Wednesday, August 29, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 5: Fragile (1972).

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.


"So I went along to this rehearsal the following morning. And it was at that actual rehearsal that the basis of 'Heart of the Sunrise' and 'Roundabout' were put together. ... I said (to Steve) 'Shall I pick you up in the morning for rehearsal?' and he said 'Yeah, OK, fine.' So nothing was really ever said. That was it."
-- Rick Wakeman, from the Yesyears video (1991)

Atlantic 1972
Rating: ****1/2
Best song: "Heart of the Sunrise"
Produced by Yes and Eddie Offord
Cover by Roger Dean
Engineer: Eddie Offord, assisted by Gary Martin

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Rick Wakeman: keyboards
Bill Bruford: percussion

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Cans and Brahms
We Have Heaven
South Side of the Sky
Five Percent for Nothing
Long Distance Runaround
The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)
Mood for a Day
Heart of the Sunrise

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There are lots of firsts happening on this album.

It's the first album on which Yes finally establishes itself as a true musical democracy, with five musicians of equal strength contributing an equal amount of ideas to the finished product.

That also means it's the first album with Rick Wakeman, whose flashy showmanship was rivaled only by that of Keith Emerson and whose versatility on a multitude of keyboard instruments paralleled Steve Howe's diversity on his array of guitars.

It gave Yes its first big international exposure, thanks to "Roundabout," which has to be one of the most played songs in the history of FM radio.

It was the first album to be wrapped in a cover by Roger Dean, who would provide Yes with an instantly recognizable image and give listeners something to focus on in the days before MTV.

And it struck the perfect balance between commercial accessibility and artistic purity. This kind of open-ended musical expression wouldn't be allowed on a major-label release today, but in 1972, progressive rock was at the height of its popularity, and this album not only fit perfectly into that genre but also was full of enough catchy riffs, rhythms, solos, and hooks that it remained palatable for a large audience.

In short: "Classic" Yes arrives in all its glory.

Let's jump right into things. "Roundabout" is the familiar and timeless opening opening piece for which Yes is wo well-known even among casual fans. Immediately, we find that the band has finally figured it out -- this is the kind of diverse, rich sound the band had been shooting for with "Perpetual Change" and really had been seeking ever since the beginning. It is the perfection of the long-form composition. There's tension and release, there are rich instrumentations created by all the members, there's an easy flow from one section to the next, there's a great logic to the structure, there's light and shade, there is a wide variety of moods. And there are luscious vocal harmonies as well as virtuoso musical showmanship -- the closest Yes that has ever come, even to this day, to a synthesis of their two founding aims in a single piece of music. They came close with "Yours Is No Disgrace," but this time they reached the pinnacle.

After two decades, the opening backwards piano chord still holds all its surging intensity and anticipation as a brilliant buildup, Howe's famous acoustic-guitar theme sounds as fresh as ever, the harmonies are still sublime, the varying sections still flow seamlessly together, and Wakeman's burbling arpeggio under the return of the opening guitar theme is still a moment of haunting beauty. And then there's that killer Hammond organ solo -- you know the one. The one that's played with such blazingly ferocious, joyful abandon, accompanied by Bill Bruford perfecting that rim-shot snare sound -- pong!...pong! -- to cut through Chris Squire's powerful bass. And as for Squire, well, that galloping bass line that pins down the composition so forcefully and with such impressive flair is one of the greatest moments in rock 'n' roll bass playing. Nope, even radio-play overkill hasn't lessened the effect of this beautiful, colorful masterwork...and that in itself is the sign of a very well-crafted piece of music.

Now with that out of the way, let's examine two things about this wonderful album that casual fans may not immediately notice: First, this is one of the greatest bass guitar albums ever. (Forgive me for going off on a tangent here, but Squire is my favorite Yes man by a long shot, and this album is one of the biggest reasons why.) Having a full stable of supremely talented musicians in place must have inspired Squire, because "Roundabout" is just the opening shot. "South Side of the Sky" finds Squire interlocked in a slow, grimy rhythm with Howe; the instrumental breaks in "Long Distance Runaround" find him running up the neck in a flurry of eighth notes over and over, never taking a break; "Five Percent for Nothing" is a genius job of syncopation all the way around by every member. The long intro to "Heart of the Sunrise" is a Squire showcase, with him first taking part in the syncopated sixteenth-note rumble that opens things up and then moving in to center stage, improvising on a line that alternates between snaking up and then slithering back down until the band slowly creeps back up around him, before Bruford kicks everyone back into the opening riff. And then, of course, there is "The Fish," which is simply awe-inspiring. It's no clearer anywhere else than here that Squire's signature style stems from his bringing a lead-guitar approach to his bass -- this piece sounds as deep and rich as if every member had been playing on it, but in fact it's just Squire and Bruford. Everything that's not a percussion instrument is Squire wailing away on a riff, a backing rhythm, a flourish, a solo, a melody, a harmony. Before it's all done, there are at least six Squires jamming away in 7/4 in what to this day has been the most entertaining of the band's live solo pieces. His 10-minute jam on Yessongs is especially remarkable and worth the price of that three-album set alone. (By the way, has anybody ever been able to figure out why classic-rock radio always plays "Heartbreaker" and "Living Loving Maid" straight through as if they were one song, and ditto for "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions," yet they always fade out "The Fish" when it's actually connected to the end of "Long Distance Runaround"?)

The other thing about this album that may be overlooked is that, for the cranks who think Yes is all sunshine and lollipops, Fragile is musically and lyrically the most consistently dark album they've ever done. Now, all things being relative, this is Yes, so don't expect to hear what you might hear from some gloom-and-doom heavy metal group. But "Roundabout" has its tense middle section, where Bruford's wild, erratic percussion drives the band through the storm at sea. "Heart of the Sunrise" seems to be lyrically about a soul lost and searching for fulfillment, ending with Jon Anderson's plaintive line "I feel lost in the city." "Long Distance Runaround," though extremely abstract, seems to be telling us of a relationship gone bad -- "I still remember the time you said goodbye/Did we really tell lies?..." along with its references to the "cold summer" and the "hot color melting the anger to stone." When Yes did an acoustic version of "Long Distance Runaround" on their 1975 tour, in fact, the mood is much more somber, whereas on the album, the tenor of the lyrics can get lost under the rather playful musical arrangement. And then there's "South Side of the Sky," which seems to be about, well, freezing to death.

Wakeman's effect on the band's sound was immediately immense. From The Yes Album, where a competent Tony Kaye did a fine job adding mostly piano and organ colors in the background, we take a quantum leap on the way to this album, where Wakeman steps to the forefront, not just with dextrous, classically tinged piano runs and showy Hammond work, but also with a heavy dose of Moog and Mellotron added to the mix -- just what the band had been wanting...and lacking. Fortunately, Wakeman was no traditionalist -- he loved to play with the newest toys available to keyboardists in those early days of big, clumsy analog synthesizers. His immense stage setups, in fact, gave birth to the idea of stacking keyboards on top of one another; for him, it was simply out of necessity, but nowadays many bands' keyboardists are seen either stacking their instruments up or having them arranged on racks at one corner of the stage.

Yes was now an embarrassment of riches -- a true musician's band, where every passage of music would be refined and perfected, every idea integrated into an expansive whole, and virtually every note discussed and analyzed, sometimes to the point of fisticuffs in the studio! That may seem over-the-top, but just listen to the results -- all the experimentation, stretching out, and bickering fused to create timeless classics. Aside from "Roundabout," we can hear it come through in the album's other three band compositions as well.

First, there's "South Side of the Sky," a sort of lost Yes classic that fans frequently clamor for but has rarely been played live. After that forcefully plodding Howe/Squire riff (which, incidentally, was from yet another piece originating in Howe's pre-Yes band Bodast) carries on for quite some time, Wakeman takes over on solo piano and drastically changes the mood. As a barrage of notes work their way slowly up the keyboard and come tumbling back down in a free-tempo crash of dissonance, there comes a brief reminder of the one flash of brilliance Pink Floyd's Rick Wright has had during his career, with the classical etude that opens up his solo piece "Sysyphus" and ever-so-slowly degenerates into a muddle of angry noise. But Wakeman doesn't stop there -- out of the swirling winds comes a delicate, tinkling piano line that builds up to a surprisingly gentle full-band section, in marked contrast to the feel of the rest of the song. Bruford's drums and cymbals click and pop at random along with the bass and piano, barely holding to the beat, while above soars a gorgeous passage of wordless harmonizing. From the best I can tell, there are at least four, and perhaps five, voices emanating from the song; clearly discernable are Squire, with the repeating, high-pitched "laaa, laaa, la" opening up each phrase, and Howe's homely voice in the left channel holding down the lower end. In the background seems to be Anderson's voice, double-tracked on two lines, and perhaps another Squire voice as well. In any event, this passage flies by all too quickly, and when it fades away, the howling winds return, followed by a pulsating, mechanized growl rising to throw us back into the main riff of the song. Another verse, and we fade off into the cold, forbidding void.

Moving onto side two, we find the other hit song from Fragile, although a very minor hit compared to the success of "Roundabout." "Long Distance Runaround," the last short-form band piece until 1977, seems a contradiction of sorts, with its rather melancholy lyrics being laid out against a bouncy musical backdrop that hints of lighthearted whimsy. Howe, in the left channel, and Wakeman, in the right, kick things off with an interlocking theme on electric guitar and electric piano, and soon joining over both channels are Squire, with his aforementioned eighth-note pattern, and Bruford, with some delightfully off-the-wall syncopation. There really isn't a lot of thematic development on this piece, but then there really can't be in only three and a half minutes.

Still, the band makes full use of the limited time frame, for when Anderson enters, we go into a completely new musical setting -- one that is remarkably sparse but still says quite a bit. In one channel we have Wakeman playing staccato notes on piano, and in the other we hear Howe and Squire poking in and out with a short unison riff. But the real genius here is the drumbeat. Never one to settle for a traditional beat when faced with a 4/4 signature, Bruford turns this into a piece of mathematical precision. A casual listen may suggest that Bruford is just hitting his snare at random intervals, but no, there is a great logic to it. What you have to do is count along with the beats of every measure, beginning with "1" in the first measure. After that, he hits the next measure on 2, then the next on 3, and the next on 4, and then an entire bar passes without a hit until the next one comes in -- back on 1 again. When the music shifts into the refrain, he reverses the count: The last measure of the first pattern ends on a 4, so in the next, he repeats on 4, then on 3, then on 2, and then on 1. Three beats of silence, and then a smash on 1 again, as the opening pattern begins anew. Marvelous! He would employ the same trick a few years later on a woodblock on King Crimson's "Starless," with the same illusion that there's a totally random, or tricky, beat being played when in fact it's quite simple -- just very disarming!

The album closes with what could be considered Yes's first full-blown epic: the 10 1/2-minute extravaganza "Heart of the Sunrise." From those opening alternations of upswinging guitar/bass riff and hyper-speed Hammond organ blasts, through Squire's moody bass solo, and then back to several restatements of the opening rumbling riff, complete with lots of tension-building starts and stops, we've gone through an exhausting assault on our senses before the singing even begins more than three minutes in. Incidentally, what Bruford does during Squire's solo is absolutely magical. He took what would otherwise have become a static repetition of one bass line and made it burst with life by adding perfectly placed random syncopated bits of clicks and pops and rolls and punches in the spaces in between. And, as always, he never lost sight of the core beat. And he knows just when to switch from hi-hat to ride cymbal as Wakeman's droning Mellotron begins to push the intensity level up just a bit before Howe creeps back in with the opening riff. Through it all, Bruford here proves his genius once again. What he does works so well because, unlike so many drummers who just sit at the back of the stage and thoughtlessly pound their drums to smithereens, Bruford listens, like an actual musician with a finely trained ear, to what's going on around him, and then he adjusts his playing accordingly to add to the texture as well as become an integral part of it. As hard as he has tried, Alan White has never come close to recapturing the simple brilliance Bruford displays on the opening of this piece. Bruford, after all, is a colorist; White is a mere drummer.

Anderson's opening section is spacious and lulling, and as it closes out, a solo organ line takes us into one of the band's most masterful uses of counterpoint. It's so simple and well-integrated that you may not even notice it on a casual listen, but briefly we hear three distinctly different melodies and rhythmic ideas sharing the same space -- one by Howe, one by Wakeman, and one by Squire and Bruford! Another start-stop moment leads into another brooding Mellotron line, and then we slip back into the second of Anderson's stanzas, with the backdrop picking up a little more energy this time through.

This is a very rare Yes song in that Anderson sings it all alone, without any harmonizing whatsoever -- except for a very brief moment when his own voice is double-tracked. On his own, and in this expansive setting, his voice sounds somewhat frail and frightened -- which helps convey the sense of yearning and isolation the lyrics seem to impart. But now, after a crescendo on Bruford's drums, we'll hear Anderson rising to full force as he wails, in a wanting tone, "Sharp! Distance! How can the wind with its arms all around me?/Sharp! Distance! How can the wind with so many around me?/I feel lost in the city." We can almost feel the coldness that his character here feels, through his dramatic delivery.

After this we go back to the triple counterpoint, then to a brief vocal bridge revisiting an earlier theme, and then into a very fussy, intricate, carefully constructed instrumental section. We hear an alternation of a syncopated 5/4 and a familiar 6/4 -- first, a unison band riff led by Wakeman on organ and Moog, and then into the menacing introductory riff. This bandies back and forth until a new bass/organ counterpoint yanks us in a new direction, with Howe gently soloing over the top in muted tones. This serves as another perfect bridge into yet another new theme -- actually, a twist on the opening riff, here restated by Wakeman on piano in an elegant manner. Anderson intermingles with repeating Wakeman piano solos, full-band restatements of the main riff, and a few more start-stop sections, until that familiar Mellotron tone leads us into Anderson's final verse, a desperate cry restating the opening lines. Once more on the Mellotron, then three times through the main riff, and the song just ends, that abruptly, leaving us in suspense over what happens next to our longing narrator. Well, we never do find out, but we do get thrown a humorous little surprise, as the door that gets slammed shut at the end of "We Have Heaven" reopens, and we find Anderson still working away at his vocal collage, right where we had left him. This little bit of whimsy breaks the solemn mood and, as we'd expect from Yes, ends things on an upbeat note.

"We Have Heaven" was supposedly the inspiration for the idea to have each band member take a solo spot on Fragile, an idea that creates an odd dichotomy and thus makes the listener think the title of this album is quite appropriate. Actually, the title of Fragile is said to have come from then-manager Brian Lane, who happened to see "Yes -- Fragile" printed on some of the band's stage equipment in a photo when asked what the title of the next album would be. For such an off-the-cuff origin, the title was definitely appropriate, because of the drastic contrast between the rich, complex band pieces on the album and the much shorter, more direct solo pieces scattered across the vinyl. And after Anderson had come up with the whim to begin layering a bunch of his own vocal lines on top of one another, he thought it would be a good idea for everyone to come up with their own individual solo pieces to match.

The result of Anderson's personal inspiration was his simple but charming folksy acoustic piece "We Have Heaven," in a mood that foreshadowed the style that would dominate his first solo album, Olias of Sunhillow, a few years later. The bouncy, lilting accompaniment is, actually, rather McCartneyesque. For about 90 seconds we hear Anderson rhythmically harmonizing with lots of other Andersons on an ever-increasing number of vocal lines, starting with just one and continuing to mount: "Tell the moon dog, tell the march hare," "We have heaven," "Look around," "He's here," and "Here is here." The result could easily become cacophony, but instead it sounds almost angelic, and just when it could have become a little bit too much, the previously mentioned door slams on the song -- literally. The footsteps leading away from the door take us directly into an approaching storm of rumbling thunder and high wind, setting the stage for the dark shroud of "South Side of the Sky."

Emerging out of the other side of that eight-minute opus comes Bruford's shot, "Five Percent for Nothing." Not listening closely, one may write it off as a throwaway piece that didn't have much effort put into it. But examining it more closely, one sees that perhaps the most amazing thing about this little 35-second piece is that it's in plain old 4/4 time -- amazing because it's so heavily syncopated you'd swear it would have to be in the most incomprehensible time signature imaginable. That's the genius of Bruford at work once more. And yes, it's neurotic and choppy, and there's no discernible melody, but that's the point -- this may be his solo spot, but instead of just doodling through a solo on his drum set in Ginger Baker or John Bonham fashion, he turns the entire band into his drum set. The short note values being played by the bass, guitar, and organ are a representation of a pair of drumsticks wildly bashing around from one drum to the next; every sound can and should be imagined as a drum being hit! Who else would have thought of doing something like this? Bruford was always known for his clever, smart-alecky personality, and it shines through bright and clear here. The title, by the way, is a reference to Yes's original manager, to whom they had to agree to pay five percent of future royalties after they cut their ties with him. The working title for Bruford's piece was "Suddenly It's Wednesday," which has its own nonsensical but smart-alecky quality to it.

Squire's showcase "The Fish" we've already covered, to which I can only add that, for those who don't know, the title is a reference to Squire's nickname, which comes from the fact that Squire (1) was legendary for taking incredibly long baths and (2) is a Pisces. (A fellow Pisces, that is, with his birthday falling only two days before my own! Instead, I got to share my day with David Gilmour, which I guess isn't all bad.) The subtitle, which constitutes the only sung lines in the song, isn't gibberish -- it's the scientific name for an actual species of fish.

That leaves Howe's stately, part medieval, part Spanish-flavored classical-guitar piece "Mood for a Day," which is pleasant but not spectacular; and finally, there's Wakeman's contribution, "Cans and Brahms." This piece drags the rating of Fragile down a bit, because...well, because it's just so pompous and silly and pointless and painfully out of place on this album. It's simply Wakeman playing a multitude of keyboard instruments on a reading of a section of Brahms' 4th Symphony. Now, it's hard to fault Wakeman for this showing up on the album -- you see, because A&M; Records owned Wakeman's recording rights, he wasn't able to contribute an original piece of music to an Atlantic album, so this showed up instead of the original piece he had intended to contribute. That one was called "Handle with Care," and it would be heard later under the title "Catherine of Aragon" on his solo debut The Six Wives of Henry VIII -- an A&M; album. Even Wakeman hasn't had flattering things to say about "Cans and Brahms," but at least it was mercifully short, and it proves how corporate and legal idiocy can get in the way of good music, which is something that would come to haunt Yes often throughout its career.

Of course, Wakeman's always appearing in Yes "courtesy of A&M; Records" spoke to the fact that Wakeman always viewed himself as somewhat of a free agent who would be happy to loan his prodigious talents to Yes but would never give up his outside solo and session work completely. And he knew he could afford to do it, because he was a big name in the music community at the time and gave Yes its first superstar member; he was in the advantageous position of Yes needing him more than he needed Yes. This also goes a long way toward explaining why Wakeman has come and gone in Yes so many times -- his allegiance to the band just wasn't that strong and didn't need to be; he was quite happy to always play by his own rules.

For the time being, though, Wakeman wasn't going anywhere. He would enjoy this rise to stardom along with the rest of Yes, and he would help push the music even further than it had been pushed on Fragile. In fact, the band was about to send the barriers of rock music crashing down.
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