Wednesday, August 29, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 8: Relayer (1974).

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.


"Relayer was the first time I walked in with a complete piece of music in my head, which was "The Gates of Delirium." I pounded away on the piano in front of the guys this whole idea, and they must have thought I was a complete idiot. ... 'There's a war going on here!'"
-- Jon Anderson, from the Yesyears video (1991)

"We introduced each other ... and then they played what was to become 'Sound Chaser.' ... I was totally overwhelmed, because they played so fast and so well. ... I had to have a lot of guts to sit at the keyboards and try to play along."
-- Patrick Moraz, 1991, as documented in Tim Morse's
Yesstories: Yes in Their Own Words (1996)

"I think he's the best keyboard player who ever played with Yes, to be honest with you. Very smart playing, not just flying arpeggios up and down trying to impress people. Very smart player, very fun to watch from what people are saying, and just did a great job on Relayer."
-- Igor Khoroshev, on Patrick Moraz, Notes from the Edge (1999)

Atlantic 1974
Rating: *****
Best song: "The Gates of Delirium"
Produced by Yes and Eddie Offord
Cover and logo by Roger Dean
Engineer: Eddie Offord
Tapes by Genaro Rippo

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Patrick Moraz: keyboards
Alan White: percussion

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
The Gates of Delirium
Sound Chaser

To Be Over

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I'll be the first to admit that Relayer is a highly acquired taste, possibly even more so than Tales from Topographic Oceans. No, this isn't an album that warmly welcomes you in and invites you to take a look around -- even the menacing snake on the back cover seems to be threatening the listener with a sense of treading forward with care. But if you allow yourself to be drawn into this unique Yes universe that has never quite been seen again, before or since, you may find lurking in these deep, layered grooves a luscious, satisfying musical experience that is capable of touching your every emotion and maybe even changing your world. It's not an album for those with short attention spans or the utmost patience, but if you give it a try, you may find yourself warmly rewarded for the effort. I consider it Yes's last true masterpiece.

It's also their most musically harsh, abrasive, dense, and complex. Tales pretended to be complex, but this is the real deal. And there's a surprisingly dark mood hanging over most of the album as well, the likes of which we hadn't heard since Fragile and wouldn't hear again until the opening strains of Drama in 1980. This heavier mood can be seen in the cover's drab browns and grays, which contrast with the bright hues seen on the band's previous three Roger Dean covers. We also see on the cover a small band of warriors riding their horses through a valley between two towering mountains. To their right appears to be a series of ominous-looking Easter Island-like statues carved into the hillside peering grimly down on them. Now, Dean has said he never listened to the music before he started painting his covers, but this scene is shockingly appropriate for the big suite on Relayer, "The Gates of Delirium," which conveys a story of olden-day warriors riding off to battle. And when Jon Anderson sings "Our gods awake in thunderous roars," it's easy to envision those statues coming to life and moaning and wailing as the battle begins.

"Gates" was a surprisingly pleasant turn for Yes, after the wandering, aimless mess of Topographic Oceans. It's yet another sidelong piece, and in fact at just under 22 minutes it's Yes's longest studio creation ever. But unlike in the bloated "movements" of Tales, not a single second is wasted or could be cut this time around. It's an epic story-song brought to the table by Anderson, who apparently was inspired to create the masterwork after reading Tolstoy's War and Peace. And thank goodness the band gave Anderson's idea a chance, for as they always would, the rest of the band would take Anderson's basic ideas and flesh them out into a full expression of what he was attempting to convey through his limited musical knowledge. In other words, Anderson had the basic vision, and the rest of the band articulated and perfected it.

After Rick Wakeman left the band following the Tales tour, Yes continued on for a while as a quartet, putting the rough ideas for Relayer together before beginning to audition for a new keyboardist. The first person to almost win the job was Vangelis, the Greek composer of Chariots of Fire fame. He and Anderson would strike up a friendship and would collaborate several years down the road on projects outside Yes, but as a member of Yes, it was ultimately decided that he wasn't quite right. Steve Howe in particular didn't seem to take well to him, as some stories go.

The final choice turned out to be a Swiss keyboardist named Patrick Moraz, who has sort of made a career out of replacing progressive-rock keyboard giants. His claim to fame before coming to Yes was as a replacement of sorts for Keith Emerson, in a band called Refugee that also included Lee Jackson and Brian Davison from Emerson's pre-ELP band (and progressive rock pioneer) the Nice. In Yes, of course, he would be filling Wakeman's shoes, and after his stint with Yes was over, he would join the Moody Blues as Mike Pinder's replacement! That all these bands felt him able to take over from where their keyboard gods had left off was a testament to his abilities, and upon hearing Relayer, it's easy to see why he was so admired. He, like Wakeman, had a massive collection of keyboards in his setup and loved to play with the emerging technologies of the 1970s, but in sharp contrast to Wakeman's classically based approach of relying heavily on arpeggios and chromatic runs, Moraz brought a grittier, more avant-garde sound to his playing that had elements of classical but leaned heavily toward an aggressive fusion style. He could, and did, play with the virtuosic delicacy and nimbleness of Wakeman, but he took the harder edge of Wakeman's sound and moved it into places that Wakeman never dreamed of going. Imagine a cross between Emerson and Jan Hammer, and you're beginning to get the idea.

Moraz's harsh attack was just what Yes needed to convey the urgent mood of their new sidelong epic. And not only would he come through beautifully for the band here, but as soon as he joined the fold, he began to offer his creative juices in the form of writing the blinding introduction to "Sound Chaser," the first of two songs on side 2.

That's right -- in Close to the Edge style, Yes gives us another three-song album, with a sidelong piece on side 1 and two shorter (relatively speaking) songs on side 2. And just as on Close to the Edge, every piece is immensely strong -- there's not a single moment that disappoints.

Let's begin by looking at side 1, "The Gates of Delirium." I challenge anybody who claims Yes's music is cold and emotionless to listen to this song and not be moved in some way. In its 22 minutes, it captures such a wide range of emotions that it will leave you drained by the time it's all over. Even after all the dozens and dozens of times I've listened to it, I never am able to walk away from its closing notes without feeling chills and, sometimes, being brought to the verge of tears. It is that powerful.

You'd never guess it from the unassuming introduction, where we're immediately introduced to Moraz, leading a soft band arrangement with a merrily burbling array of white noise on his synthesizer, augmented by complementary cymbal work by Alan White. Chris Squire then adds a counterpoint line, and Anderson another, via a stretch of wordless vocals. A start-stop riff enters, giving us the first of our many themes that will return many times throughout the song. Meanwhile, a series of electric guitar statements appear, each growing more and more intense, teasing us with a taste of what's to come, until we finally reach the end of this extended intro, where the sparkling synth and cymbals make their re-entry to carry us gently into the first verse.

"Stand and fight we do consider," Anderson begins, giving birth to a long stretch where our narrator seems to vacillate between not really wanting to fight, then seeing that fighting is valiant as a way to "destroy oppression," then seeing it as the only recourse, then justifying that decision, and finally launching into battle with total abandon.

The music wonderfully emphasizes this sense of a battle going back and forth in the warriors' minds, for in one moment we're greeted with a calm but contemplative setting led by a gentle mandolin, and the next moment the drums kick in, Moraz adds some grimy synth and/or organ lines, and Howe's attack on the electric guitar grows in strength. The first time we hear the "heavier" side of the argument, Anderson begins the warriors' rationalization: "Choose and renounce, throwing chains to the floor/Kill or be killing, faster sins correct the flow." It's time to choose up sides -- it's either them or us, and this looming war is a necessary evil that's best taken care of as quickly as possible. And when this half of the argument returns, the inevitable God-is-on-our-side argument comes into play: "Our gods awake in thunderous roars and guide the leaders' hands in paths of glory to the cause." Out of this verse comes a staccato synth line that's unmistakably imitating a bugler's call to arms on the battlefield.

The rhythm section is busy pinning everything down in the background, with Squire adding a lot of busy fills but taking himself a little out of the forefront to let the guitars and synthesizers tell the story at this point. And White is pumped with energy, holding down a foreceful beat and tossing in plenty of rapid-fire fills of his own. He's locked into a groove with Squire here, suggesting that he and Squire are finding their footing as a unit -- on Tales the unity and creativity that Squire and Bill Bruford had enjoyed for so many years just wasn't quite there yet. And now it sounds as if Squire and White have had time to feel out each other's style, on their way to forming a new Yes rhythm-section dynamic that can stretch out and add all kinds of color but is just a little tighter, heavier, and rock-based that the Squire/Bruford section was. It's a different animal, but (at least here) it's no less enjoyable.

After a seriously toned Howe guitar solo over a military-march type of beat, the tempo breaks down as our warriors ask themselves one last time whether this is really the right thing to do...and here, there's no musical break between one point of view and the other -- they're beginning to melt together, on the side of being determined to go to battle. What begins in soft tones with the lines "Listen, should we fight forever?" ends with a forceful, near-barbaric sense of vengeance: "Kill them, give them as they give us/Slay them, burn their children's laughter/On to hell." An eye for an eye, Anderson proclaims. Wow, this is pretty intense for a Yes album, but really all Anderson has done is to take the simple observation he made during "Yours Is No Disgrace" and put it in a more narrative form: "Death-defying mutilated armies gather near/Crawling out of dirty holes, their morals disappear." In the life-or-death struggle of war, all that matters is getting the other guy before he gets you, and what we see happening here is what we witness all too often during wars: a swelling sense of hyper-patriotic jingoism and "God" being on our side, giving us a distorted, black-and-white picture that makes rationalizing the killing of other human beings a lot easier. What's forgotten, of course, is that the men on the other side of the guns have families too, and a belief in what they're doing, and a determination that we are the bad guys and that "God" is on their side. But by this point, all reasonable thought is lost.

And now it's too late to turn back, for the thirst for war has rallied our men to the fullest and has sunk them to their basest depths: "The fist will run, grasp metal to gun/The spirit sings in crashing tones, we gain the battle drum/Our cries will shrill, the air will moan and crash into the dawn/The pen won't stay the demons' wings/The hour approaches pounding out the devil's sermon." There's no time for negotiation now -- it's time for all hell to break loose.

And does it ever.

For the next nine minutes, we are subjected to the most dissonant, frightful noises ever to emerge from under the Yes banner. The war has begun.

A harsh, choppy guitar line leads us into the propulsion of the insistent rhythm that underscores the musical battle. There are all kinds of tempo switches going on here, but the music is so deep and syncopated and complex here that I can't figure out what any of these time signatures are. White is to be commended for holding down so many rhythms in such complex music -- you can tap your foot along with it if you try, but good luck counting out the individual beats. On the battlefield we hear an alternation of Moraz and Howe leading the way -- Moraz's bold synthesizer lines seeming to be a bugle call to charge forward amidst the explosions and gunfire, and Howe's gnarled licks suggesting a bloody engagement in battle. One fight is won, we press on, and another enemy awaits us, over and over again.

And the intensity only grows. Soon we shift gears into another propulsive rhythm that at least sounds like a syncopated 6/4. Howe's gnashing guitar licks are now doing hand-to-hand combat with the enemy in a confused cloud of gunsmoke, over a backdrop of crashing and bashing and electrifying white noise. We're nearing a point of utter chaos, with only Squire and White pushing the battle forward from their position in the rear, safe behind the lines, allowing them to maintain their focus.

And now, hold on. The gore reaches a climax with an anguished demonic howl that comes wailing and screaming out of the cacophony...and if this doesn't make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, nothing will.

Moraz's synths return with another straight and hard bugle call -- it's time to make the final charge, to plunge in the final dagger. With a screeching descent, the troops close in, and as they claim their prize, the tempo grinds from a furious flurry of notes to a growling, ever-slowing downshift. White is just beating the stuffing out of his snare drum, with each strike gaining more space from the one before. And when the new tempo is established, we hear a distant voice yell a cue four strikes before the battle is over.

This carries us into the victory march, a proud, boastful battlefield jubilation proclaimed in an 11-beat pattern, first by Moraz's pitch-bending synth and then by Howe's soaring steel guitar (some reviewers have mistakenly thought this section was all entirely Howe, on some sort of guitar synthesizer), all held in place by a rumbling bass guitar and a brilliantly creative snare line that has White hitting eighth notes on 3 and 7 and a final note on 10.

But the joy of victory is fleeting, for soon the march dissolves away, and we see the carnage left behind and the land laid to waste. For what seems an interminable stretch of time, long expanses of stretched guitar and keyboard lines will offer the sense of the gunsmoke hanging over the battlefield, the guns having gone silent but the damage done. The survivors tend to their dead and wounded, and the mood of jubilation quickly turns to one of sadness, of somber questioning, of a feeling that there has to be a better way than this.

And perhaps there is...somewhere in the future. That's the message conveyed in the last six minutes of this epic, a part that has no official name of its own but has been dubbed "Soon" and has been both played and released separately under that title.

In terms of mood, it is almost a song to itself, but it's needed here to offer a sense of closure. In true Yes fashion, Anderson gives our surviving soldiers comfort and promises them that there indeed can be a better solution, that mankind can overcome this senseless way of resolving its differences.

An ethereal steel guitar line, in a nearly weeping but relieved tone, cuts through the lingering smoke of the battle and imparts a sense of the clouds parting overhead. Anderson joins in a clear voice with a simple vision of hope: "Soon, oh soon the light/Pass within and soothe this endless night/And wait here for you/Our reason to be here." We, mankind, are here to help each other through these dark times, until the day when we rise above this folly.

Anderson returns: "Soon, oh soon the time/All we move to gain will reach and calm/Our heart is open/Our reason to be here." If we look to the future with open hearts and truly want to overcome this mindset of death and destruction, we can do it, together.

Howe's melancholy steel guitar keeps its place above the arrangement, leading a dramatic swell into the closing minute, which gives a suggestion that maybe we already are picking up momentum and leading ourselves into a better world. And, indeed, when the dramatic pitch reaches its height, we're placed into a moment of uncertainty, Anderson echoing Howe's tentative lines, but then, at long last, a resolving tone of clarity breaks through. Yes, it can happen. Our long, arduous journey is ending at last, on gentle, self-assured, peaceful tones. Prepare yourself for this moment, and let yourself go, for this is the most achingly beautiful moment in all of Yes music, made all the more so by its radical contrast against the harshness and brutality of all that has come before it. Moraz's Mellotron "strings" step gracefully down into a resolution, softly ebbing like rippling waves on a tranquil lake, while gentle, tapping bass lines, a distant glockenspiel, lightly strummed acoustic guitar, and sustained, dreamlike steel guitar tones add subtle embellishments. And then it ends: A softly peaceful, majestic note on Moraz's icy-toned Mellotron leading us to our final moment of ultimate release. Aaaah. It's a goosebump moment. If you're not careful, it can make your eyes well up. What a magical, moving piece of timeless art. No other Yes moment can top it for sheer emotion. Words cannot describe the transcendent beauty of this concluding resolution -- you have to hear it for yourself. You may be left speechless too. It's easy to see why the crowd on Yesshows went absolutely bonkers when Moraz released the final note on the live version of this epic piece. I give them credit for not being so mesmerized by the wealth of emotions that have just passed by them in the previous 22 minutes that they weren't stunned into silence. Wow. Even after more than a decade of listening to There's no more that can be said about it.

Now, if you've been listening to this on CD, you may want to think about hitting the stop button at this point to take a deep breath and let what's just happened to you soak in, because now we're in for a dramatic, and no less energy-consuming, change of pace.

When you're ready to proceed, hang on tight, because you're in for quite a ride for the next nine minutes. "Sound Chaser" is a hyperkinetic assault on your senses from the moment Moraz's fingers begin twirling across his electric piano. Everything goes whizzing by for the next few seconds -- a couple of lightning-quick power chords, White attacking his crotales in unison with Moraz's line, and Squire absolutely shredding, full speed ahead, on his bass. This all leads up to Moraz and White taking the limelight, with both of them speeding along, White prolonging the tension as long as he can by tumbling up and down across his tomtoms. As a Mellotron fades in from the background, the electric piano disappears and White very gradually settles down and begins to establish the frantic tempo about to let loose.

Moving at about 150 bpm in 5/4, the band launches into a furious unison riff, based around sixteenth notes, that pummels us in sheets of merciless noise. When Anderson and the backing harmonies come in, there's still no relief in sight, as even their voices are tight, compressed, and moving at a brisk pace. This is Yes for speed freaks or caffeine addicts. Incredibly manic. There is absolutely no breathing room, and intentionally so. By the time the sheet of noise breaks down into Squire's bumblebee bass line, sustained synthesizer chords, and rapid-fire cymbal work, we think we might be in for a break...but then we begin to go back up the roller coaster again, as Howe joins the fray.

Then, at the 3:00 mark, just as quickly, out of nowhere, the band falls out from beneath Howe, and he goes screeching and wailing along like a car caroming out of control, as if the momentum of what has just passed before is still pushing him along, leaving him to coast down to a normal speed. And after about 30 seconds, he does indeed wind down to some sense of normality. There is an ever-so-brief pause, and with a liquid synthesizer line suddenly unfolding we think we may get a chance to take a breath. But after a brief moment of gliding along over the top of the synth, Howe freaks out on us all over again, going on and on and on into something that I can only describe as grungy electric flamenco, tinged with the going-ape style Jimmy Page lets loose with on the long solo in Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker." Whew. I've never heard anything quite like this, and when you hear it, I think you'll say the same thing.

Now, this time when Howe starts to wind down, an incredibly deliberate, slow three-note bass line creeps in, as if demanding to take control of the proceedings and bring them back under the speed limit. This time it works, as Howe goes from slowly ruminating across the top to eventually joining the line, backed by some more sustained keyboard lines. A final series of dramatic flourishes begins, each one punctuated by a quick tympani roll...and the assault finally runs out of gas almost two-and-a-half minutes after Howe's wild solo began.

Now we can stop holding our breath, as Anderson re-enters with a calm bridge over a free-floating atmosphere: "From the moment I reached out to hold, I felt a sound/And what touches our souls slowly moves as touch rebounds/And to know that tempo will continue, lost in trance of dances/As rhythm takes another turn/As is my want, my only reach, to look in your eyes." What does all that mean? Beats me, but it is interesting to note that once again Anderson is singing about feeling sounds, the last time being back on "Long Distance Runaround" ("waiting to feel the sound"). Does Anderson have synesthesia, or are we getting a recurring glimpse into some weird kind of acid trip?
Well, whatever the case, out of Anderson's deceptively frail, fragile voice holding that final note, back comes the opening electric piano/crotales bit, and we find that the relief was only momentary, for the roller coaster is about to start up all over again. From here on out, it's a whiplash-inducing frenzy of radically shifting tempos -- the main 5/4 riff returns slow and plodding, then it instantaneously doubles in speed, and then it cools back down again as if somebody were playing with the speed control on the turntable.

And now -- what the heck is this? Anderson singing "cha-CHA-cha, CHA CHA!" in a harsh, aggressive a cappella? This comes out of nowhere. And underneath him we hear an assortment of wordless voices -- one group doing a sort of low, rhythmic "hoooom" and another seeming to bark in some kind of a rapid, high-pitched chant, similar to what one hears in the intense "monkey chant" performed on the island of Bali. This is just simply bizarre. It's as if we've just walked in on the middle of an incantation at a voodoo ritual.

But just as soon as it arrives, it gets buried back under the 5/4 frenzy, led now by a wailing, pitch-bending jazz-fusion synth solo by Moraz that instantly makes you realize -- speaking of Jan Hammer -- that he'd been listening to a lot of Mahavishnu Orchestra before he joined Yes's ranks. When it's over, the cha-chas return, and the whole band pops another big wheelie before finally wrapping things up. Man. What to make of this? It is certainly the most neurotic, hyperactive piece of music Yes has ever done. But, boy, does it ever work. It leaves you floored every bit as much as the closing notes of "Gates" leave your spirit soaring.

And finally, thank goodness, after two songs and 30 minutes of pummeling us senseless, "To Be Over" appears as an island of graceful sanctuary. "We go sailing down the calming streams," the song begins, and that's indeed the feeling we're served up here, with Howe's soothing electric sitar keeping the setting smooth and mellow, leading into an absolutely gorgeous, Hawaiian-flavored steel guitar solo, with Moraz's synths and White's cymbals burbling in the background, briefly recalling the opening of "Gates." A variety of backdrops show up between here and the end, accompanying a few soaring lead-guitar solos and one last Moraz synth showcase before a powerful chorus of voices comes blaring in triumphantly, "After all, your soul will still surrender/After all, don't doubt your part, be ready to be loved." The electric sitar comes gliding back in, above a long string of nonsense syllables (trust me on this -- don't try to make them out), and with one last understated string of notes on the sitar, our journey ends peacefully, at last.

Among many other things, this album is also notable in that White truly comes into his own -- his creative style here still arguably stands as his finest moment with the band. He reveals himself as a more powerful, straight-ahead rock drummer who still knows how to cut loose out of predictable 4/4 backbeats and add some creativity to the proceedings. He lacks the subtle finesse and grace of Bill Bruford, but he adds a punch that made harder-rocking Yes albums like RelayerDrama, and Talk possible, where they wouldn't have been possible with Bruford, and his lighter touch, on board. It helps here as well, as previously noted, that Squire seems to have adjusted his style to White's so that the two become more compatible than they seemed to be on Tales. Their chemistry has provided the solid, unfailing backbone of Yes ever since.

There is only one bad thing I can say about Relayer, and it's not about the music. The recording is shoddy -- put on a pair of headphones and you'll hear this horrible rumbling in the left channel. Not just hiss, but actual rumbling. Now, I know this album was recorded on mobile equipment at Chris Squire's house, but come on! There was nothing that sounded this bad even after Eddie Offord finished his massive splice job on Tales. You can't listen to "Gates" with headphones because of it -- the rumble destroys the beauty of the closing moments. And it wasn't fixed on the remastered CD either -- the engineer simply tried to mask it by lopping off the fadeout a second or so early. Auugh! Sacrilege! That doesn't help at all, because it doesn't allow for a full release of emotion at the end. Oh, well. Chalk it up to 1974 technology and find yourself a copy on LP or cassette. At least the hiss of the cassette does a good job of concealing the rumble.

Relayer is unique in the Yes canon in that the band would never again explore this style of music. And with Moraz leaving the band before the next album, a return to this harsher, edgier style wasn't very likely anyway. But there were other things for the band to keep in mind as well: By the time Yes returned to the studio following Relayer, progressive rock was in its death throes, and hopelessly complex Mahavishnu-style fusion arrangements were losing favor too.

Thus, Relayer marks the end of an era, for after this, Yes would start to change with the times, beginning the long period of their career in which they became a reflection of current trends rather than being the trendsetters.
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