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.
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 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.. 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 —
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.