Yes was and always will be the ultimate progressive rock band. But before they came to embody all that was (mostly) great and (at times) grotesque within that particular musical movement, they were a more traditional, song-oriented band. Don’t get me wrong, abundant Yes trademarks already appear on Yes, such as inventive harmonies, long songs with several extended introductions, and extensive soloing, but by and large these songs are more grounded than their later ‘70s efforts.
Of course, Yes had their stuff together straight from the start, even if they hadn’t yet found their signature style. The band’s superior musicianship is already apparent, and to quote Mike Tiano’s liner notes on the Rhino reissue, the band had an “array of influences that went well beyond the basic blues rock of their peers.” Certainly the excellent drummer Bill Bruford and the ultra-competent Peter Banks were well versed in jazz techniques, while high pitched lead singer Jon Anderson (an acquired taste to many) is about as un-bluesy as they come. Along with Bruford, the band’s most impressive member is bass guitarist Chris Squire, a melodic but incredibly forceful player (it’s not unusual for his bass to function as the lead instrument), while Tony Kaye offers up limited but uplifting organ embellishments that generally color each song’s mood without ever dominating the action.
The album is notable for two impressive cover songs, both of which are complete transformations. Their cover of The Byrds’ “I See You” demonstrates the band’s (and particularly Bruford’s) jazz leanings and the band’s impeccable taste, while their cover of The Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” is a fast-paced, jazzy powerhouse that also playfully integrates excerpts from “Day Tripper.” Elsewhere, the pretty “Yesterday and Today” (extremely short for a Yes song at 2:52) and the less successful “Sweetness” are naïve love songs the likes of which would rarely appear again on a Yes album, and “Harold Land” is another anomaly within the Yes catalogue in that its lyrics (again to quote Tiano: about a “man torn by the ravages of war”) actually make sense and tell a moving story. The song's music is suitably epic and dramatic, too, and the ambitious and singable album opener “Beyond and Before,” on which Squire especially shines, and the lovely album closer “Survival,” which features an interesting intro before settling into an enjoyably breezy pop melody, also successfully hint towards what would become the “classic Yes sound,” while Kaye even has his moment in the sun on the fun, surprisingly funky “Looking Around.”
All told, this was a consistently enjoyable first effort, albeit one with the same flaws common to many debut albums in that the singer isn’t as confident as he would later become, and some of the songs are all over the place. In addition, the guitarist and organ player aren’t nearly as talented as their subsequent replacements (more on them later), and the album has some dated qualities that seem almost obligatory with late ‘60s albums. Of course, this also gives the album a singular charm that makes it stand out from virtually all of their other albums, and Yes was a successful starting point for the even better things that soon followed.
Time And A Word (Atlantic '70, Rhino '03) Rating: B
But first came a slight sophomore slump. In retrospect, Time And A Word isn’t bad by any means, but it is a transitional effort by a band not quite sure of their own identity. Perhaps feeling that their debut wasn’t “progressive” enough, and wanting to go in that direction, the band adds excessive strings (and occasionally, horns) to almost every song here, rarely improving upon the final product and in many instances detracting from it. In addition, the decision to elevate their least talented member up in the mix (Tony Kaye) while at times all but burying Peter Banks’ contributions (small wonder that this would be his last album with the band) was another curious move, and the songwriting on the whole is less consistent than on the debut. Fortunately, when you have the ability to completely transform other people’s songs this is less of a problem. Their version of Richie Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” sounds nothing like the original, and though this take is totally over the top, what with string and horns all over the place, the song still manages to be both playful and fun (and rocking) despite its ridiculous pretensions. Their version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Everydays” isn’t quite as major an overhaul, at least during the moody mellower sections, but where the song really takes off is on its spectacular, jam packed middle section. Here, and on other strong efforts such as “Then” and “Astral Traveller” (the album’s proggiest track) the band’s jazz leanings come even further to the forefront. These songs show how each band member could go off and do their own seemingly unrelated things, yet have the end result still ultimately come together in a surprisingly satisfying manner. Unfortunately, “The Prophet” starts with a boring extended introduction and never really ignites like I’d hoped (though it has its moments), while the forgettable “Clear Days” features only Anderson and violins, though at least it’s short at barely two minutes long. Of course, the album’s best melody belongs to “Sweet Dreams,” a catchy, upbeat pop song the likes of which would soon disappear from the band’s repertoire, while the affecting title track has a pretty pop melody and is also effortlessly singable. To summarize, Time And A Word is an at-times misguided attempt at “progress” on which the band members are too often regulated to secondary status behind the orchestra. Yet the album still has enough high points to entice many a Yes-head, especially since there’s no other Yes album quite like it. Then again, most people would argue that that’s not such a good thing, so caution is advised, especially since a great new guitarist and a clarified sense of direction would soon enable the band to progress by leaps and bounds.
The Yes Album (Atlantic '71, Rhino '03) Rating: A
The addition of new guitarist Steve Howe took Yes to a whole new level on The Yes Album, whose very title even sounded more confident. A brand new beginning for the band, the album contains two relatively short songs in Howe’s spectacular solo acoustic showcase “The Clap” (recorded live), and “A Venture,” a modest but pleasant song dominated by Anderson and featuring tasteful performances from the whole band, particularly Kaye on piano. Yet the album’s enduring reputation rests primarily with four epic tracks that range from approximately seven to ten minutes long. Ironically, despite such extended lengths, according to Bill Martin’s liner notes, “the music on The Yes Album is in some ways simpler than that of the first two LPs…the structures are clean, uncluttered, and even straightforward.” Well, at least Yes makes it seem easy, and the album is more focused and less jazz influenced than previous attempts, perhaps in part because Eddie Offord has replaced Tony Colton in the producer chair. The album gets off to a rousing start with “Yours Is No Disgrace,” on which Kaye’s keyboards soar while Howe’s incredibly lyrical lead guitar lends absolutely gorgeous accompaniment. Even better is “Starship Trooper,” which starts as a normal (but very good) pop song and goes onto a beautiful acoustic mid-section before building brilliantly to its ever-escalating ending that's highlighed by Howe's superb guitar soloing. It would be tough to top that, and “I’ve Seen All Good People” doesn’t even try, though this classic rock radio staple has a light and airy pop melody that is effortlessly appealing. Of course, Yes being Yes, the song is really two songs in one, but the second half of the song, which features impressive boogie-based guitar interplay and the repeated mantra of the chorus, is also enjoyable. The nearly 9-minute “Perpetual Change” isn’t quite at the same level as the other epics, but it too has its share of exceptional instrumental sections along with Anderson’s emotional vocals. All in all, The Yes Album was a rousing success on all fronts, and I for one have never complained that any of the songs are “too long.” What’s most impressive about the band is how each members’ (Martin again) “diverse styles were integrated and made to work together, not put on display for the purpose of showing off.” Indeed, by flexing their massive individual talents while keeping their egos in check Yes pulled off the difficult task of making this their most adventurous and accessible album yet. The end result was the band's first truly classic album, one that began an extended run of excellence aside from one major misfire.
Fragile (Atlantic '72, Rhino '03) Rating: A
With the departure of Tony Kaye and the addition of keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman (and he actually did dress like a wizard in concert!), Yes had their “definitive” lineup in place. Even the critics, who tended to be harsh towards the band, couldn’t knock the creative forces at work here, and I can see why so many people see this album as Yes’ best. This was also the first Yes album to feature the flamboyant artwork of Roger Dean, whose work would become synonymous with the band’s fantasy-based image. Each member of Yes was now a virtuoso performer, and they are all given a chance to individually shine. For example, Wakeman successfully tackles Brahm’s 4th symphony (“Cans And Brahms,”), while Anderson multi-tracks himself all over the place a-capella style on the gorgeously soothing and upbeat “We Have Heaven.” Bruford briefly chips in on the 35 second “Five Percent For Nothing,” but Chris Squire and Steve Howe have the most impressive of the band’s five short solo pieces. Squire impressively adds layers upon layers of bass parts to create his very own symphony of sound on “Fish (Schindleria Prematurus),” while on “Mood For A Day” Howe again shows that he was seemingly born to play the acoustic guitar. Critics complained that these solo sections made the album less than completely cohesive and not a little indulgent, and they have their points. However, these songs also demonstrate the individual members’ dazzling talent and creativity, and besides, on terrific epic length tracks like the much-played “Roundabout” (8:30), “South Side Of The Sky” (8:02), and “Heart Of The Sunrise” (11:25) Yes functions as a totally together band who are firing on all cylinders. Though each member still adds distinctive individual parts, the end results are undeniably greater than the sum of their parts. Each of these songs seems like ten songs rolled into one, with stop and start tempo shifts, lovely melodic passages that can erupt into jagged hard rock at any time, wonderful harmonies, and lots of cool solo turns. These songs are often beautiful and rocking, sometimes at the same time, and the excitement and inventiveness always remains high, particularly on “Heart Of The Sunrise,” which features incredible musicianship (Bruford showing why my friend calls him Bru-God) and fantastic vocals. In addition, the mindlessly catchy chorus of “Roundabout” showed that Yes could be an unstoppable pop band when the mood so moved them, a point that’s further proven on “Long Distance Runaround,” another well-known song that's led by Squire’s funky bass lines (fittingly, it’s typically played in tandem with “Fish (Schindleria Prematurus)” which follows it here and on the radio). Granted, lyrically the band drifts ever further from reality (after all, their signature song’s chorus goes “in and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there”!), making it hard to become too emotionally attached to many of these songs. But they sure sound good, even more so because they simply don’t write ‘em or play ‘em like this anymore (probably because nobody else can), and you can rest assured that this classic prog-rock album will always remain a prized member of my collection. Note: Be sure to grab the Rhino reissue, which features their excellent 10-minute cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.”
Close To The Edge (Atlantic '72, Rhino '03) Rating: A+
After proving both their individual prowess and impressive group interplay on Fragile, Close To The Edge concentrates on the latter, with outstanding results. In fact, the album is arguably the pinnacle of the whole progressive rock movement, as the band's most ambitious album to date consists of a mere three songs, each of which approaches or exceeds (or almost doubles, as in the case of the title track) the 10-minute mark. Simply put, this album saw the "definitive" lineup of arguably the definitive progressive rock band pushing the envelope further than they had ever pushed it before, and though the album is at times perilously pretentious, the fact that the band comes up with more creative ideas per song than most bands find in an entire career more than compensates for the album's flaws. The band gets right down to business on the title track, which begins with an intense, hard charging instrumental section on which it's obvious that the band had been listening to The Mahavishnu Orchestra. It gets more melodic at the 3-minute mark and the vocals begin in earnest a minute after that, but it's the chugging rhythms that keep the excitement from ever waning even after multiple listens. Actually, this song gets better the more you get to know it, as the densely packed music is a lot to take in on one listen. At times charging forward with a flurry of activity, other times surprisingly poppy and singable, the song is highlighted by its various "I get up, I get down" vocal sections, and by Wakeman's celestial keyboards, which at times (12:15) sound like nothing less than the sky opening up. At least that's the image I get when I hear it, such is the awe-inspiring beauty and power of this multi-sectioned opus, which is probably the single most ambitious and successful piece that the band ever produced. Fortunately, the high quality continues with "And You And I," which proved that Yes could write a simple but lovely pop melody, led along by Howe's acoustic guitar and Wakeman's tasteful synth embellishments. Indeed, for all their reputation as being pretentious show offs, rarely did a member of Yes put themselves ahead of the song. Of course, Yes being Yes, this is no simple pop song, and it gets suitably, soaringly epic at times, as the band creates a symphony of sound that takes them beyond the mere realm of "pop" and "rock". Of course, Yes being Yes, the song probably doesn't need to be 10 minutes long, as album padding was becoming a problem (see the Tales From Topographic Oceans review for proof). The song is still a monumental achievement, however, and "Siberian Khatru," with its superb layered vocals, provides another stellar example of the band's uniquely epic style, making for a fine ending to this landmark album. Certainly Bill Bruford's militant snare rolls on the song are worthy of admiration, though this would be his last album with the band for many a moon. Frustrated by the band's exacting recording methods, he would join another prog-rock powerhouse, King Crimson, before Yes embarked on their most ambitious and controversial album project yet.
Yessongs (Atlantic '73, Rhino '03) Rating: A
But first came the first and best Yes live album, Yessongs, a double-CD, triple-LP (still the best format due to the spectacular Roger Dean artwork) whopper released during their mid-'70s heyday. This album was recorded primarily during the Close To The Edge tour, meaning that new drummer Alan White appears on all but two songs here (excluding the Stravinsky "Opening" piece), "Perpetual Change" and "Long Distance Runaround/The Fish," which were captured during the prior Fragile tour with Bruford. Unlike say Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, live Yes isn't all that different than studio Yes, but there are several reasons why this is one of the best live albums ever anyway. For one thing, the set list is fantastic, including all the necessities from the Steve Howe-era up until that point (sorry there's nothing from Yes or Time and a Word which is fine by me), and the energry of the performances is galvanizing. Yes plays the hell out of these songs, and their jaw-dropping instrumental virtuosity produces more than a few "wow" moments, enough to offset the fact that the overall sound quality and the vocals in general are noticeably inferior to the studio albums. Sure, I could do without Squire's ridiculously long bass solo on "The Fish," I typically skip the "Overview" and the excerpts from Wakeman's first solo album, and I prefer the studio versions of some of these songs (for example, the band gives it a good go but they can't possibly capture the majesty of "Close To the Edge" as well without the help of studio technology). Still, these are mere quibbles when one considers how hard these guys ROCK throughout, and on the whole these renditions are even more epic if that was even possible. All band members shine at various times, especially Howe on not only his brief acoustic set piece "Mood For A Day" but on monumental versions of "Perpetual Change," "Yours Is No Disgrace," and "Starship Trooper," which feature spectacular extended guitar solos. Simply put, in their mid-'70s prime Yes was one of the best rock bands ever, and Yessongs shows them at their rawest and most uninhibitied, with ultra-long songs that don't seem too long because they're so damn good.
Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic '73, Rhino '03) Rating: B-
Despite impressive contributions from Alan White (who is still several notches below Bruford who I consider one of the best drummers ever), Tales From Topographic Oceans is the album that began in earnest the prog-rock backlash that exists in most commercial music magazines 'till this day. Containing a mere four songs, each of which occupied an entire side of an LP, the band should be given points for the sheer audacity of their sprawling ambition. Ultimately, however, the album is so impenetrable and pretentious that I'd recommend it to only the band's most obsessive fans. Which isn't to imply that there isn't some majestic music on the album, which on the whole is mellower and far less accessible than Close To The Edge, which was often highly melodic and catchy despite its overall density. By contrast, there's not a single chorus on this entire album, which is more about sustaining a mystical overall mood than anything else. There are plenty of solo turns as well, in part to pad each song out to reach the 20 minute mark that was necessary to fill an entire LP side. These solo spotlights are sometimes a good thing, as Wakeman ("The Remembering (High The Memory)") and Howe ("The Ancient (Giants Under the Sun)," "Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)") in particular impress, but far too many boring lulls in the action ultimately makes Tales From Topographic Oceans a frustrating experience. Still, the album isn't as bad as it's reputation would have you believe, as songs such as "The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)" can be as pretty and vast as Roger Dean's spectacular cover art would suggest. However, coming off of three successive studio classics (plus a classic live album), it can't be denied that Tales From Topographic Oceans was (and is) something of an overblown disappointment. It was even too pretentious for Wakeman (!!!), who left the band after the album's attendant tour to focus on his far less lucrative solo career.
Relayer (Atlantic '74, Rhino '03) Rating: A
Returning to the format of Close To The Edge (one side long track plus two nearly 10-minute tracks) after the widespread panning received by Tales From Topographic Oceans, Relayer introduced new (and as it turned out, temporary) keyboardist Patrik Moraz into the fold. By the time Moraz joined the band this album had already been composed for the most part (with Anderson being the primary force on that front, as was often the case), so he only had to add his keyboard parts as a complementary player. He does a damn good job, too, and his fusion-influenced playing, a far cry from Wakeman's flamboyant keyboard fills, added another dimension to Yes' sound, which is both harder-edged (in large part due to Howe, who puts in an astonishing performance, while the rhythm section, having gained confidence after feeling each other out on Tales, is "locked in" this time out) and jazzier than in the past. Yet this is still a prog-rock album though and through, beginning with "The Gates Of Delirium," which rivals "Close To The Edge" as Yes' best super-long song (though I prefer the former by a slight margin). Worlds better than anything on Tales, this impressively structured song is loosely based on Tolstoy's War And Peace, and as such the song's different sections can be divided into the prelude to war, which starts peacefully but gradually builds, the fierce battle that itself is separated into several different jam-based sections, and then the absolutely gorgeous aftermath (the “Soon” section) as the carnage is surveyed and an optimism is reached as a new day dawns. That's my brief but inadequate description of a strange track that's difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that the alternately symphonic and aggressive music grows richer with repeat plays, and that (for once) the coherent lyrics match the music wonderfully. "Sound Chaser" isn't nearly as easy on the ears (aside from its mellower mid-section), however, being a decidedly difficult but still fascinating "fusion" number on which chaos seems to be the general rule. It mostly works, though, primarily because it showcases what mind-blowing musicians Yes had, but also because it fits well within the context of the album. Indeed, after that bludgeoning assault on the senses comes "To Be Over," which prettily brings the album to a much calmer conclusion. So, it can be said that Yes rebounded from Tales big time with Relayer, whose fantastic, adventurous music perfectly matched another superlative Roger Dean album cover. Of course, the album itself isn't perfect, as it took me awhile to "get" "Sound Chaser" in particular and "To Be Over" probably didn't need to be 9-minutes long (album padding was still a minor problem). Still, Yes created another landmark prog-rock album with Relayer, which is often overlooked in favor of other Yes albums but which can hold its own with any of them.
Going For The One (Atlantic '77, Rhino '03) Rating: A-
Without Patrik Moraz (who according to the rest of the band got a big head after Relayer plus he supposedly struggled with the Wakeman songs live) and longtime producer Eddie Offord, but with Rick Wakeman back in the fold, Yes returned in the year of punk with little concessions to the changing musical climate. Actually, some minor concessions were made, as the album is more modern sounding (hence the album cover art by Hipgnosis - famous for Floyd and Zep covers, among others - rather than Roger Dean) and the band was "writing songs again" (according to Wakeman, which was why he agreed to rejoin). Certainly the title track is a well-written song, and with Howe on slide guitar and an uncharacteristically aggressive vocal from Anderson it's also an atypical track. Repeat listens reveals one of the band's catchiest choruses, however, and Howe's wailing guitar solo dramatically closes out a fine first offering. Elsewhere, Wakeman and Anderson give bravura performances on "Parallels," though Rick's bright keyboard embellishments do veer towards the cheesy side at times, especially when contrasted with Moraz's comparatively straightforward style. Still, his style works with the band (there's a reason they wanted him back so badly), and he shows more restraint on "Turn Of The Century" and "Wonderous Stories," a couple of dreamy new age ballads. These aren't among Yes' most exciting efforts, but they sure are pretty and easy on the ears; it's easy to see why "Wonderous Stories" remains the band's biggest U.K. hit ever, in any event. Of course, even the band's most song oriented album in some time has one epic-scale, multi-sectioned 15+ minute track, this one called "Awaken." Fortunately, despite being over-long, this is another excellent song that really shows the band's knack for building up a song to epic proportions. Forget punk; none of those bands ever approached the sheer majesty of Yes at their classically influenced best, like when Howe solos towards the end of the song before they all join in for a spectacular symphonic climax. Actually, scratch that "forget punk" part, 'cause I'm a big fan of some of those bands and I think that the punk movement provided a great boost for rock music in general. But one negative aspect of that critically acclaimed movement was that bands like Yes who were their polar opposites were (and often still are) automatically dismissed out of hand. Truth is, the band's superior songwriting, singing, and musicianship made Yes one of the best bands of the '70s, and, like Relayer, Going For The One is often unjustly overlooked despite its consistent quality. It's not quite as good as Relayer, either in terms of cohesiveness or originality, but Going For The One was an agreeably accessible (for the most part) album that still offered a real sense of adventure. For better or occasionally worse,Yes was a band who always worked without a net, and here they mostly managed to land on their feet in fine style.
Drama (Atlantic '80) Rating: A-
After 1978's disappointing Tormato and the subsequent departures of Anderson and Wakeman, the future of Yes seemed cloudy at best. However, recruiting singer/producer Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes of The Buggles (of "Video Killed The Radio Star" fame), Yes regrouped and released this improbably strong album. True, Downes is no Wakeman (neither was Kaye or Morasz and The Yes Album and Relayer were pretty damn good!), but Horn sounds enough like Anderson to get by for one album at least (plus Squire is prominent on vocals too), and his production modernizes the band's sound (not always a good thing as like nearly every album from that era, it's a bit too "'80s sounding" perhaps). Excepting the rather pointless and under-developed "White Car," every song here is a keeper, and the band immediately delivers a tremendous 10-minute prog epic on "Machine Messiah," one of their heaviest songs ever, though there are pretty mellow parts as well. Squire and Howe in particular are at their best on this track (and elsewhere as well), and yes the bright sounding "Does It Really Happen" really is full of drama, and the catchy 8-minute "Into The Lens" (later also recorded by The Buggles as "I am a Camera") keeps the high quality coming. Curiously, Squire plays electric piano and Horn takes up the bass for "Run Through The Light," which is less bass heavy as a result, but it's another melodic entry that's perhaps best known for engineer Hugh Padgham's "gated drum sound." Finishing with a flourish, "Tempus Fugit" is another heavy, tuneful barnstormer of a song; I used to think that this song was called "Yes" and I couldn't find it for ages (it was occasionally played on the radio back in the day). Anyway, suffice it to say that this album is much better than many remember it being, as a Wakeman/Anderson-less Yes was never going to get a fair shake from some fans. Perhaps sensing this, the band brought back Roger Dean to design their first cover since Relayer, almost as if by doing so they were trying to say "this is a real Yes album, even without those guys!" As such, this lineup was always going to be short-lived, but in their brief time together they made some surprisingly strong and surprisingly Yes-like (although more AOR for sure) music, and in the intervening years this album's reputation has grown and many fans now recognize it as being among their better albums.
90125 (Atco '83) Rating: B+
After Yes disbanded again, Squire, White, and guitarist Trevor Rabin worked on material again, ostensibly as a new band with the songs primarily supplied by Rabin. Original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye was drafted as well, and ultimately Jon Anderson came aboard too, while Trevor Horn (the Jon Anderson sound alike from Drama) again produced. The resulting Yes album, 90125, was far removed from their prog past, as it definitely had an Asia/AOR-like quality, as the band was clearly going for a radio (and MTV) friendly sound. Fortunately, the band are good at this tuneful new style, and it became the band's biggest selling album ever, though many older fans were both taken aback and unimpressed by the band's new direction. On the downside, the album has a slick, overly mechanized '80s sound that can come across as cheesy and dated, and again Kaye is no Wakeman and Rabin is no Howe either (though he's a fine guitarist in his own right). But these are good songs that overcome whatever flaws they may have, starting with the catchy #1 hit (their only one) “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” a fine pop song even if it doesn't live up to its killer opening riffs. “Hold On” (popular song title, that one) is all about its big singable chorus, while “It Can Happen” has a slinky keyboard riff that’s quite memorable, as are its verses and chanted chorus too come to think of it. The ambitious “Changes” is a dramatic power ballad that’s extremely powerful and semi-proggy at times, while “Leave It” features a clever harmony laden melody that's actually a cappela at times and also sounds just fine on the radio. All of the aforementioned songs received airplay back in the day, in fact, while the instrumental “Cinema” (originally the name of the new band before they became Yes again) actually won a Grammy for best instrumental. Side two doesn't quite keep pace with the stellar side one (the album has a whopping 9 songs!), but I at least like every song here, and though some fans were put off by this “sell out” of a resurrection, fans of the likes of Journey, Foreigner, and Boston will find much to enjoy here, though the subsequent Howe/Wakeman less tour was supposedly a dud.
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