Ah, Yes. I am not really qualified to review this huge seventies prog rock group's work with any credibility, as I truly despised them throughout the seventies and beyond. However, as with many artists, my ageing has led to a re-assessment of their work. I won't do the whole lot, and neither will I review the albums in painstaking detail, as the music is not totally my thing. But, I will give them a go and there are certainly great examples of musicianship to be found as the group's members were masters of their instruments.
Let's take a look at some of their albums...
Beyond And Before is beautifully and melodically psychedelic - full of crazy fuzzy riffs and airy, hippy-influenced vocals. It is a little gem of the genre, nothing really like subsequent Yes material. I See You is lively and almost jazzy, with a great, catchy bass line and lots of Crosby, Stills & Nash-style vocal harmonies - not surprising as it was a Byrds cover. I really love this one. Listen to that jazzy cymbals and bass interplay about four minutes in and the heavy guitar-drum part that follows it - totally infectious.
Yesterday And Today is an airy, laid-back acoustic number while Looking Around is a excellent, upbeat piece of 1968 organ-driven fare. The war-themed Harold Land is very Pink Floyd-esque and Every Little Thing is madly psychedelic, featuring some prototype almost solo drumming from Bill Bruford. What an underrated drummer he was. The song was unrecognisable as a Beatles cover (from Beatles For Sale).
Sweetness is also dreamily hippy in its ambience, despite it being quite rockingly robust. You know what I mean if you hear it. Once again, it has a real late sixties appeal to it. Survival has shed loads of wah-wah style freaky guitar and all sorts of improvisations. It is here that we begin to detect the first signs of what would become typical prog rock changes of tempo and mood within the same song.
The blissed-out feeling continues into the bonus track, another very hippy-ish number in Stephen Stills' Everydays, with the organ and bass to the fore. Once again, there are jazzy breaks amongst the ethereal experimentation. Some fine proggy guitar, cymbals and drum interplay can be found near the end. Maybe prog rock started here - check out that wild organ solo and the soaring guitar for evidence. Incidentally, the track comes to an abrupt end.
This is definitely an intriguing album and although it is nothing like later Yes, it shows that they were a talented bunch prepared to innovate and push musical boundaries.
Time And A Word (1970)
This was Yes's constantly overlooked album, which was a shame, as it has a loose, vibrant appeal to it as the band transitioned from psychedelia to prog rock. It is probably their most classically-influenced album.
No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed is a frantic cover of a Richie Havens song, featuring the organ-drum-bass sound that the group would use so much in the future It also merges with the strings of Elmer Bernstein's Western movie soundtrack The Big Country, exemplifying the group's willingness to integrate many different styles and sounds within one track. That deep bass line and organ riffery is outstanding. There is an accessibility about this that is sometimes absent on the group's later, more pompous compositions.
Then has some captivating bass-cymbals-organ passages, particularly in the introduction, and the strings feature again, matched by Jon Anderson's trebly voice. It also has a funkiness to it, something that was often overlooked in Yes's work. That mid-song organ solo inspired many a progger, I'm sure.
Stephen Stills' Everydays was included as a bonus track on the previous album, and is mentioned in detail in my comments on that album. Sweet Dreams is a robust, chunky rock-ish number with, once again, a nice deep bass sound to it.
The Prophet is one of those typical, organ-driven, classically-infuenced prog numbers. Apparently it utilises a theme from Holst's Jupiter from The Planets Suite. Also with a classical vibe is the string-backed short, plaintive ballad Clear Days. Astral Traveller is moving well into archetypal prog territory, its organ backing sounding like it was a candidate for inventing the genre. Time And A Word ends on a grandiose, orchestrated choral note, with layered vocals soaring above the strings and brass backing. Dear Father is a pleasant, rocking bonus track too.
This was definitely an album worthy of a few listens. Indeed, I probably prefer it to parts of Fragile in that it has more structure and flow.
Yours Is No Disgrace is a wonderfully heavy bass, drum and crazy organ-backed proggy freakout. It sort of exemplifies prog rock for me - all those organ swirls and changes of tempo, with occasional vocals between long periods of instrumental virtuosity. As with all Yes's stuff, it is not my favourite sort of thing, for sure, but it has a heathy thumping sound to it and I find myself getting into it quite easily in places. There are numerous examples of great instrumentation in it, too many to list, to be honest. It is the best track on the album in my opinion.
The Clap is a somewhat incongruous seemingly live bit of throwaway acoustic guitar folky fun. Starship Trooper returns to the what as quickly becoming the norm for Yes - a lengthy, changeable number featuring organ, acoustic guitar etc. They were setting musical trends on tracks like this for the next few albums and for the prog rock genre in general. As with all the tracks like this, I really like bits of them, but listening to the whole can be a bit of an exercise in patience. I love the heavy rock-style guitar work near the end, though.
The opening acoustic bit on I've Seen All Good People sounds just like America's Ventura Highway although the track goes on to be typically Yes-operatic, vocally, until, about 3:45 we get some solid rocking, Beatles-ish parts. A Venture is a Supertramp-sounding shorter, breezy number with some jazzy Mike Garson-esque piano in it too near the end. The album ends with another archetypal Yes number in Perpetual Change. The single versions of I've Seen All Good People, (titled Your Move) and Starship Trooper are, as seems to be the case with Yes, more defined and more effective.
Now for the big ones...
This was the group's big commercial breakthrough and prog rock fans (of which there seemed to be loads in 1971) lapped up the extended instrumental innovations as enthusiastically as they grew their hair or wore their Afghan coats. It is surprisingly heavy at times and also, would you believe, funky. The drums are refreshingly powerful as are many of the guitar chords. You know, I can listen to this. Some bits grate on me, particularly Jon Anderson's high-pitched voice, but you are never far from a good bit coming along - that variety within one song was one of prog rock's redeeming qualities.
The album is built around four substantial songs - the classic multi-styled Roundabout, a track full of all sorts of changes of mood, instrumentation and pace, including some surprisingly heavy riffing and Yes's own particular brand of prog-funk too; the equally inventive South Side Of The Sky (which surely influenced Queen's The Prophet's Song, vocally); the attractively funky Long Distance Runaround and the ten minute heavy sprawl of Heart Of The Sunrise. The latter features some lovely deep, warm bass and Bill Bruford's drums are speaker-shakingly powerful, almost Bonham-esque in their sheer oomph. Rick Wakeman's keyboards are suitably and typically seventies prog madcap, swirling around all over the place like a demented seventeenth-century church organist.
Some of the shorter "interludes" are nicely funky - listen to The Fish as an example - but often they end too soon, before they had got going, like Five Per Cent For Nothing. Mood For The Day features Steve Howe's beautiful Spanish guitar while Cans And Brahms has new pianist-keyboard man Rick Wakeman indulging his classic tastes. I have to say, however, that their short, often incongruous inclusions give the album as a whole a distinct lack of cohesion.
There was a single edit of Roundabout which concentrated on the track's lead riff and its funkier parts, along with the post psychedelic almost CSNY-style vocals. It made for a perfect early seventies psychedelia meets prog single. Fair play to them, it was a good one. I actually really like it. Normally, I prefer the longer, extended versions of songs, but in this case I think the single version has a certain compact appeal.
Close To The Edge (1972)
This prog rock classic album featured only three tracks, something that exemplified prog rock's propensity for indulgence. It was this apparent indulgence that put me off at the time and continued to do so for the best part of forty five years.
Assessing the tracks through their periodic good bits allows me to appreciate them a bit more these days, but the eighteen minutes plus of Close To The Edge (which took one whole side of the album) sounds a lot like a preposterously extended jam to me, with the different musicians showing off their virtuosity. For some, it is no doubt a work of genius. I can see why, but I can also argue strongly against it. Of its type, however, I have to come down on the side of its being perfection. It is classical rock music.
As I said, though, you get some seriously good bits - Chris Squire's bass is mightily impressive throughout, Bruford's drumming equally so and Wakeman gets funky on his keyboards with pleasingly regularity. The vocal delivery reminds me of Pink Floyd from the same era. I love the funky guitar breaks too and the cymbals-organ-bass interplay around eight minutes in. The rock bit at fourteen minutes is great too. I think I'm doing quite well with the positivity at the moment.
And You And I merged acoustic and heavier electronic music effectively. When it raises its tempo after about a minute and the evocative Anderson high vocal comes in it presages the 1977 hit single, Wondrous Stories (a song I always liked). Again, I have to say that I like this. I love the catchy little organ break at around six and a half minutes and the huge, rumbling bass that follows it.
Siberian Khatru is wonderfully funky. As a funk aficionado I love it. It has that keyboard-driven funkiness that Led Zeppelin used on Trampled Underfoot. If it wasn't for the instantly recognisable vocals I would never have said it was Yes. It has some excellent, rhythmic bits in it as well. I can't speak too highly about this wonderful, instrumentally brilliant track.
Also included on the latest version is the group's surprise hit in their proggy, slightly bonkers cover of Simon & Garfunkel's America. It is heavy, proggy, funky and even Santana-esque Latin all at once. It's 'b' side was a section of Close To The Edge, titled Total Mass Retain, that works effectively in isolation in its Floyd-influenced way. Bits of the guitar remind me of Steely Dan too. Overall, as a fan of Glam, pop, Motown, soul and reggae amongst other shorter more commercial genres, this sort of thing goes against the grain of much of my taste, but, as I am finding out, it is not without its good points. A bit like having a vegetarian meal - its quite enjoyable but there is no way I could eat it (or listen to it in this case) everyday. For many more knowledgeable critics than myself, this album was seen as the beginning of the end for Yes - Bruford left after this (exhausted, maybe) and Wakeman departed while recording the next album. It was Anderson, Squire and Howe's thing, all that mystical over the top indulgence. Next came the by now obligatory sprawling double album. I think I'll leave that for another day....
Opinions were divided on whether the group had achieved the acme of their innovative potential or otherwise had completely lost the plot. For me, it is 30% of the former and 70% of the latter. The excellent drummer Bill Bruford had left after the last album and keyboard genius Rick Wakeman got pissed off halfway through and left as well. These were my two favourite instrumentalists from the band gone. The somewhat pretentious singer/composer Jon Anderson’s quasi religious-philosophical influence is all over the work (just take a look at the song titles, and indeed the album’s title), along with that of guitarist Steve Howe and, despite there being some impressive parts that give pleasure and deserve respect, I cannot help but listen to this and, between the good bits, think “what a load of old tosh”.
In many respects, an album like this can be see as one of the main inspirations and catalysts for the rise of punk. The sprawling, instrumental passages, the high-pitched vocals, the classical-styled keyboards, the constant changes in ambience and tempo, the phantasmagorical lyrics, and yes, just the sheer over-the-top smug pretension of it all can seriously grate. On the other hand - and there always is another hand - it can be credibly hailed as a work of imaginative genius.
Personally, writing as not a “proper” Yes fan, but a dilettante ex-punk, I have to say that I much prefer the previous albums and find this a bit of an indigestible listen. The good passages are fewer and more far between than they are on say, on Close To The Edge.
I am not really capable of analysing each track in the way I do other tracks on other albums other than to simply say that I like some of the drum parts (but I preferred Bruford’s drumming, listen to the third part for audible evidence that Alan White was no Bruford ), there are some nice bass lines and the occasional riffy bit (too few - the heaviest bit briefly arrives at the end of part three), but Anderson’s voice irritates me more on this one than on any of the others. Howe’s guitar is always superbly melodic and clear, though.
Maybe I should let Steve Howe say what each side had to offer?
"Side one was the commercial or easy-listening side of Topographic Oceans, side two was a much lighter, folky side of Yes, side three was electronic mayhem turning into acoustic simplicity, and side four was us trying to drive the whole thing home on a biggie."
There you have it, from the old proggy’s mouth.
In spite of some of the album’s noteworthy aspects, I will end with the question - why did punk feel it needed to briefly strip things down in the way it did? Take a listen to this. It stands as a living symbol of prog rock excess. At times, I can appreciate bits of it, at other times I find myself thinking that it stinks worse than a vegan's fart. Either way, after a listen I find myself craving other genres.
No Rick Wakeman by now, Yes recruited keyboard man Patrick Moraz and came up with an album that was supposedly a departure from their usual sound. I’m not quite so sure of that, especially when I listen to the first track (which took up all of side one) and also by the fact that they stuck to the familiar three lengthy tracks format. It was not a sea change, it still sounds like Yes to me.
Incidentally, I remember what a big deal it was back then when a band recruited a new member, it was treated like a football team signing a new player.
Anyway, I digress. The twenty-one minute long The Gates Of Delirium has some nice, deep heavy passages, great bass and some quirky, spacey keyboards from Moraz but it also has a dreadful discordance in places, really tinny crashing bits (apparently conceived by throwing bits of scrap metal around) and an awful vocal from Jon Anderson. The song is supposed to be based on Tolstoy’s War And Peace and the noisy bits put in there to recreate battle scenes. It was amazing how quasi-intellectual prog rock was, fans of this must have pitied those of us who shallowly liked glam rock or Motown, for example. That pity was returned by me at the time for those spending hours ensconced in their bedrooms listening to this. It ain’t what I call rock ‘n’ roll.
However, as always with Yes, I do like some of it but overall I feel it is gratuitous directionless indulgence. I do prefer it to the previous album, though, by far, I have to say.
The final passage of the track was released as a single, entitled Soon. It is quietly appealing enough, but Anderson’s vocal again doesn’t do it for me.
What next? Why Yes, via Moraz's keyboards, have gone a bit Led Zeppelin-esque clumsy funky on Sound Chaser but unfortunately not quite bassy enough for me, although the bit about 2:30 is impressive, as is the subsequent guitar work. Anderson's vocals once again blight the track, (particularly the closing cha-cha bits), for me. Sorry. He redeems himself considerably on the comparatively lovely To Be Over, however. It is a much quieter, subtler number, featuring some sublime bass work, a relaxing, blissed-out vibe and a melodious vocal. It is by far the best of the album's three pieces, to my ears, at least. It's all about taste and this one suits mine better. I really like the bit about seven minutes in, with the bass and keyboards.
Incidentally, like Soon, Sound Chaser has a reasonable single edit version. Neither would be in danger of threatening the charts, though, would they?
As a non-Yes aficionado of a reviewer, I find that there is not a huge amount of difference between this and the previous album, other than it is less bloated and more melodically appealing in places.
Rick Wakeman returned for this album, released three years after the previous album, Relayer. The result was an almost commercial offering, showing a huge change in sound in places. Even long-time cover artist Roger Dean has gone, replaced by a more contemporary, abstract, Pink Floyd-esque angular piece of work. That artwork stood as a most potent symbol of the group's change in direction, almost as much as the music itself, weirdly. Even the album's title sounded positive, to-the-point and cool as opposed to pretentiously proggy. No topographic oceans here.
The album was released at the height of punk, and was the very anti-punk but it phenomenal success showed just how many proggers still roamed the earth. Casting my mind back to my peers in 1977, they were around 65% prog or heavy rock and 35% punk. Cheesecloth and long hair still beat leather and safety pins hands down.
Well, this is a turn up for the books - Yes sounding like Led Zeppelin on the distinctly riffy, rocking opener of Going For The One. This was as rock as anything they had ever done. With a stronger lead vocal it could have been much better, but musically it is a great change in style for the group. Listen to that slide guitar. Yes? surely not? It also reminds me of Supertramp here and there.
The ethereal Turn Of The Century is a beautiful, dreamy, acoustic-driven track. Steve Howe's guitar is recognisably sumptuous on this one and Jon Anderson's soaring vocal is as good as it has sounded (I am not always a fan, as previous reviews have expressed). Wakeman's piano at four minutes in is just lovely. I really like this track, I have to say.
Parallels is a rousing, swirling upbeat organ-driven number - very proggy but rockily accessible too. Love the melodic bass line on the track too and the solo-ish guitar near the end. Good stuff. Another surprising thing was that Yes had a top ten, radio-friendly and highly popular single in the Tolkein-esque Wonderous Stories (why was it spelled incorrectly, I wonder? It should be wondrous). Even I liked this catchy, grandiose tune back then, with its trademark high-pitched vocal. For some reason, though, its production sounds a little muffled to me.
It wouldn't be Yes, would it, without a lengthy workout, and the album ends with the beguiling Awaken. it is a true prog creation, full of classical keyboard influences and rambling changes of tempo and stands slightly apart from the more instantly appealing (comparatively) other material on the album.
So, that is it for Yes, as far as my reviews are concerned. They will never be proper favourites of mine (indeed at one time I could not conceive of my listening to even a minute of their output) but I'm sure you will see and maybe accept that I have given their unique, challenging music a fair go.