through-Leslie-speaker effect, to an unusual warbly rhythm-guitar sound, to a brief, sad solo that culminates in a powerful trill reminiscent of the majesty of a similar moment back on the 1996 track "Be the One" -- without ever pushing anybody else aside, as he has had a tendency to do in recent years. Even his one brief and forceful electric-guitar cadenza is remarkably short before he returns to being an integrated part of the band once again. Beyond his thoughtful input, the orchestra serves up a few more hard-hitting start-stop crunches, and Anderson continues to sing with extraordinary beauty, pulling out a beautifully repeated line of "our lives" that invites fond comparisons to his impassioned repetition of "at all" way back on "Ritual," before the big instrumental section takes over. What's more, his lovingly sung and harmonized observation that "these are the days that we will talk about" sums up the sentiment this fan felt when hearing the beauty of Magnification in my first few listens. There is, however, one mark against this otherwise masterful song: its rather weak ending, with a dark, descending string statement dissolving rapidly into the next song and failing to give a full, thoughtful release to the many emotions of the music that preceded it. 

The next piece, "Soft as a Dove," is as much an Anderson solo spot as "Can You Imagine" was for Squire, and this is certainly Anderson in his most fanciful, impish vein. Indeed, the song is every bit as flowery as its title suggests -- but certainly not in a bad "Circus of Heaven" kind of way. It brings the intensity level of the album back down, offering another spot for listeners to catch their breath as Anderson's sole voice, sans harmonies, tiptoes through the lilting arrangement of quaint instrumentation and hummable lyrics. Flute and acoustic guitar waltz together with a few joyous orchestral strings to create a dreamy medieval flavor to the song, which ends up sounding quite a bit like a cross between the Anderson/Howe duet "From the Balcony," on Open Your Eyes, and Anderson's own "Clear Days," the voice-and-strings featurette from that other orchestral Yes album all those many years ago. 

Now we move in to what might be considered the third and final part of Magnification. This is where the two big epics unfold. "Dreamtime" and "In the Presence Of" both clock in at 10-plus minutes, and both seem to justify their running times, more or less, even if the latter does hit some serious lulls along the way. "Dreamtime" certainly is the more uptempo and ambitious of the two, as it winds through several stylistic moods along its way and once again flashes up fond memories of a few favorite Yes and related works here and there. Expansive, dramatic, and moody, this piece sounds a bit like "Give Love Each Day" but on a slightly grander scale and a little more intense. The colorful track unfolds in an impatient fashion, progressing through a brisk 6/8 opening featuring a sadly singing viola, followed by a few notable orchestral punches before Anderson enters with a line that sticks with the listener: "Words never spoken are the strongest resounding." It's poignant because it seems to embody a less-is-more K.I.S.S. Principle philosophy, which Yes has never observed much through its history -- although when it has, as is the case on much of this album, the results are usually quite memorable. Maybe this is a signal of Yes turning over a new leaf, but on the other hand, if could be just a harmless statement about reading between the lines, in which case it may be no more than a fanciful reworking of the "Close to the Edge" line that goes "The space between the notes relates the color to the scenes." As always, with Anderson's open-ended lyrics, it's hard to tell, but also as always, that's what makes his lyrics so much fun to explore. 

The rest of the high points on this track are musical. First up is a spacious and slightly menacing section featuring the orchestral strings ducking in and out around Howe's sparse rhythm-guitar line and White's insistent tomtom work. The mood here is not at all unlike the tribal-drumming feature in "Birthright," the 1989 song from Anderson's "alterna-Yes" band Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, and it's actually pleasantly surprising to hear such a setting show up so unexpectedly in a Yessong. (As noted before, this album is certainly anything but predictable.) The strings eventually add a bit of a Middle Eastern texture, and in the background is an incessant, low clanging sound -- it seems to be coming from something like a xylophone and then becomes doubled later on by Squire's clipped bass, creating a gamelan-like effect so that we simultaneously seem to be experiencing three cultures of music -- aboriginal, Middle Eastern, and Indonesian -- all in one remarkable section that somehow remains uncluttered and clear. Quite a feat. 

Once White's drums enter without warning, he and Squire quickly take the piece into another new dimension, in which their chugging rhythm forms the foundation for Howe's repeated feature, which turns out to be no more than a muted, jazzy chord strummed over sparse strings and a series of variations on a single bending guitar note. (Cheers to Howe once again for his restraint here!) The pace of the music is rapid, but the instrumentation is sparse, relying on sustained notes and chords to provide the drama...and if "I'm Running" is starting to creep into your mind as a point of comparison, you're right on the money. 

But that's pretty much it for the piece. From there it bandies about between previously introduced themes, and it probably sticks with the "I'm Running"-like ambience a little too long, for no more development than there is to the section. Still, Squire gets in a tasty descending lick between orchestral smashes, and Howe delivers an energetic double-tracked solo near the end of the band's part of the song. The orchestra then plays on, again in a solo spot, after Squire comes back one last time with his descending solo, essentially growling the band to a forceful halt. For about two minutes, Groupe leads his orchestra on another excursion through widely varying moods, beginning with a bassoon that picks up where Squire left off and slithers upward into a section of Univers Zero-like creepiness that could easily have been taken from any horror-suspense flick. From there the orchestra effortlessly transitions into a playful and somewhat discordant cadence in which strings bandy back and forth with woodwinds, the brass pokes in and out loudly, and even some slapping sounds enter from the percussion section, sounding something like a cross between Stravinsky and Frank Zappa's symphonic work by the time it's all over. A classically tinged cello-violin duet then takes the spotlight, leading into a gentle wash of quiet, sustained strings that finally bring the piece to a tender, calm close. And there does seem to be a point to it all -- it seems as if Groupe's work here is intended to illustrate the characteristics of various common dream states, from nightmares to jumbled, disjointed dreams to calm, serene states of slumber. Given the title of the piece, it seems a wholly appropriate way to bring it to a close. 

"In the Presence Of," as mentioned, does plod quite a bit in places and suffers from a lack of significant thematic development. There's also a brief section near the end in which the sound of bongos pops in from nowhere and then back out again, just as quickly as it came. It sounds totally out of any context with the surrounding music. And there's also one of those unintentional Yes cringe moments when Anderson drops a line that goes "see what happens when I touch you there." Of course, the actual meaning is completely innocent, but anybody with a too-vivid imagination can just see this line going terribly wrong! 

Well, at least some other innovative lyrics make up for it, proving that it's not just Howe who's bringing new ideas to the table on this album. There are quite a few spiritual overtones to the words here, and while that's not anything new for Anderson, the inspiration for some of them certainly must be. First, the repeated declaration that "if we were flowers, we would worship the sun" is typically Andersonian -- no surprises there. But then he goes on to ruminate on such themes as "the death of ego" and notes that "all existence is a dream" -- both very specifically Buddhist proclamations. Although "Close to the Edge" was based around a book that included an encounter with the Buddha, and "Awaken" seems to carry some Buddhist overtones as well, Anderson has never before made such oblique references -- dare I say "direct pointing" -- to the philosophy of the Eastern spiritual practice. Makes one wonder whether Anderson has taken on a Zen master as his teacher recently! His most touching line in the song, however, is not a spiritual one but rather one that borders on nostalgia probably more than any other moment on this entire album, though it still manages to avoid the Ladder trap of blatant ripoff. To wit: "As the door was open wide/There inside was a diamond chair/Where I sat when I was young/I wrote down the words." You can just hear the sense of fond remembrance in his voice as he hearkens back to 1972's "Heart of the Sunrise," when he was indeed still a young man as he wrote the lines "Long last treatment of the telling that relates to all the words sung/Dreamer easy in the chair that really fits you." It seems, after all these years, that Anderson may be letting us know that the dreamer in the chair was -- surprise, surprise -- really him. 

The most notable musical contributions on "In the Presence Of" come from Howe, with some slow, haunting, pitch-bending, countryish electric-guitar lines, as well as some splendid mandolin rolls, a bit more banjo work, and a climactic steel flourish near the end of the piece. The orchestra adds some well-timed thump-thump-thumps for emphasis in another start-stop moment, and as with the rest of the album the backing vocals are again rich and well executed here. White's piano adds an appealingly gentle touch as well. In all, there are a lot of nice moments here on what is unfortunately a rather overlong, rambling, unfocused, and generally forgettable track. 

Now, at last, we wrap up this extravaganza with a short-and-sweet tune called "Time Is Time," accentuated by a light arrangement of breezy acoustic guitar, a lazy dobro (another Yes first!), and a small string section sounding a lot like a chamber orchestra that outlasts the band to create a formal but light and happy ending to the album. The cadence of Anderson's vocals here, coupled with a slightly monotonous tone, calls to mind one last pleasant musical memory -- this time, not a Yes memory, but rather hints once again of the Beatles, just as on the album's opening track. Here, one is reminded of "Julia" by John Lennon, that major influence on Yes over the years and former musical associate of White himself. It's a beautiful way to wrap up a phenomenally lovely Yes album. 

Sadly, though, there are some downsides to this mostly great collection. Most notably, "Don't Go" and "In the Presence Of" are largely lackluster compositions that do the most toward preventing this album from reaching "classic" status. Oddly enough, these were the two songs from the album that Yes played for most of the Magnification tour -- odd, because they are not at all representative of the incredible heights that this album reaches. The other major issue is that, no matter how beautifully the orchestra may have played on this album, fans are inevitably going to miss hearing the burbling of Hammond organs, the wash of atmospheric synthesizers, or the haunting strains of a wobbly Mellotron. No amounts of cello, flute, and brass can replace the vintage keyboard textures that are such a cornerstone of the Yes sound. That White plays some piano on the album, in fact, seems to prove that Yes simply can't dispose of keyboards completely -- not to mention that, even with an orchestra in tow, Yes still recruited a hired gun, former Meat Loaf associate Tom Brislin, to play keyboards on the Magnification tour! Now that Rick Wakeman rejoined the band (again!) in 2002, the lack of keys is, at least for the time being, no longer an issue. Wakeman has said he's back in the band for the long haul, but we fans have heard this before, so all we can do is wait and see. In the meantime, listeners can simply enjoy what the orchestrations on Magnification did to Yes's music, which was no less than to move it in a completely new direction. And who could have thought that was even possible, three-plus decades into the band's career? 

There were also a few dumb moves surrounding the release of the album in the United States. Namely, Americans had to wait for three months after Magnification had been released everywhere else in the world to acquire a copy domestically (many fans, myself included, simply bought a copy from overseas rather than wait), and when it finally did hit the stores in the States, a sleazy marketing ploy would force hardcore fans to purchase three copies of the CD, with three "bonus" tracks, recorded live on the "Masterworks" tour, being split up for sale among three different stores, one exclusive track per retailer. It certainly seemed to stink of a thinly veiled plot to boost sales at the expense of the core fan base. Had Beyond and Left Bank, Yes's management company, simply marketed the album better, they wouldn't have needed to resort to such tactics, and it's ironic that they did, since the official reason for delaying the U.S. release was to gear up for a big publicity campaign in the first place. The most that Beyond/Left Bank seemed to get out of the deal was a mention in a Best Buy circular, but a trip to the stores that carried the bonus tracks revealed little more than these "exclusive" copies of Magnification filed under the "Yes" (or "Y") card in the CD displays -- no endcaps, no "new release" placement, nothing of the sort. And the big, gray, ugly stickers on the shrinkwrap announcing the bonus tracks prevented any casual fan from even knowing this was a Yes album, let alone a new one, as the stickers completely concealed the Roger Dean "Yes" logo on the CD cover underneath. (Ironically, the much smaller shrinkwrap stickers that went to independent stores not carrying the "exclusive" CDs clearly showed the Yes logo.) Following this fiasco was an excuse that the Christmas shopping season was busy (which leaves one to wonder why Beyond chose to release the album in December in the first place) and that the big push for the album would come after the Christmas season. This didn't happen, and in the end, the bungling by Beyond and Left Bank resulted in Magnification peaking for one week in the Billboard album chart at #186 and then falling off. Of all the Yes albums that have at least charted in the states, this ranks as the lowest ever. And it's a crime, because it means this beautiful music may forever go unheard by anybody outside Yes's hardcore fan base. Beyond now seems to have gone out of business, and it's little wonder why. 

But it is vital to remember that these complaints have nothing to do with the quality of the album itself. Magnification may have stripped Yes down to the four men who have been its nucleus since Howe rejoined the band in 1996, but it brilliantly reveals that it was among this nucleus that the best recent Yes ideas have been born. Shedding the extra musicians (yes, including Wakeman) may even have helped the remaining members to focus and turn their creative juices up a notch. Whatever the case, the astonishing results are here for all to hear. Magnification is in many ways the long-awaited payoff -- the album that fans knew the guys still had left in them and have been patiently awaiting for many years. Best of all, it resurrects that unique dynamic that made Yes unmatched and untouchable in the glory years of the 1970s without being merely a retread of those old ideas. Yes has certainly had its great moments in the intervening years, but few are as consistently satisfying as Magnification. Hats off to Yes! 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 19: The Ladder (1999).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"...There was no keyboard player around (during Open Your Eyes). ... So, Jon pulled out a tape of a keyboard player, Igor Khoroshev, this young guy who sent him a tape years ago. ... After that process, then touring that album, we became friends, and he became musically cohesive with the band. We knew, let's just go write an album with the six of us and see what happens, and we came up with The Ladder."
-- Billy Sherwood, Music Street Journal (2000)

"I'm enjoying this particular incarnation of the band. ... I think we have to thank Billy Sherwood. ... He's brought a lot of enthusiasm with him and encouraged us to write new songs. A lot of the energy comes from him."
-- Chris Squire, Innerviews (1998)

"Personally, I would be thrilled if we could deliver Close To The Edge -- The Sequel, but I think this is no longer possible. The Yes AlbumFragile, and Close To The Edge are the result of a very close collaboration of people who were much younger than they are today, of people who had a huge ambition. ... It would no longer have the chemistry like we used to have. That's a fact we have to live with."
-- Steve Howe, Progressive World (1999)

The Ladder
Beyond 1999
Rating: ***
Best song: "Homeworld (The Ladder)"
Produced by Bruce Fairbairn
Cover and logo by Roger Dean
Engineer: Mike Plotnikoff
Second engineer: Paul Silveira
Horns by Tom Keenlyside, Derry Burns, Rod Murray, Tom Colclough, Neil Nicholson
World instruments by Randy Raine-Reusch
Dance loops by Rhys Fulber

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Billy Sherwood: guitars, vocals
Igor Khoroshev: keyboards, vocals
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Homeworld (The Ladder)
It Will Be a Good Day (The River)

Lightning Strikes
Can I?
Face to Face
If Only You Knew

To Be Alive (Hep Yadda)
The Messenger
New Language
Nine Voices (Longwalker)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It's hard to know what to make of this album. To its credit, it presents a fresh Yes sound that is really neither "Trooper" not "Generator." One track is brilliant; a few others are very good. And overall, it was probably the most collaborative band effort since Drama, with every other Yes album since that time never quite having been made equally by all the members, from a clean slate, in a single setting -- traits that marked all the band's "classic" albums. (Yes, even as a huge fan of Talk, I'm admitting this.) Yet there is a downside to The Ladder as well: Sometimes it sounds more like a Jon Anderson solo album, at other times it's just dull and lifeless, and in its worst moments it rips off the band's own history. No doubt thanks to high-profile producer Bruce Fairbairn (who, sadly, died during the recording of the album), The Ladder has a pronounced laid-back, smooth, polished, and almost "hip" feeling to it, sounding so adult-contemporary in overall style (even on the "progressive" tracks) that one could be excused for thinking that the whole album was tailored toward the VH1 nostalgia scene. In all candor, it's even more nostalgiac than the Keys to Ascension albums, because while the Keys discs strongly referenced the spirit of '70s Yes, many parts of The Ladder blatantly recycle Yes's own '70s work lock, stock, and barrel and just repackage it. Hardcore fans have pointed out a bass line on "New Language" that's lifted directly from "Roundabout," while "Nine Voices" regurgitates "Your Move," and "Can I?" is"We Have Heaven," with some really embarrassing scatting thrown in and the tempo slown down.

Nonetheless, upon its release, The Ladder was met with great anticipation as a first listen to the new lineup of the band that had been touring together since 1997 but never had the opportunity to work on an entire album from scratch in the studio. Billy Sherwood still hadn't shown what he was capable of doing (Open Your Eyes was certainly not indicative of his abilities), and Igor Khoroshev held great promise as the new keyboardist.

For most of its first half-hour, the album doesn't disappoint. But what's interesting is that it seems the best ideas on The Ladder do indeed originate from the new kids on the block -- Sherwood and Khoroshev. After taking a listen to Sherwood's excellent 1998 solo album The Big Peace, one can immediately hear his songwriting stamp all over The Ladder's opening, and best, song, "Homeworld." Here he proves he's able to compose within the framework of the "classic" Yes formula and move it forward with exciting new ideas. His strength in the band was unquestionably as a songwriter and, possibly, even as an arranger, for even though he may not have made a noticeably audible statement through anything but his effective backing vocals, he did have a knack for blending traditional progressive-rock song structures with modern-rock sensibilities. Meanwhile, Khoroshev quietly goes about his work on the album, sounding very much like Rick Wakeman in spots, but with an added bonus -- Khoroshev knows when to solo and when to back off and be an accompanist. What's more, he masterfully blends classical grace and beauty with traditional prog-rock keyboard sounds and styles, and also with contemporary -- and highly danceable -- synth-pop. Rivaled only by Sherwood, his contributions seemed to go the furthest on this album toward trying to keep Yes relevant and up-to-date.

At the same time, however, it was clear that not every member of the band even wanted Yes to be relevant and up-to-date. In addition to the blatant '70s repackagings in the music, we see that Roger Dean has returned to paint the album cover. This wouldn't be so bad, except that it's yet another one of his now-generic molten-rock landscapes on yet another blue background that does nothing to set this album apart from other recent ones featuring his artwork. If not for the "block" Yes logo replacing the "classic" logo at the top, you wouldn't know at a quick glance that this wasn't one of the Keys to Ascension albums. As for the band itself, Steve Howe proclaimed in interviews at the time that this album had to be successful in order for Yes to survive, which seemed to be his way of justifying the more accessible style of The Ladder. However, his heart is stuck in the '70s, as he seems to be the only reason Dean is kept around (Howe is good friends with Dean), and of course he has always been quick to let people know whether he deems the music Yes is creating to be really Yes music -- read, long-form '70s redux -- or not. In fact, it was quite amusing at the time to see Howe backpedaling and trying to justify the new direction being taken on The Ladder after slamming so many previous Yes albums as being "not Yes" if they were too pop-oriented and/or didn't feature him on guitar. So, who else in the band seems stuck in the past? Well, Jon Anderson's aforementioned vocal collage "Can I?" (a title that begs the question, "did you have to?") kind of speaks for itself.

Chris Squire seems to be somewhere in between, never missing a chance on The Ladder to stroll down memory lane but still coming up with fresh ideas on his bass and also apparently hungry for a return to rock superstardom that he briefly enjoyed in the wake of "Owner of a Lonely Heart." And to his credit, he has also, in at least one interview, questioned the wisdom of continuing to use Dean for the album covers.

And then we have Alan White. Alan White is Alan White -- he's the Yes diplomat who seems to merrily go along with what everyone else wants to do.

So out of this mixed bag of goodies we get The Ladder, which is somewhat similar to Talk in its approach in that it seems to be trying to please fans of both the "Trooper" and "Generator" eras. The difference between the two albums' approaches, however, is that while Talk actually melded the style of both eras into single song structures, The Ladderalternates between pure adult-contemporary pop tunes ("If Only You Knew," "It Will Be a Good Day") and "progressive" compositions ("Homeworld," "New Language"), with not a whole lot of middle ground. The intention in this approach, at least in this album's case and judging by Howe's "Yes must succeed" proclamation, was certainly to try to get the band noticed again on the popular scene.

Of course, that didn't happen. Not Fairbairn, not a tie-in with a video game, not a free concert on satellite TV, not a concert DVD, not even a two-CD live collection from the tour bumped the disappointing sales of this album. But that doesn't mean this album is disposable by any means. On the "pop" side, "Face to Face" deftly acknowledges modern dance-rock trends, even if it does sound more like Starcastle, a '70s Yes ripoff band, than it sounds like Yes itself; "It Will Be a Good Day" is prime soft-rock-radio fare; and "If Only You Knew" is an unabashed VH1-ready adult contemporary ballad that's actually very pleasant, thanks to some subtle steel-guitar embellishments and Anderson's often moving vocal performance. "Lightning Strikes" is good fun, too, with the opening flute doodles (presumably played on a Mellotron) followed by a short bossa nova groove recalling the whimsy of the jarring horn blasts from "Owner of a Lonely Heart." The song continues with Howe playing a jangly 7/4 acoustic-guitar rhythm to set the stage for a joyous African-township atmosphere that begs comparison to Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al."

And for the diehard proggers, we have two mini-epics: the marvelous "Homeworld," which takes the traditional expansive, adventurous, exploratory fashion of vintage Yes music and propels it into the future, with colorful instrumentation and great harmony vocals (all six members sing on this album!); and the disappointing "New Language," which tries to do the same thing, and even has a creative, energetic introduction (with a high-octane organ solo by Khoroshev) to build up our hopes, but it ultimately loses its way, suffering from the dreaded Topographic syndrome of sounding like a forced, overly long, unfocused collection of aimless noodling, unrelated ideas, and failed attempts to be cute.

The rest of the album just sort of sits there, lacking in anything that makes you sit up and take notice and compels you to want to listen to it again. None of the music on The Ladder is offensively bad, as opposed to much of Open Your Eyes; it's just that a lot of it seems flat and uninspired, sounding like a band that's going through the motions of being Yes, rather than challenging each other to bring out the best in each musician -- which also was a defining trait of every great album from the "classic" era.

Even the duller moments are bearable, if nothing else, but there certainly are plenty of offerings here that could just as easily been left on the cutting-room floor without detracting from the finished product. In fact, without three or four tracks seriously dragging things down, I would give this album a higher rating than I did. But, in the age of 74-minute CDs, bands seem to feel compelled to tack on pointless filler that would have had to be sacrificed in the days of LPs.

The other problems, of course, revolve around Anderson and Howe's nostalgiac mindset. And musically, White is very disappointing through most of the album. He doesn't move much past very pedestrian drumbeats that any computer could have churned out. It sounds as though he's on autopilot through most of this recording.

But at least he's in better musical shape than Howe, whose talents have been eroding for several years, which everybody but Howe seems to notice. In fact, one of those unintentionally funny Yes moments crops up on "Face to Face," where Anderson chimes in with an exuberant "C'mon, Steve" before Howe breaks into a remarkably forced, lifeless solo that sounds as if he's struggling with all his might to release each note from his guitar -- in this context, it's almost as if Anderson isn't encouraging Howe so much as he is begging him to play something fresh and fluid. It's tempting to have pity on the guy, except that he's such an insufferable prima donna -- he's never been one to be associated with the concept of humility, but in recent years he seems to have become a true legend in his own mind...sort of the Deion Sanders of rock music. In addition to shooshing and snapping at audience members from the stage while he ruminates on his self-important solos (I've witnessed this myself), a legendary burst of obscenity at a light operator during a soundcheck, a refusal to shake hands (according to Peter Banks, who says he endorses the policy in Howe's case), and an unwillingness to play any other Yes guitarist's parts, he has also said openly that he didn't like sharing the guitar spotlight with Sherwood -- onstage or in the studio -- when Sherwood already had been handcuffed into playing rhythm guitar on the album and could take a solo onstage only during the Rabin songs, which Howe won't, and in actuality probably can't, play. In one interview, Howe went so far as to try to take credit for playing "all the guitars" on The Ladder, and he even made sure we notice all the different kinds of guitars he plays on the album by listing them in the liner notes. All the while, he kept churning out the same old tired ideas from those same old tired guitars, and he couldn't even pull them off as well as he could in the past. The next album, Magnification, finally suggests that maybe he got the hint, and rather than continue to try to play the way he did in his prime, he settles back a little bit, plays like a member of the band rather than a soloist pushing others aside, adds a few new instruments to the repertoire, and even sounds more tasteful and accurate in his playing. But even so, he still remains the band's weakest link, and at the time of The Ladder, his intransigence toward Sherwood was reportedly a factor in Sherwood's decision to leave the band after the ensuing tour was finished.

At least Squire still showed a creative spark among the band's "old guard" on this album. His lead-guitar-playing style still resonates, as he continued to push forward and simply sounds like he was having a ball coming up with his invigorating lines on "Face to Face," "Lightning Strikes," and the otherwise forgettable "The Messenger" -- a wickedly sinewy line on that last one to boot.

The vocal harmonies here were vastly improved over those on recent Yes albums as well, thanks in part to the addition of Sherwood and Khoroshev's voices, as well as Fairbairn's expertise, which no doubt was what helped give every voice a chance to breathe rather than be crowded out.

Fairbairn told the members of Yes when he began working with them to simply make the best Yes album possible. In truth, the band probably could have done much better than this, for although many of the songs here are indeed interesting, it's hard to consider any of them timeless Yes classics, outside of "Homeworld." Given that the album didn't propel Yes back into stardom, as seemed to be the hope, it didn't seem likely that the band would make another album that chased mainstream acclaim and radio play, as The Ladder did.

And they didn' least not with their next release. But in the meantime, it appeared that the band's immediate response to the lack of Ladder success was to jump back on the retro bandwagon, offering nothing in the way of new ideas. The "Masterworks" tour, performed after Sherwood's departure, focused entirely on the mid-'70s Yes catalog, the setlist allegedly having been based on fans' song requests taken from a poll at Yesworld. Even "Owner of a Lonely Heart" was nowhere to be heard on the tour. Interviews at the time suggested that Anderson and Howe in particular wanted to move Yes back into the "classic Yes" vein of songwriting displayed in "Masterworks" classics such as "Close to the Edge" and "The Gates of Delirium," while Squire didn't seem to be quite sold on the idea. Squire's collaboration with Sherwood on the Conspiracy album, in fact, shows where Yes's recent commercial leanings had found their base. But it was clear that chasing hit singles hadn't brought Yes back into the public spotlight, and the Yesworld poll emphatically showed that Yes's remaining fan base wasn't interested in seeing the band continuing to move in that direction anyway. Although a Yes that is purely retro-'70s, a la Keys to Ascension 2, wouldn't say much in the way of true progessiveness, it seemed to be the only way Yes could hold on to its core base of fans as the band headed into the twilight of its career. Fans could only hope that the music would be done only in the style of "classic" Yes, rather than as a pure rehash of old ideas, as heard on many portions of The Ladder.

But as it turned out, Yes would surprise everyone by not chasing hits and not going purely retro. After the "Masterworks" tour, Yes conducted another poll at Yesworld to see whether fans would like to see the band work with an orchestra. Although the poll result was far from a resounding "yes," the band went ahead and embarked on a tour utilizing local orchestral groups in the towns they visited, performing orchestrated versions of many old Yes classics but also tossing in a few songs from their upcoming album that also would feature an orchestra. It's a safe bet that Yes decided to go this route despite a tepid showing of fan support becuase it needed something to fill the vacant keyboard slot after Khoroshev and the band parted company following the "Masterworks" tour. In effect, then, the orchestra became the keyboardist, even though Yes also brought along a hired gun, Tom Brislin, to handle some of the keyboard duties onstage.

Nobody could have known what to expect from Anderson, Howe, Squire, and White working with an orchestra, other than possessing the knowledge that Yes's last attempt at orchestral collaboration back in 1970 left something to be desired. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that the follow-up to the so-so Ladder project would qualify as a monumental artistic success.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 18: Open Your Eyes (1997).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"Yes wasn't really sure what was going on with itself. Having finished Keys to Ascension in my studio, I was pretty much inspired working with Yes. I kind of grabbed the ball and said to Chris, 'Why don't you and I start writing some songs and we'll see what happens.' ... In the process, we sent Jon 'Universal Garden' and 'Wonderlove' and 'New State of Mind.' He really liked it and said, 'I'd love to sing on this stuff.'"
-- Billy Sherwood, Music Street Journal (2000)

"I think the Open Your Eyes album combines a bit of the '80s Yes and the '70s Yes prior to us doing the longer pieces. Open Your Eyes also has a definite '90s sound to it, so we're very happy with that album..."
-- Chris Squire, Innerviews (1998)

"We came to the stage where we had to rebuild the group. ... (Management) said to us, 'How about getting out some current material?' .... Chris has been recording with Billy and basically building up some tracks for a Chris Squire/Billy Sherwood album. What they said was, 'We've got all this material.' I said, 'Yes, but it's not Yes material!' ... That album isn't satisfying. It's a disaster. ... Jon and I were squeezed, pushed, undermixed and not allowed to develop and change that music due to the time pressure. I knew that it was wrong, and Jon knew it was wrong. Supposingly, other people didn't."
-- Steve Howe, Kuno Online (1999)

Open Your Eyes
Beyond 1997
Rating: **
Best song: "Fortune Seller"
Produced by Yes
Logos by Roger Dean
Engineer: Billy Sherwood
Additional keyboards: Igor Khoroshev, Steve Porcaro

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Billy Sherwood: keyboards, guitars, vocals
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
New State of Mind
Open Your Eyes

Universal Garden
No Way We Can Lose
Fortune Seller
Man in the Moon

From the Balcony
Somehow, Someday
The Solution

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Billy Sherwood had been hanging around the outer periphery of Yes for about a decade at this point. Through a musical association with Chris Squire, he and Bruce Gowdy, a bandmate from Sherwood's neo-prog outfit World Trade, collaborated with the remaining members of Yes when Jon Anderson left after Big Generator. Only three songs from this period, all Squire/Sherwood collaborations, were officially recorded and released between a lull in the Yes action between 1989 and 1991: "Say Goodbye," which Sherwood re-recorded for a World Trade album; "Love Conquers All," featuring Trevor Rabin on vocals and appearing on the 1991 Yesyears box set; and "The More We Live -- Let Go," which originally had Sherwood on vocals but was re-recorded with Squire and Jon Anderson taking the lead for its release on Union. Of the two Yes releases, Sherwood appeared on "Love Conquers All"; Gowdy played on neither.

But Sherwood would retain his association with Yes after this period, returning in 1994 as a touring member of Yes on the Talk tour, contributing additional guitars, bass, keyboards, and percussion -- sort of an all-around utility guy. In '95, under the banner of World Trade (although World Trade at this time was just Jay Schellen playing drums and Sherwood singing and playing everything else), he showed up on a pair of tribute albums on the Magna Carta label: On Supper's Ready, where he played Genesis' "Keep It Dark," and on Tales from Yesterday, a Yes tribute, where he worked up a faithful rendition of "Wonderous Stories." And also during this time, his association with Squire continued, as the two teamed up to work out some new music and play some small clubs in the L.A. area in a side project called the Chris Squire Experiment. Out of these sessions would come a song then known as "Wish I Knew." Yes fans would get to know the tune very well, very soon.

Sherwood grew up a Yes fan and has suggested he understands how the "classic" Yes formula works. Perhaps that's part of the reason the band turned to him when they were putting together their most '70s-sounding album since the '70s themselves -- Keys to Ascension 2. He co-produced the album with Yes, marking his most significant contribution to the band yet. But his partnership with the band he grew up idolizing had bigger things in mind for him: member status.

The decision to add Sherwood didn't sit well with everyone in the band, and he was apparently brought in more by Squire than at the request of the other members. But he had what the band needed, or at least what Yes management wanted: an ability to play a variety of instruments, including keyboards; a strong voice; and, most importantly, a fresh batch of material that he and Squire had been working up in anticipation of a new Squire solo album, including a studio version of the Experiment song "Wish I Knew."

That song turned into "Open Your Eyes," the title track for a ridiculously rushed Yes album that came out just two weeks after Keys 2 did.

The styles on the two albums couldn't have been more disparate. Some fans must have wondered whether the members of Yes were schizophrenic, for first they were given Keys 2, an album featuring Wakeman and showing the band playing in full overblown '70s mode, and then just days later they heard Open Your Eyes, on which Wakeman was gone and the emphasis was on shorter, radio-friendly pop tunes. Which was the real Yes?

Well, to be fair, neither. Keys 2 was such a retro-'70s album that that style really couldn't be legitimately pulled off by a Yes that was missing one key member from that era, while Open Your Eyes was thrown together so quickly that it hardly qualifies as a true band project, for Anderson and Steve Howe did little more than glue some peripheral parts on top of what were partially completed songs by the time they had a chance to contribute. The majority of the guitar on Open Your Eyes is presumably by Sherwood, as most of it simply doesn't match Howe's style of playing -- most of it is in the rockier AOR mode of Trevor Rabin than in the eclectic but immediately recognizable style of Howe.

Basically, it just isn't an accurate representation of, or a compliment to, anybody's talents, but it did what it was intended to do -- get Yes back on the road.

In some strange respects, this was another one of those albums like 90125 that took Yes back to its roots, when the music was simpler and the vocal harmonies abounded. The cover itself is a throwback to the UK cover of the first album: Yes, the first album, had the word "YES" in an orange speech balloon against a black background; Open Your Eyes has the Roger Dean "Yes" logo, in orange, against a black background. Even the opening songs are similar, as both are propelled by a joyous, plodding, somewhat simple composition while the luscious vocal harmonies sweeten the spaces all around it.

And the albums also share the unfortunate characteristic that, overall, neither one is very memorable. Indeed, the vocal harmonies abound on Open Your Eyes, but they're grossly overproduced -- rather than having a lot of breathing space as they did on Big Generator, where each vocal line can be heard both separately and as a part of the whole, here the vocals more often create a thick, impenetrable wall that frequently sounds more like a muddled shout in which no single line can be easily identified. This plagues even the better songs on the album -- the aforementioned opener, "New State of Mind," as well as the title cut and "Fortune Seller."

On "Open Your Eyes," we do at least get a moment of vocal clarity when Anderson and Squire alternate lead vocal lines, in the Yes spirit of "Machine Messiah," "Shoot High Aim Low" and "The More We Live -- Let Go." "Man in the Moon" is effective as well, with Anderson and Sherwood singing the verses in clear unison over a simple, uncluttered song structure. (There's that KISS Principle again!) And "From the Balcony" works because it's Anderson alone, giving a heartfelt (if sometimes off-key) delivery to a lilting ballad over a solo acoustic guitar, apparently played by Howe.

"Fortune Seller" just happens to be the strongest song on the album (though that's not saying much), but it's also notable in that it features a fiery guest performance on organ by the person who would soon become the sixth member of Yes: Igor Khoroshev. The Russian-born, classically trained unknown talent was sort of Anderson and Howe's answer to Sherwood -- if Squire was able to bring who he wanted into the band, then Anderson and Howe wanted someone on their side too. (Only in Yes do partisan politics get as bad as they do on the floor of Congress.) Khoroshev would join the band on keyboards for the Open Your Eyes tour, which meant Sherwood would be performing mostly rhythm guitar and backing vocals onstage, but it was probably good for the music's sake that someone with an unquestionable talent on keyboards be brought in to do the keys work full-time, given how complex and integral many keyboard parts are in Yes's music.

There are a couple of other cool moments, including a sly lyrical reference ("1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, all good people...") to both the Beatles and to "Your Move," the Yes song that quoted John Lennon many years ago; and a long "hidden" track at the end of the CD that intermingles a cappella vocal harmonies from throughout the album with some soothing, new-agey nature sounds. But still, there are only five listenable songs out of 11 on Open Your Eyes. The rest is, to be blunt, crap -- there's just no other way to describe it. If Keys 2 was Yes's attempt to mimic '70s Yes, then maybe the idea behind Open Your Eyes was to mimic '80s Yes. If so, it does a horrible job. More than half of the album contains songs that are completely bland, without any defining character, indistinguishable from each other. Some sound like bad GTR outtakes; others are just underdeveloped ideas, some of which shouldn't have been developed at all. And then, before you can say "Saving My Heart," Yes takes another frightful foray into reggae with "No Way We Can Lose." "No Way I'll Ever Listen to This Song More Than Once in My Life" is more like it. Bob Marley must be spinning in his grave. Heck, even Tortelvis is probably cringing.

Maybe it's not fair to be so hard on an album that was done under such tight time constraints, but one would expect more from the talents involved, and the album ultimately cheapens the Yes name and legacy. On the other hand, it's arguable that the material just wasn't very strong to begin with and therefore couldn't be helped much. To wit: Some of the original Chris Squire Experiment pieces that helped form the basis of this Yes album, including the Squire/Sherwood recordings of "Open Your Eyes" and "Man in the Moon," were released on an album called Conspiracy in 2000, but they added nothing fresh or appealing to the original Yes releases. Not surprisingly, only one song from Open Your Eyes -- the title piece -- survived until the end of the ensuing tour.
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From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 17: Keys to Ascension 2 (1997).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"I had to make some decisions in my life, and I felt Yes had gone as far as it could go."
-- Rick Wakeman, from Chris Welch's Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes (1999)

Keys to Ascension 2
Purple Pyramid 1997
Rating: *** 1/2
Produced by Yes and Billy Sherwood
Cover and logos by Roger Dean
Engineer: Billy Sherwood

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Rick Wakeman: keyboards
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Studio tracks (standouts in bold):
Mind Drive
Foot Prints
Bring Me to the Power
Children of Light:
a. Children of Light
b. Lifeline

Sign Language

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Rick Wakeman in particular seemed enthusiastic about the first full album of new music from "classic" Yes in 19 years. But by the time Keys to Ascension 2 was released, it was Wakeman who would once again walk away from the band, disillusioned.

The dissent in the ranks began with the title and marketing of this project. Wakeman was keen on selling the new studio album on its own, under a new title to distinguish it from the first Keys project -- Know was the name being tossed around at one point. But that idea was scrapped in favor of another double album, Keys to Ascension 2, which would feature Roger Dean cover art that was very similar to that of the first Keys set (in fact, the actual CD covers, inside the outer cardboard slipcovers, are virtually identical), as well as a similar musical format: live cuts from the SLO shows combined with new studio material.

Having a whole CD worth of new music concealed in a package with a live disc of greatest hits material, which was similar in look and in title to the set released just one year earlier, certainly couldn't have helped the sales of Keys 2. And it's a shame, because the new music, though clearly retro-'70s in style, made for an enjoyable listen.

Even the new studio material starts out in a style that makes you wonder if you're listening to the first Keys disc again: As on "That, That Is," the 18-minute "Mind Drive" kicks off with atmospheric synthesizers and a delicate acoustic guitar meandering about for the first few minutes of the piece. But then "Mind Drive" establishes its own personality, as Chris Squire introduces a trebly one-note riff in 7/8 that has been compared both to "Mars, the Bringer of War" and Genesis' "Watcher of the Skies." Actually, the riff originated during the failed 1982 "XYZ" sessions, when Squire and Alan White teamed up with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page in an attempt to form a new band. White already had used this riff as the basis for his drum duet with Bill Bruford on the 1991 Union tour.

As White enters the proceedings on "Mind Drive," Squire drops an octave, Wakeman adds punctuation to the charging rhythm, and Steve Howe ruminates over the top of it all with a long electric solo -- and, notably, the first one in which Howe begins his current trend of sounding very lifeless and forced. It's as if every note from his guitar is something we've heard before, only we've heard it done better, and more fluidly and with more spontaneity, in the past. Howe's style was always brittle and a little sloppy, but beginning with Keys 2, one is left with the impression that his once notable skills were beginning to slip.

Still, the band charges along impressively, with a xylophone now joining the rhythm, and the tension builds until White's drums lead us at the 4:00 mark blazing into Jon Anderson's opening stanza, sung with a confident force against the still-driving 7/8 rhythm. The lyrics themselves? A more comfortable area between nonsense sound poetry and vague interpretation ability, thank you. Anderson once said the song has something to do with advancing technology (possibly artificial intelligence or virtual reality?), but as with all the finest Yes lyrical moments, the words become just another instrument in the band, with their lack of immediate meaning keeping them from distracting us away from the music lying beneath it.

After the 5:00 mark, the band powers down and begins alternating between two sections for just a little bit too long, given that neither one ever really develops but simply keeps falling back on the other for support. This potentially endless cycle -- a gentle acoustic section with pleasant follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics followed by a plodding electronic section, and then back to section 1 -- is eventually changed only by a modulation into a new acoustic-guitar lick that has a bit of a Spanish flavor mixed in with echoes of the song's opening section. A darker scene is set as Anderson returns with a distant, plaintive intensity to his voice. Afterwards, Squire joins Howe, and the two of them lead into a new, hurried pace, established by a syncopated 16th-note pattern on hi-hat. This new urgency set against the juxtaposition of a gentle, quiet, acoustic guitar gives way with a splash to a frenzied synthesizer break, backed by bass and drums, and then joined by a very unfortunate solo by Howe that sounds extremely sloppy and brittle, as the guitarist trips over a brisk fingerboard run, misses beats, and slurs notes. But again, the rest of the band saves the day, as a series of strong triplets hurl us back toward...

...the second of the alternating passages we had before the middle break, leading after a full stop into the first passage, which itself leads back into a softer version of the second passage, which Anderson closes out with the words "entering the mind drive." And with that, the initial 7/8 riff returns with all its intensity. Howe's labored chicken squawks are almost painful to listen to, but his soloing is put out of its misery soon enough with Anderson's return, singing the same lines as he did at the beginning of the song. When he drops out, the band launches into a three-minute instrumental coda.

Now this is where the fun begins. These last three minutes kick some serious butt -- Yes definitely saved the best for last. Even Howe sounds uncharacteristically powerful here, with a haunting, hard, wailing sound reminiscent of Mike Rutherford's work in late-'70s/early-'80s Genesis. White is brilliant, popping his snare drum, pounding a cymbal bell and smashing into his sizzle cymbal, as Squire alternates octaves with that insistent marching groove. Suddenly everybody launches into the main 7/8 riff in unison with him, playing it four times before Wakeman takes the reins with a wild pitch-bending solo. And then...oh my, and then, into a sustained series of in-your-face, fist-pounding, sucker-punching power chords that would have sounded right at home on any of the harder-rocking moments of the YesWest albums. Yeah! Rarely has "classic" Yes shown this kind of piledriving intensity -- there is absolutely nothing subtle about this musical moment, and it's simply wonderful to hear.

But then we stumble across a rather rough transition -- a singular chord hit four times in succession by Howe -- which propels the whole band into 4/4 overdrive, with Wakeman again taking the lead on a synth solo that sounds like something taken from Topographic Oceans (one of the enjoyable moments, that is). But...again, just as we're settling into the groove, the landscape changes yet another time. In this case, it sounds as though someone has pulled the power supply, and the sound melts away, oozing slower and lower as a gong splashes in the distance. And then, an eerie, echo-laden Wakeman line subtly grabs us and takes us back with it into the blackness as it fades away. Wow. If only the whole song had shown this kind of creativity and fire -- the last three minutes alone are enough to drain you!

Next up is an even brighter spot on the album -- mainly because it's more consistently entertaining all the way through: "Foot Prints." This one opens with an a cappella sction that recalls those on "I've Seen All Good People" and "Leave It," although the harmonies here are nowhere near as bright and impressive as they were during the YesWest years -- Howe's voice is simply no match for Trevor Rabin's, and anyone who's heard him try to sing lead can attest to that. Anyway, after the opening line is sung and repeated, Squire steals the show, establishing a happy, bouncy, airy mood that will prevail through the entire nine minutes, calling to mind the innocent spring-in-your-step joy of "Sweet Dreams," from 1970's Time and a Word. The opening vocal line is again restated against this musical backdrop, and then we head into the song proper, where Anderson sings clearly above the bouncing bass, crisp drums, and effective organ fills from Wakeman -- notably a descending line above which Anderson happily tells us, "Never let the grass grow over your soul/Only time will tell/Leave good footprints behind." Then Squire introduces another upbeat theme in 5/4 above which a surprisingly good vocal harmony (for this lineup, that is) sends us skipping into a couple of bright instrumental breaks -- first, a double-tracked steel guitar run by Howe (he still excels on steel and acoustic, without a doubt), then a tasty run by Wakeman, and then a Brian May-style double-tracked lead guitar line from Howe, before the harmony vocals re-enter, followed by (once again) the simple but awe-filled opening lines of the song: "My eyes see the coming revolution/My eyes see the glory of the world."

At this point we get to the only part of the song that's a bit overlong -- a series of start-stop rhythms that probably should have ended a few bars before it did. At any rate, we then get kicked back into the 5/4 section and some more notable solos from Wakeman on synth and Howe on steel guitar before the trio of singers breaks into a slow burst of emphatic triplets: "Don't-for-get-to-leave-good footprints behind!" The music stops briefly, and out of the quiet comes a soft acoustic guitar, joined by a delicate synth line, a harmonica, a mandolin, and White's merrily tumbling drums, and before we know it, Wakeman shuts everything down on an upbeat note. And that's it! Just like that, nine very enjoyable minutes go whizzing by your ears.

The rest is a mixed bag: "Bring Me to the Power" is the most straightforward pop tune on the album, opening after some Howe harmonics with a punchy power chord (nowhere near as breathtaking as the ones at the end of "Mind Drive," though). But, aside from a couple of great funky bass-driven grooves in mid-song (and some quick vocal lines that sound uncannily like Trevor Rabin, of all things), there's just not enough material here to hold up the piece for its 7 1/2 minutes -- the Topographic syndrome strikes again. Nobody needs to hear Anderson sing "cover me up and bring me to the power" as many times as he sings it here.

"Children of Light" is another of Anderson's goofy stabs at social relevance ("equal rights for equal people"), although the second half is a perfectly lovely array of moody, floating atmospherics in the spirit of vintage Yes. And the closing piece is a throwaway -- an instrumental titled "Sign Language" that starts as a call-and-response between Howe and Wakeman and sounds like a cross between modern-day Pink Floyd and the "Happy Holidays from Budweiser" commercial before things get really bad, with new-agey faux strings and harps. Howe doesn't get off the hook either, as he seems to reckon himself here as a cross between Wes Montgomery, Peter Banks, and Robert Fripp and doing them all very badly, with a cold, harsh stiffness to his playing that almost leaves you feeling sorry for the guy.

In summary, then, Keys 2 is a '70s-retro album and doesn't even try to conceal that it is -- but it's good retro, for what it's worth. Personally speaking, if I want '70s Yes, I'm more inclined to just go and pull out an actual '70s Yes album, but this will do when I want a change of pace.

As for the sales, well, it still didn't set the world on fire. If there had been a tour to back the new material, maybe both of the Keys albums would have done a little better than they did. But plans for a tour were put on hold after Wakeman left yet again. With his history of health problems, and several commitments to his solo work and his private record label, he wasn't especially keen on touring anyway, and that, combined with some shady management deals that ultimately left Wakeman out in the cold, culminated in a situation in which Yes and Wakeman simply couldn't work together any longer. The rest of the band seems to have exacted its revenge on him for leaving by wiping out his extended introduction to "Children of Light," a piece that Wakeman had raved about in at least one interview prior to the album's release. In 2001, that introduction -- a short and rather unspectacular synthesizer rumination that sets up the song's primary musical theme -- was restored to the song and released on Keystudio, a single-CD compilation of all the studio tracks from both Keys albums.

Now, with one of its key '70s members missing, promoting the return of "classic" Yes was going to be even tougher. But the band was eager to get on the road and re-establish a name for itself if that was still possible. The first order of business would be to find a replacement, and the second agenda item would be to put out an album of all-new fresh material on which to tour, at management's prodding. Yes has had a history of letting managers and record companies push them around and compromise their music, and the following album, sadly, would be no exception, as it was ultimately done for all the wrong reasons.
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From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 16: Keys to Ascension (1996).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"If what Yes is, is a progressive rock band, then starting an album and looking back to Close to the Edge, or even 90125, and saying, 'That was great. We should remember to put some of that into it,' I think then you've got to call it regressive rock as opposed to progressive rock, because you're going backwards."
-- Trevor Rabin, Yes Magazine (1994)

Keys to Ascension
CMC International 1996
Rating: ***
Produced by Yes
Engineered and co-produced by Tom Fletcher
Cover and logos by Roger Dean
Assistant engineers: Kevin Dickey, Zang Angelfire

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, bass, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Rick Wakeman: keyboards
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Studio tracks (standouts in bold):
Be the One:
a. The One
b. Humankind
c. Skates
That, That Is:
a. Togetherness
b. Crossfire
c. The Giving Things
d. That Is
e. All in All
f. How Did Heaven Begin
g. Agree to Agree

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It turns out that the Big Generator line "break high, let go" did carry some meaning after all, as Trevor Rabin quit while he was ahead and bowed out from Yes following Talk, his greatest artistic achievement with the band. Tony Kaye followed Rabin out the door, originally planning to work behind the scenes in Yes management but instead leaving the music business altogether.

That left Yes short two members, following an album and a tour that fell far short of sales expectations and a record company that went out of business. This band that once ruled the rock world in the 1970s suddenly saw itself being greatly humbled. Something drastic would be necessary to keep the band alive.

Something like resurrecting one of the "classic" '70s lineups: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Alan White, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe.

But how would the fans respond to yet another playing of the reunion card, following ABWH in 1989 and the Union tour of less than five years previous? To their credit, Yes managed to reach their remaining core audience and notify them, in part via the Internet, of a trio of reunion shows to be played in San Luis Obispo, California, in March 1996. This would allow Yes to test the waters for a full-scale reunion.

The band went for broke and wheeled out the epics: "Close to the Edge," "Awaken," "The Revealing Science of God." Of course there were the old warhorses like "Roundabout," "I've Seen All Good People," "And You and I," and "Siberian Khatru." And there were even a few surprises, like "Turn of the Century," "America," and a reworked version of "Onward." Although the SLO performances revealed a band that needed to shake off some rust, the fans welcomed the reunited Yes with open arms. The next order of business, then, would be to assemble a few new studio tracks to signal to the world that "classic" Yes was indeed back to stay.

Beginning a relationship with a series of small, DIY-style independent record labels, Yes presented its fans a two-CD set called Keys to Ascension. The first disc and nearly half of the second one showcased highlights from the SLO concerts, with some heavy studio overdubs to clean up the gaffes, according to some who heard the flubs at the original shows. But what's of greater interest here is what Yes chose to make as their statement of moving forward: outside, another Roger Dean landscape, and inside, two new tracks, one of which propels them directly back into the 1970s.

The offender in question is "That, That Is," an ambitious 19-minute epic that starts off promisingly enough but ends with the feeling that we've somehow been sold a bill of goods, for this isn't really a modern-day Yes epic but rather bits of shorter songs intentionally made to sound like '70s Yes and tied together and artificially stretched out, in the forgettable spirit of Topographic Oceans. Let's take a look at what we have here: First, some dreamy Wakeman synth lines lead into Howe ruminating on acoustic guitar, in the classical spirit of "Mood for a Day." Very nice so far. Wakeman then returns with a gentle, unobtrusive accompaniment, followed by some simple lines from Squire. But while this is all very pleasant, it's like the Energizer bunny -- it just keeps going and going and going, without any kind of substantial thematic development. Finally, at a little past the 3:00 mark, White enters to break the monotony with some soft, uptempo tapping on his snare drum, signaling a shift in the music to come. But it takes almost another 30 seconds before anything happens, and at that point we finally hear the new theme emerging, and it's well overdue, as Howe's beaten-to-death guitar line dissolves under a rhythmic chant from Anderson, which locks into a groove with White's insistent pattern, which itself has now grown from gentle taps into muted rimshots. And now this bit goes on interminably, until at 4:20, White moves from snare down through his tomtoms, signaling the overdue end of what amounts to an introduction of the introduction.

Now, finally, we're getting somewhere! Moving along briskly at about 120 bpm, Squire enters with a snakelike bassline built around a 16th-note pattern. Yes! The Squire of old is back, once again playing his bass like a lead guitar and no longer limiting himself to simply playing root chords under lead-guitar-dominated compositions. Indeed, the "democratic" Yes of the band's heyday, in which all the instruments share an equal voice, seems to be back in all its glory. Howe enters to double this line, but then things start to fall apart all over again, just when we thought they were improving.

First, Wakeman adds an incredibly cheesy-sounding synthesizer punctuation that sounds uncannily like someone tooting the horn on a Yugo. And then Anderson lets loose with his first verse. Hoo boy. Well, this is a "hip" Jon Anderson once again, and we all know how foolish our cosmic visionary sounds when he tries to tackle concrete issues. This time around, instead of harpooning whales, the subject is gang life, drugs, drive-by shootings, and crack babies. Yes, that's right -- against a (mostly) lovely backdrop of intense otherworldly "classic" Yes music, we get Anderson, probably unintentionally, in a completely contradictory role, taking a cosmic landscape and making it entirely late-20th-century earthbound, ignoring the reality that the best Yes music is timeless rather than timely, and that the best Yes songs are those in which the lyrics don't draw attention to themselves. We're introduced to two main characters, Julie and Shirley, the latter of whom, we're told, is "strung out on crack time." Huh? I've heard of Miller time, but what the heck is "crack time"?

Well, these embarrassingly "relevant" lyrics lumber on until the 7:00 mark, the only thing making them bearable being Squire's sinewy bass line and White's accompanying drumbeat. At that point, the bottom drops out and we revisit the interminable guitar theme from the introduction while Anderson sings some more hopelessly clumsy lines over the top. And we wait and wait, until, at 8:42, a new direction! Okay, so where are we going this time? We're in a slow-cooking, almost funky kind of mood, but Anderson is still trying to be relevant -- "that talk is just a worry and a worry in a man/That life is just is just a worrying and getting in a mess/That deal is just awakening..." Well, you get the idea. A musical theme tries to develop but never gets off the ground, and before we know it, we make a clumsy transition into another classical-sounding section led off by Wakeman's piano, where the lyrics are a little more bearable but the music once again tries to branch off and expand into new venues but seems to always get dragged back down to the original idea. In Topographic Oceans style, the boys seem to have thrown in every musical idea they could think of, regardless of whether the themes are properly developed, whether they go anywhere, whether they flow well from one to the other, or whether they're overdone.

After all this, we go back yet again to the introductory guitar, and this time we also revisit White's pounding rhythm and Anderson's chant, and then...that wonderful bass line again! OK, so maybe the coda will help redeem the rest of what came before it, right? Well, it again goes on just way too long, for no more than is being stated musically. Howe and Wakeman simply trade off a series of flat, uninspired licks, before Anderson returns for more talk about -- *sigh* -- gang lords, and we finally wrap up with an ending that's ripped right from the pages of Tormato.

Can anything save this contrived, disorganized mess of '70s redux? Well, yes. The other new track, "Be the One," is yet another testament to the power of the old KISS Principle that made "Shoot High Aim Low" and a few other unfettered Yes moments through the years so enjoyable. Quite simply, "Be the One" is one of the finest Yes moments post-Drama and certainly one of the band's brightest spots after the crowning YesWest glory of "Endless Dream."

"Be the One" opens in regal form, with Howe's chiming notes bringing to mind a host of trumpets proclaiming the entrance of a king into the court. An effective transition with Squire on piccolo bass (Howe doubled on conventional bass guitar for this piece) leads into a simple, focused, uncluttered arrangement, with plenty of breathing space and soaring vocal melodies and harmonies that find Anderson in more familiar territory, singing of the power of "the gift of love." "I'll be there to bring you this love in the morning/I'll be there to bring you the stars at night," Anderson sings delicately, and soon we build smoothly to the chorus, where the line "be the one" is interweaved with Anderson's simple but memorable statements of hope and determination: "Never let the fools destroy your dreams," he says, for "without love our dreams become illusion!" This is absolutely beautiful singing!

All that drags this song down is an unfortunate fast-paced middle section that sounds sorely out of place amidst the beauty of the rest of the piece -- the tone turns harsh and gritty, with Anderson suddenly adopting a forceful persona as he belts out lines about "all this senseless killing, and all these chains and lies," as well as something about "the children of the crucified" being "better off, better dead." Now, this wasn't necessary, just as the hard-rocking bridge in "I Am Waiting" wasn't necessary. It serves only to detract from the lovely romanticism and simple wonderment of the rest of the piece. Ah, but Anderson saves the song by closing it out with singing even more gorgeous than what he offered in the beginning: "Giving into real love/to rescue you, rescue you, rescue you!" he sings, with an emotional, heartfelt passion that rivals anything he's ever done with Yes. Howe wraps things up by returning with some more majestic guitar lines, ending with a high, dramatic trill that launches us flying weightlessly through the air, preparing us for the cooling-off period at the end, where Squire's piccolo bass returns to bring things full circle.

The wonderful thing about this piece is that it's one of the best examples of how fewer, simpler ideas are often more satisfying than a dozen half-baked ideas that have no direction and step on each others' toes -- much like "That, That Is." When I was new to the world of progressive rock, I thought the "best" musicians were the ones with the classical training, the greatest dexterity, and the ability to rip through a series of 64th notes in 27/32 time, but slowly I began to realize that in something as subjective as art (which includes music, of course), the only true barometer for who is the "best" is simply a recognition of which artists touch your heart most deeply. That could be the classically trained speed demon, or it could be someone with no formal training at all who has a limited knowledge of musical structures but who writes, sings, and plays from his heart. Prog-rock musicians, and many of their fans, are notorious for looking down their noses at "lesser" musicians and "simpler" songs, but if they'd listen openly to something like "Be the One," where the emotion not only complements the music but even supersedes it, they may discover a whole new realm of enjoyment. Don't misunderstand, though: A complex piece of music that takes multiple listenings to absorb and dissect and appreciate can indeed be an enjoyable experience ("Close to the Edge" and "The Gates of Delirium" being two shining examples), but so can the immediacy of emotional richness complemented by musical simplicity.

The next album, which saw this same lineup returning to the studio, would serve up a mixture of the simple and complex, with fairly satisfying results.
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