Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 13: Big Generator (1987).

Left to right: Big Generator cover artwork
for CD, LP, cassette, and CD longbox.
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.


Halfway through it, the record company was saying to the world, ‘This is going to be the next Dark Side of the Moon.’ There was a lot of pressure…"
-- Trevor Rabin, from Chris Welch’s Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes (1999)

"They just couldn’t agree. Jon would write one thing, Trevor would write another, Chris would write something else and they’d fight about it, and I was in the middle. … It was just warring factions trying to kill each other."
-- Trevor Horn, from Welch’s Close to the Edge (1999)

"I think there was more time spent in control rooms discussing if anyone had tried the new ‘XR-3000Z+7 Discombobulator’ than actually working on the music."
-- Chris Squire, Yes Magazine (1992)

Big Generator
Atco 1987
Rating: *** 1/2
Best song: "I’m Running"
Produced by Yes, Trevor Rabin, Paul DeVilliers, Trevor Horn
Cover by Garry Mouat/Assorted Images
Engineers: Paul DeVilliers, Alan Goldberg, Dave Meegan, Trevor Rabin, John Jacobs,
Paul Massey, David Glover.
Assistant engineers: Mike Drake, Stuart Breed, Brian Soucy, Lois Oki, Julie Last,
Jimmy Preziosi, Mike Kloster
String arrangement by Trevor Rabin
Horns by James Zavala, Lee Thornberg, Nick Lane, Greg Smith
Harmonica by James Zavala

Jon Anderson: vocals
Trevor Rabin: guitars, keyboards, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Tony Kaye: keyboards
Alan White: percussion

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Rhythm of Love
Big Generator
Shoot High Aim Low
Almost Like Love
Love Will Find a Way
Final Eyes
I'm Running

Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence)

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

For all it took to put this album together, and with all the high expectations following the success of "Owner of a Lonely Heart," it didn’t turn out half bad.

But, much like we heard on TormatoBig Generator is an aural document of a band lacking a unified vision. The difficulty in making this album is obvious not just from the time it took to record this album (Chris Squire and Alan White had laid down their parts to tape more than a year and a half before the album was finally released!) but also from a quick liner-note scan of the number of countries the album was recorded in (three, in seven studios) and how many producers (Yes, Trevor Rabin, Trevor Horn, Paul DeVilliers) and engineers/assistant engineers (14) were involved.

Why the problems? Much of it boiled down to the often conflicting expectations of the fans, the record company, and even the band members themselves -- it was very similar to the troubles the band faced in the late ’70s. With 90125, there was an implicit understanding that the music wouldn’t sound like traditional Yes music simply because 90125 was not intended to be a Yes album until Jon Anderson joined in the very late stages, when recording had almost been completed. This time, the band entered the studio not as "Cinema" but under the banner of Yes -- and all the history and baggage that name brought with it. Old-time fans would want something a little more Yes-like, while the record company and whatever flavor-of-the-day fans were left from "Owner" would want another catchy hit in 4/4 time with a memorable chorus and a killer guitar solo. (An idea to band the songs on side two into a single 20-minute suite, possibly a nod to the old-time fans, was quickly squelched by the record company execs.) And at the same time, Anderson was becoming clearly uncomfortable with the direction the rest of his bandmates wanted to take: namely, an extension of the 90125 straightforward pop formula that had brought them such success. Not to mention that there were now two leaders in this band, this legendary act that had always been led solely by Anderson’s vision. And those two leaders had two different ideas about where the music should go.

What resulted, of course, after all the inevitable squabbling, was a compromise. But, apart from the sparse, joyous strains of Anderson’s album-closing flower-power tune "Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence)," it was a compromise that Trevor Rabin, Tony Kaye, Squire, and White largely won. The opening track, after all, a rocker called "Rhythm of Love," was quite plainly a song about sex -- pedestrian rock ’n’ roll territory that the Yes of old never would have dreamed of exploring.

Still, the end result was a solid, mostly enjoyable album of art-rock-tempered AOR. Sure, the title track didn’t even try to disguise itself as anything but a hard-rocking clone of "Owner," but the album’s music as a whole still came out powerful, fresh, diverse, and invigorating, and the vocals soared higher and more majestically than ever before. After some airy, dreamlike synths open up "Rhythm of Love," for example, our trio of vocalists break into an irresistible round of Beach Boys-style oohing and aahing before White’s in-your-face drums propel us into the song, where the Beach Boy bit continues behind the lead vocals and, eventually, the music winds down midway through the piece to give Rabin, then Squire, and then Anderson each one lead vocal line, each overlapping the previous one, with all three then joining together to lead us into Rabin’s rip-roaring guitar solo. Similarly, "Big Generator" opens with some multi-layered scatting before the somewhat disappointing "Owner" redux riff kicks in. However, a raucously dissonant guitar solo, a jazzy vocal injection near the end, and a surprise moment in which the beat suddenly stops and revs back up from slow to lightning fast in a matter of seconds do add some welcome quirkiness to the title track.

The biggest vocal showcase here is on one of the album’s two best tracks, "I’m Running," which also gives us the most colorful musical display of this set. It opens with a delicious Latin-inspired bass line from Squire, followed by acoustic guitar and percussion that add to the lightweight salsa feel. Soon, though, this festive air gives way to a tense, foreboding mood established on a soft marimba and repeated on guitar. Anderson joins in with a tone that adds to the tension, and White’s simple snare-drum beats close out the verse by tapping in softly, then louder, until we come to the chorus -- a trio singing with an urgency understated by a musical accompaniment that’s sparse and atmospheric yet insistent because of White’s relentless backbeat and a dramatic backdrop of very deliberately extended notes that stretch the moody sound to its limits.

Anderson stated in an interview around the time of the album’s release that this song is about underground nuclear testing -- which actually does make sense if you listen closely enough to the lyrics, and for once Anderson doesn’t come off sounding heavy-handed or clumsily blunt, as was the embarrassing case with, say, "Don’t Kill the Whale." Part of the success of the lyrics here is due to their still being more cryptic than literal, since it’s when Anderson tries to be literal that he fails the greatest as a lyricist. But part of their success also has to be given to a musical backdrop that neither overshadows nor is diminished by the words; a rare healthy balance is achieved.

Even if the lyrics meant nothing, though, they’d still sound wonderful against this pallette of music. And, this being Yes, the song's somber mood can’t last, and indeed it is broken by, of all things, a quack from Rabin’s guitar! We upshift back into the Latin feel as Anderson sings of the hope he sees in the world’s youth to overcome the nuclear-war mindset that led us into this dark mood to begin with. This mood doesn’t sustain itself, though, and as reality sets back in, Squire’s bass sends us plummeting with a musical sigh, the likes of which haven’t been heard since "Machine Messiah," back into our mood of tension. But wait … Anderson’s eternal optimism does prevail after all, as Rabin whips his guitar into an absolutely frenzied whirlwind through the last pounding two minutes of the song, where we hear echo-laden harmonizing voices crisscrossing with other harmonizing voices in what is truly one of Yes’s most incredible vocal displays -- forceful, upbeat, rich, melodic, and packed with energy. There are at least three completely different lines being sung simultaneously at times, yet they all somehow make room for each other and never crowd the other; quite the opposite, they complement each other as each one builds off the one that preceded it. Everything culminates with Rabin swirling up the neck of his guitar like Eddie Van Halen as Anderson soars powerfully over the events with a cryptic yet hopeful line that only Anderson could make work -- "All in all we raaaaaace, as one, this tiiiiiiime!" It has to be heard to be believed. Magnificent.

The other standout piece is a testament to the famous old journalistic K.I.S.S. Principle -- "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Obviously, Yes has been the antithesis of the K.I.S.S. Principle for most of its career, but when they have employed it, it has generally worked amazingly well. Such was the case with "Shoot High Aim Low," which features one of the sparsest band arrangements Yes has ever done. There’s a lot of air and droning ambience surrounding the minimal notes and long-held chords; the drums have a simple but booming straightforwardness about them; and Rabin’s guitar is crystalline clear; the harmonies during the chorus have a hauntingly distant but clean and direct sound. It’s an amazing paradox of sorts -- a huge sound is created with (or perhaps in spite of) a very minimal orchestration. And the subject matter itself is a brilliant patchwork of two strikingly different songs being sung simultaneously -- one line by Anderson, apparently about the inhumanity of war and its progenitors; followed by one line from Rabin, about having a good time with a woman in a car! Somehow it all works, with the alternation continuing until everyone meets on the chorus.

There’s also something striking about the clear, clean simplicity of "Final Eyes." The harmony vocals take on the same distant, compressed feel that the shared lines in "Shoot High" do; White’s drums are again crisp and strong; Rabin’s guitar is bright and jangly; and even Kaye shines on some simple but effective organ lines. And Anderson caps off the festivities here with one of his most powerful solo lines in recent memory: "You saved me from falling, saved me from falling," he sings with the intensity of a person spared from the clutches of death itself; "I’m SO-IN-LOVE-WITH-yooooouuuuu!" And just as quickly, the emotional climax dissolves into a joyful, fluid acoustic guitar, which fades off slowly into the ether of the afterglow.

But for everything that’s as good or better about this album than 90125, there are things equally worse, with the banal saccharine power-country-pop of "Love Will Find a Way," and its faux-baroque string-section intro, being one of them. Stevie Nicks originally wanted to perform the song (and may have been able to do it justice, given that her hyper-sexy voice could make just about anything sound fantastic), but White persuaded Rabin to keep it for Yes, which was not the greatest idea he's ever had. Its notorious line "I eat at chez nous" is frequently the object of ridicule, and even by cryptic-Yes-lyric standards, it is goofy, apparently having been chosen as one of a few flimsy options when a good rhyme couldn't be found. Other sub-par moments on Big Generator include Anderson trying to rap about something regarding a "Shakespeare revolution" on "Almost Like Love," which is built around a single redundant riff and an ill-advised horn section; and the syrupy sweetness of "Holy Lamb." The latter is a shame, since "Holy Lamb" actually features some quite touching, heartfelt lyrics from Anderson. The words deserve a much stronger musical accompaniment.

Still, the good on Big Generator outweighs the bad, but in hindsight it becomes evident that this was a band without a clear idea of where it wanted to go, and something would soon have to give. Actually, when I first heard Big Generator, I thought it was a breakup album, based on some of the melancholy lyrics and the matching moods of the music. Anderson sings the line "this was to be our last ride" on "Shoot High Aim Low," which also includes a notable repeated line in the chorus: "Break high, let go." Now, that could mean nothing, in classic Yes fashion, or it could mean "quit while you’re ahead," which is how I interpreted it at the time. And the whole of "Holy Lamb" sounds something like a gentle, fond farewell, with Anderson telling us "don’t be afraid of letting go," followed by the closing verse, which seems to direct us toward a bright but uncertain future: "At the start of every day/A child begins to play/And all we need to know/Is that the future is a friend of yours and mine." One song, of course, is even called "Final Eyes"! Perhaps Anderson was envisioning his own departure from the band following this release, and consciously or not, he let that come through in the words he wrote.

In any event, Anderson did leave after the subsequent tour, beginning what would become one of the most peculiar periods in Yes’s turbulent history. What the remaining members of the "official" Yes did during this time is shrouded in a bit of murkiness. Rabin may have briefly left the band, and he most certainly did take time out to record a solo album and tour in support of it. Billy Sherwood related later on that he and his World Trade bandmate Bruce Gowdy spent some time working on music with Squire, Kaye, and White, and at some point Rabin became involved again, which probably pushed guitarist Gowdy back out of the picture. There were stories of a collaboration with ex-Supertramp singer Roger Hodgson, and Sherwood himself was rumored at one point to have been tapped as Yes’s new lead singer. What is known is that only three songs, all Squire/Sherwood compositions, initially emerged from the period between 1988 and 1991: "Say Goodbye," which Sherwood reworked for an album by his band World Trade; "Love Conquers All," which was released on the 1991 box set Yesyears; and "The More We Live -- Let Go," which was later re-recorded for the Union album. A few other songs were performed live by a Squire/Sherwood side project but remained largely unheard until they were recorded and released under the album title Conspiracy in 2000.

In the meantime, there was plenty of music originating from a new band put together by Anderson -- a band that called itself Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. The eponymous 1989 album by this group was essentially an Anderson solo project, but with 80 percent of the Fragile/Close to the Edge lineup intact, and with longer, more exploratory pieces dominating the album, and with a Roger Dean album cover, comparisons to Yes were inevitable. ABWH didn’t help matters by billing their subsequent tour "An Evening of Yes Music Plus." Not surprisingly, a lawsuit arose over the use of the name "Yes." The matter was eventually settled out of court, and when the dust settled, someone came up with the well-intentioned but ill-fated idea of merging the two "Yes" bands into one for an album and tour.
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