Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 10: Tormato (1978).

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.


"It was a sort of combination of ideas without really anybody driving the project."
-- Jon Anderson, from the Yesyears video (1991)

Atlantic 1978
Rating: ***
Best song: "On the Silent Wings of Freedom"
Produced by Yes
Cover by Hipgnosis; logo by Roger Dean
Engineers: Geoff Young and Nigel Luby,
assisted by Peter Woolliscroft and Pete Schwier
Orchestrations by Andrew Pryce Jackman
Voice on "Circus of Heaven": Damion Anderson

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

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Future Times/Rejoice
Don't Kill the Whale
Release, Release

Arriving UFO
Circus of Heaven
On the Silent Wings of Freedom

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

Well, Yes did it again. They went from making a classic recording to putting out a muddled, confused mess. First it was Close to the Edge to Tales from Topographic Oceans; this time it was Going for the One to Tormato. After those three consecutive albums whose groundbreaking brilliance defined Yes for the ages (The Yes AlbumFragile, and Close to the Edge), with each one being more of a masterpiece than the one before it, the band never seemed to be able to sustain that level of greatness again. From 1973 through the remainder of the decade, the music hits lots of peaks and valleys, with the uncontested nadir being Tales.

And Tormato does share at least one character trait with Tales: an astounding lack of focus. However, where Tales consisted of a paucity of ideas being bled to death, Tormato featured too manyideas being crammed into short song structures. With the album's longest song -- "On the Silent Wings of Freedom" -- not even cracking the eight-minute mark, the band was clearly editing itself into smaller packages, which would have been fine, except that in several places on the album, the band forgot to reduce the musical content along with the length, and as a result, songs that run for five or six minutes still have 20 minutes' worth of musical ideas shoehorned into them. In the eight songs that make up the album, there is very little breathing room, as Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman in particular seem to be in a contest for playing the most notes -- and even worse, they do this over each other's parts. And on top of that, a lot of Wakeman's synthesizer sounds on this album are nerve-wrackingly shrill and squeaky. I don't know how (or why) he achieved this effect, but I'm happy he didn't repeat it on his few future albums with Yes.

Chris Squire takes a bit of a stylistic turn on Tormato as well, with the addition of a "harmonized" sound (that's what the liner notes call it) that gives his Rickenbacker bass a sort of underwater wah-wah tone. I know the sound grates on some people's ears, but I like it as a one-time experiment. It's used with great effect on the opening to "Silent Wings," a song that clearly finds Yes imitating its own style but is an enjoyable, uptempo romp nonetheless. The intro, in fact, with its dominance by the bass and drums, is somewhat like a high-octane version of the bass feature from the intro to "Heart of the Sunrise," and it foreshadowed the aggressive punch Squire and Alan White would display on Drama.

But for now, there were unpleasant immediate circumstances facing the band and its way of operating. Punk rock, which in so many ways is the antithesis of Yes's brand of music, was in full swing by 1978. Although fans still strongly supported expansive-minded groups like Yes, the recording industry and music media were turning their backs on them. The Sex Pistols were the darling of the moment, and with their success among the public, coupled with their ability to sell lots of their product, bandwagon music-journal voices like Rolling Stone -- which was supportive of progressive music when it was trendy -- began to write off bands of Yes and Genesis' style as lumbering dinosaurs that were no longer relevant. Meanwhile, record labels were expecting their "progressive" artists to be just as commercially successful as the "new wave" of bands that focused on immediacy and conciseness in their music. That meant that bands like Yes would be expected to trim their ideas down into catchy soundbites and get themselves on the radio. Trevor Rabin's Yes of a few years later would be well suited for that task, and even this version of Yes proved it could get itself some airplay, but it was not the way the band ordinarily functioned in the '70s. The music was all that mattered, and if a song happened to make its way onto the radio, that was fine, but there was no concerted effort to write songs with the specific purpose of getting them on the air. That the band couldn't comfortably operate this way, with everything having to be written with an eye toward airplay and commercial success, is evident on Tormato.

Exacerbating the album's problems was that Jon Anderson, usually such a taskmaster in the studio that he had earned the nickname of "Napoleon" from his bandmates years earlier, stepped back from that dominant role during these writing/recording sessions to give the rest of the group a bit freer expression. Though a well-intentioned gesture, it left the project without a unifying vision. And without an outside producer to offer any help, the end result was a mishmash of unintegrated, disjointed styles and unfocused playing that, as already noted, saw competing instruments getting in each others' way rather than complementing each other.

Even so, there are some good moments on Tormato, including the aforementioned "Silent Wings." "Release, Release" is a powerhouse of a rocker, culminating in a rare Yes drum solo that eventually becomes accompanied by Howe on a rip-roaring arena-rock groove (complete with the sound of a large, cheering audience) that recalls the straight-on rock style he displayed on "All Good People" seven years previous. The vocal arrangements on this song, too, are among the best heard during the "classic" period of the band, with Howe and Squire, and, I think, White, briefly taking the lead in unison -- just as Howe and Squire did during the middle section of "Close to the Edge" -- before Anderson swoops back down over the scene. The limitation of Howe's voice can plainly be heard, but at least it blends well with Squire's (and White's?) in this case.

Probably as a result of trying to hold on to its traditional style of playing, there is a lot of looking backward on Tormato, both lyrically and musically. It's therefore somewhat ironic that part one of the opening song would be called "Future Times"! And therein, even the lyrics seem to tread over some old ground, established on Relayer: The mood is one of a celebrating, conquering army of crusaders, either inspired that it will persevere in "the course of evil" ahead, or perhaps celebrating a fresh victory -- these being Anderson's ambiguous lyrics, it's hard to tell. The music, though, introduces some new vocabulary to the Yes lexicon, as an opening unison duet by Howe and Wakeman resembles a majestic clarion call. Squire's harmonized bass follows, and the regal atmosphere is underscored by a marching beat from White, rat-a-tatting away on a military snare drum. A feeling of joy and festivity fills the air after Anderson joins the fray, his lines again interweaving with unison supporting parts from Squire and Howe. The mood continues to be one of confidence, or celebration, or possibly both, and as soon as Wakeman's thin-sounding synthesizer, somewhat resembling the tone of a military-band piccolo, sweeps us upward into momentary silence, Anderson leads us immediately into part two, "Rejoice," where he sings, "Rejoice forward out this feeling, ten true summers long/We go round and round and round and round until we pick it up again/Time flies, on and on it goes, through the setting sun/Carry round and round and round and round until it comes to carry you home."

These lines are notable in the history of Yes, both immediately and retroactively. In the context of the song, this appears to be the joyous resolution of whatever has transpired in "Future Times." As it relates to Yes history, the "ten true summers" is a recognition of Yes's 10th anniversary -- again, a feeling of nostalgia. And many years later, the persistent "round and round" lines that dominate both parts of the song would be revisited both on "Hold On," from 90125, and "Man in the Moon," from Open Your Eyes. In apparent contrast to the hopeful message of the rest of the song, these lines seem to suggest (to me, anyway) that the band realizes it's beginning to become stuck in a vicious circle -- one that sees the band members wanting to be true to their art while the record companies had different ideas in mind. (It works in the context of Open Your Eyes as well, which was very much a compromise album made for all the wrong reasons.) Perhaps that's not the intended meaning, but it seems to work in the bittersweet context of Tormato, where we are left with an aural document of a band that wants to move on, but on its own terms, and can't. Instead, its vision is being compromised.

The words to "Release, Release" seem to be aware of the problem as well. Consider this: "We've heard before, but we just don't seem to move/The pressure's on, is there lack of concentration?" Now that sounds like a band that's aware it's been asked to evolve in a way it didn't want to and that it stubbornly resisted for as long as it could, for when it was ultimately forced to move, the result, under pressure, became a terrible lack of focus. And then, in the same song, we seem to hear a more defiant message: "Lost and wondering maybe how it is/Seems to me it's as simple as this/No matter where you go, you're going to find/You won't see me in front, but you can't leave me behind." To me, this says, Okay, if you're forcing us to change from what we want to do, you're not going to see us leading the way on the music scene the way you're used to, but you're not going to kill us off, either.

The other notable moment on Tormato is Squire's beautiful love song "Onward." The musical landscape is very simple, relaxed, and uncluttered, with a sparse orchestral arrangement that does what the orchestra on Time and a Word was mostly unable to do -- augment the music rather than ruin it. A silky French horn takes the solo, gracefully gliding over the band's gentle backdrop, while Anderson and Squire sing together in a gorgeous harmony before and after the horn solo. And in comparison to Anderson's obscure lyrical concepts of cosmic love, here we have Squire writing simply and straightforwardly in what amounts to an ode to a lover. There is beauty and grace in this simplicity, a surprising change of pace for Yes: "Contained in everything I do, there's a love, I feel for you/Proclaimed in everything I write, you're the light, burning brightly/Onward through the night/Onward through the night/Onward through the night of my life." The band revisited this song for its 1996 California reunion shows and reworked the arrangement into something equally as sublime as the original -- it has gone down very favorably with the fans. After hearing this song, you'll see it's little wonder why many Yes fans have chosen to play it at their weddings.

Ah, but for now, back to the rest of the album, if we must. Bearable are "Madrigal," for its harpsichord work and some beautiful singing, and "Arriving UFO," despite the occasional aural clutter, the ridiculous spaceship noises, and the goofy lyrics (well, what would you expect?) that sort of pick up where Styx left off with "Come Sail Away" and go a little bit too far. But then things get really bad: "Don't Kill the Whale" is one of Anderson's very ill-advised forays into social awareness, with a hopelessly dopey musical backdrop, led by the aforementioned Wakeman keyboard squeals. (Maybe he was trying to imitate whalespeak?) And "Circus of Heaven" is every bit as hokey as you'd expect it to be from the title alone, except that it's even worse than that, with Anderson's syrupy sentimentality and faux-childlike wonderment at the parade of mythical animals and historical scenes and gods and monsters and what-not being made all the worse by a band accompaniment that's supposed to sound something like a mystical calliope but instead sounds more like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" with about half the energy and none of the self-aware humor. Oh, and Anderson's young son Damion wraps things up with another bit of overly precious twee, as he laments over the festivities: "No clowns." Gah! Yes critics are more than justified in their sniping when it comes to this turkey.

Otherwise notable is that Eddie Offord still hadn't returned to the producer's desk (he wasn't missed so much on Going for the One but could have been of at least some help in sorting out this mess) and the mix is dreadfully thin and unbalanced. And as for the album cover this time out, Roger Dean still hadn't returned. Hipgnosis, the maker of the odd Going for the One cover, created this one too, featuring a blue-screened photo of a man's torso, clothed in a suit, his hands holding a set of divining rods. What relation this holds to the music, I haven't a clue. But now, to understand this next part, you have to know that the original title of this album was to be simply Tor, in recognition of a rock formation in England called Yes Tor, where, according to the liner notes, "on a clear day, from the top, you can see far away places with strange sounding names." (Hey, c'mon, would I make something like that up?) Well, the cover photographer reportedly thought something was missing from his landscape and decided to pelt his photo with a tomato, and then take a picture of that. Combine that with the original title of this album and you get -- that's right -- Tormato. Why the band approved of this is a mystery to me, unless they thought of it as being an ironic twist or a pre-emptive strike aimed at those who they knew would criticize the album. Instead, it simply served as an unfortunate commentary on the music contained therein and was much too symbolic of the critical flogging bands like Yes were enduring by 1978, in the wake of the punk revolution. In other words, the splattered tomato unwittingly did the critics' work for them.

It wasn't by accident that the band members appear on the back cover looking off in different directions through dark glasses. Tormato, after all, suggested a band that lacked focus and didn't know which way to go next. in light of increasing record-company pressures, a changing musical climate, and critical backlash. Amidst this melee, Yes grew weary and found itself on the verge of burning out. The magic of Going for the One could not be sustained.

The group would try to carry on, but it was inevitable that something would have to change. And when it did, it shocked everybody.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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