This album is, in many ways, better than it has any right to be.
Yes had already tried a project with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes — and without Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman — in 1980, and the resulting album Drama turned into an guitar-focused curio. The group returned to the drawing board, adding Trevor Rabin as Steve Howe departed, and reuniting with Anderson. This updated sound, at times an almost unrecognizable prog-pop amalgam, helped shoot the band to the top of the charts in 1983. But it also sent Yes into a wandering existence as it searched for the next pop hit.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Comparing the new Yes single “Fly from Here” with its ‘Drama’-era concert version and then the Buggles’ version, all three of which feature Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes.]
Now, Anderson and a Wakeman (this time, Rick’s son Oliver) are gone once more, and Horn and Downes are back again. They’ve even brought along a tune in the form of lead single “Fly From Here, Part I: We Can Fly” from the tour in support of Drama. Yet this new project, to be issued on July 1 in Europe and July 12 in North America through Frontiers Records, transcends both this lineup’s previous mistakes, and the inevitable let down expected from adding a former frontman from a Yes tribute band to fill Anderson’s shoes.
First, Howe’s contributions here — notably on “Fly From Here, Part II: Sad Night at the Airfield,” and on the showcase tune “Solitaire” — are far more in keeping with his best work with Yes. There’s an understated complexity that was often missing in his new wave-influenced experiments on Drama and in his subsequent tenure with Asia. Downes’ keyboard work, too, sounds less rooted in the MTV-era pop of his and Horn’s band the Buggles than it does in the decade before when prog-rock found its popular zenith. In keeping, Yes even attempts something it hadn’t in decades — a multi-part thematic suite, and to great effect. As always, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White are compact and versatile, expertly facilitating complicated journeys like “Fly From Here Part III: Madman at the Screens,” which switches back and forth from a crunchy stomp to soaring ambiance.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Alan White talks about starting over with a new vocalist in Yes, his initial dates with the band, and favorite moments from working with David Torn, Tony Levin and John Lennon.]
But the album rises and falls, of course, on the band’s replacement for Anderson.
Benoit David shows, as on “Fly From Here Part IV: Bumpy Ridge” and on “Hour of Need,” that he can approximate the departed band co-founder’s. But, importantly, David isn’t bound by those easy imitative cues, like so many of rock music’s ghost bands of today. Going in, I certainly understood the impetus behind hiring what I presumed would be a soundalike, since the replacement singer has to approximate the group’s hitmaking period of yore in concert. At the same time, though, it seems to doom any new work — with rare exceptions — to sounding like a photocopy. Not here. Instead, David displays a thrilling range, both inside and outside of the Anderson expectations. During moments like the crisp, synth-driven “In the Storm” (perhaps the closest Fly From Here gets to the electronic joys of the Buggles), David definitively stakes his claim to a piece of Yes’ legacy, sounding every bit like his own man.
When all of that comes together, and it often does here, that pushes the band, at long last, to a new place. It’s one in which Yes isn’t trying to sound like either of its most recognizable eras, but rather something else entirely. So, no “Owner of a Lonely Heart”-style scronks. At the same time, mountains aren’t coming out of the sky, either. Finally, Yes seems confident that they don’t have to anymore.
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