It has been, quite literally, the best of times and the worst of times for fans of Yes.
The prog-rock legends issued their first album in a decade last year. But not before enduring the wrath of some old-line fans who were angry because Yes had moved on without co-founding lead singer Jon Anderson. By the time the year was out, replacement Benoit David had himself been forced off the road by a respiratory ailment, and was also subsequently replaced. There were reports of David having learned of his firing via the news media, and Anderson decrying his old band’s commitment to touring over recording.
Enough of all that. The truth is, 2011 offered a wealth of delights for Yes fans, even beyond the main group’s well-received Fly From Here. Anderson issued two projects, his terrific solo venture Survival and Other Stories and a souvenir from his 2010 concert series with fellow Yes alum Rick Wakeman. Meanwhile, Billy Sherwood — a 1990s-era member of the group — issued both a new solo project and another Circa album with Tony Kaye, Yes’ pre-Wakeman keyboardist. Current Yes guitarist Steve Howe issued an album that combined prog and classical sensibilities. The Levin Torn White trio album featured both Yes drummer Alan White and bassist Tony Levin, who has appeared on a pair of Yes-related releases. Finally, original band guitarist Peter Banks guested on album by ANT-BEE, also issued in 2011.
Taken together, it’s actually an embarrassment of riches for Yes fans — and something that led us to construct an all-encompassing iPod/Spotify/CD burner playlist in belated celebration. Time to forget the scandals. Let’s get back to the music …
1. YES – “FLY FROM HERE, OVERTURE”: New Yes lead singer Benoit David’s arrival coincided with a return for both Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, key players in the creation of 1980′s Drama, which — perhaps uncoincidentally — was the most recent Yes project to be recorded without Jon Anderson. Together, they’d help fashion a better-than-expected comeback recording in 2011′s Fly From Here that included some polished up outtakes from those 30-year-old sessions and the subsequent tour — but nevertheless gave the band new musical life. This overture provides the perfect opening element, establishing a theme (as on the Yes album) that will run through the playlist.
2. JON ANDERSON – “NEW NEW WORLD”: Too often, it was like Jon Anderson didn’t want to make a solo record that sounded too much like Yes. As interesting as these side roads no doubt were, they gave few clues to how his own voice fit into the wider topography of the band. And they often were so idiosyncratic that only the deepest, more committed fans had the will to follow along. That is, until 2011′s Survival and Other Stories,that finds Anderson coming to terms with his own storied history, even as he transcends it. In keeping, “New New World” has all of the DNA markers of Yes’ music — whimsical lyrics about dancing truths, layer upon layer of soaring vocals — but with a newly uncluttered approach. Like much of Survival and Other Stories, “New New World” is informed by what came before and yet untethered from it. Anderson, right from the first, simultaneously sounds more like Yes than he ever has as a solo artist and yet somehow different.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW:]
3. YES – “FLY FROM HERE, PART 1: WE CAN FLY”: 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, Benoit David displayed a thrilling range, both inside and outside of the Anderson expectations. During moments like this one, David (at least, briefly) staked his claim to a piece of Yes’ legacy, sounding every bit like his own man.
4. LEVIN TORN WHITE – “CONVERGENCE”: Part prog, part free-form improvisational music, part noise rock, The self-titled Scott Schorr-produced trio effort brought in each of its participant’s familiar textures and sounds, yet ended up somehow as something completely new. Long-time Yes drummer Alan White was featured along with bassist Tony Levin, who made an appearance on Yes’ early 1990s effort Union after working as an uncredited member of the reunion project Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. Joined by guitarist David Torn, they built off live jams, with volume and distortion serving almost as additional members of the trio. “When we were first getting into it, we were all just trying to find our own way — and that was kind of cool for me,” White told us. “I think all of these ideas have been doing through the three of us for a lot of years, and those things just naturally come out when you’re inspired by the people you are playing with. It was mostly improvised but, at the same time, it still sounds really articulated. There are spaces within all of that stuff to breathe.”
5. JON ANDERSON – “UNDERSTANDING TRUTH”: This track aspires both to the honest improvisational beauty of his work with Vangelis even as it reanimates a childlike wonder originally associated with his early work as a co-founder of one of prog rock’s signature bands. Think “We Have Heaven” from Yes’ Fragile, but less mystical, more grounded.
6. ANT-BEE WITH PETER BANKS – “ENDLESS JOURNEY”: A cool little space-rock number by ANT-BEE, this begins appropriately enough: With a countdown and then a rocket launch. The unmistakable tone of Peter Banks’ guitar floats by next — and it’s a transfixing moment, above and beyond the other spooky sounds that follow, from a trickling keyboard to these otherworldly humpback whale calls. Banks, guitarist with Yes over its first two albums in the late 1960s (Yes and Time and a Word), recorded his parts some time ago as ANT-BEE, led by drummer and producer Billy James, continued work on 2011′s Electronic Church Muzik. More recently, Banks has suffered through a series of health problems, but you’d never know it here. He explores broad, emotionally challenging soundscapes, sounding nothing like that guy from Yes — and that’s a good thing. Hell, it’s a great thing. With so many figures from the “classic rock” period trying so desperately hard to sound “classic,” it’s a veritable gust of fresh air.
7. YES – “FLY FROM HERE, PART 2: SAD NIGHT AT THE AIRFIELD”: When everything comes together on Fly From Here, as it does here on a track moves from a contemplative guitar figure into a whooshing anthematic dreamscape, Yes pushes itself, 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 weren’t coming out of the sky, either. Finally, Yes seemed confident that they don’t have to “sound like Yes” anymore — only themselves.
8. JON ANDERSON/RICK WAKEMAN – “23-24-11″ (LIVE): Anyone expecting the cosmic prog-rock journeys of this duo’s work as members of Yes must have been a little disappointed. More striking than the lean, guitar-free musical structures, however, was how intimate — even grounded — this concert performance was. That ends up being the perfect setting for this visceral ride into the terror of war, presented from the point of view of a soldier in Afghanistan — who chillingly counts down the days and hours until he can return home. On first blush, “23-24-11″ and much of The Living Tree In Concert, Part 1 doesn’t match Yes’ outsized penchant for the epic. But repeated listenings uncover a growing emotional impact. Wakeman’s playing, shaded, delicate and direct, is a particular wonder. While shedding the pomp and circumstance of their former band, the duo pulls the listener close — maybe closer than ever before. The effect is intimate, unnerving, then transformative.
[ONE TRACK MIND:]
9. YES – “SOLITAIRE: Happily, a rejuvenated Howe’s contributions on this showcase solo tune, and on the earlier “Fly From Here, Part II: Sad Night at the Airfield,” 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.
10. BILLY SHERWOOD – “LIVING IN THE NOW”: On an album boasting a number of dark ruminations on life in this digital age, 1990s-era Yes alum Billy Sherwood takes a second on “Living in the Now” to contemplate the answers — and he comes up with something as startlingly beautiful as it is forehead-smackingly simple: Let go. He’s done the same since leaving Yes more than a decade ago, though the band’s impact certainly remains: You sense that on “Living in the Now,” from the tidal changes in tempo and feel, to the limber bass lines and almost mathematical guitar asides, to the sweeping, inspirational lyrics. But elsewhere on Sherwood’s 2011 solo album What Was The Question?, he also dabbles in the weird impressionism of early Genesis, and the crinkly nerve of Jeff Beck. There are layer upon layer of multi-tracked vocals, straight out of the sun-drenched school of Brian Wilson, and the offbeat yet catchy compositional verve of those unjustly forgotten prog-rockers UK. Sherwood remains more than the sum of his Yes years.
11. YES – “FLY FROM HERE, PART III: MADMAN AT THE SCREENS”: A nice showcase for the symbiotic relationship between bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White. Rhythm partners in Yes since 1972, they are so compact and versatile here — expertly facilitating a complicated pathway as “Madman at the Screens” switches back and forth from a crunchy stomp to soaring ambiance.
12. JON ANDERSON – “UNBROKEN SPIRIT: This track seems to speak most directly to the difficult times that ultimately led to his departure from Yes, and what it took to carry on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the band decided to continue its muscular touring schedule with another singer, you hear Anderson contemplating the broader meaning of endings. “Everything will pass,” he sings, quietly, “everything … every thing.” Yet, as the title suggests, there remains a lingering feeling associated with what came before, a shared love that is never completely vanquished.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: There was at least one benefit to the departure of Jon Anderson from Yes: The presence of Benoit David immediately opened the door for a rewrite of what had become a very rote setlist.]
13. LEVIN TORN WHITE – “ULTRA MULLETT”: A modern amalgam of sounds that skitters breathlessly from prog to free jazz to fusion to cinematic ambiance to something approaching psychedelia, the explosive Levon Torn White was somehow as modern as it was old school. That’s perhaps best heard on this track, which begins with a Tony Levin bass signature that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an old record from his time with King Crimson, but then quickly moves well outside of those expected parameters. He’s brilliantly matched, both in tone and complexity, by the free-form musings of White and Torn.
14. YES – “INTO THE STORM”: A crisp, synth-driven track, perhaps the closest Fly From Here gets to the electronic joys of Geoff Downes’ band the Buggles.
[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.]
15. JON ANDERSON – “CLOUDZ”: The initially melancholic, then determinedly hopeful “Cloudz,” very much in the same vein as his concurrent stripped-bare duo work with former bandmate Rick Wakeman, makes for the perfect companion piece in our playlist to his former band’s previous track — like the last rivulets of rain running away after the storms have passed.
16. CIRCA – “AND SO ON”: Featuring Billy Sherwood on vocals and bass and Tony Kaye on keyboards, “And So On” boasts clear DNA strands from the two principal periods of hit-making music for Yes, both old and new: Kaye was the group’s original keyboardist, then returned to Yes for its synth-driven prog-pop era a decade later — staying from 1983-1995 in his second stint, just in time to meet Sherwood. Together now in Circa, they are joined by like-minded confederates in guitarist Johnny Bruhns (a member the post-Yes amalgam Yoso) and drummer Ronnie Ciago (who’s worked with Patrick Moraz, a Relayer-period member of Yes). The result is an atom-smashing amalgam of both eras – and nowhere is that more evident than on this, the epic nine-minute title and opening track of Circa’s new release. It’s all there: A soaring vocal, a dynamic song structure featuring a series of abrupt changes in tempo and atmosphere, this impossibly buoyant bass line, guitar shapes that sound at once classical and modern, keyboards that meander with introspective verve — and a sunny disposition set at time-machine levels.
17. STEVE HOWE – “BACHIANAS BRASILEIRAS NO. 5″: Villa Lobo’s familiar composition is the opener on this interesting collaboration with keyboard player/producer Paul K. Joyce. Five years in the making, Time ended up providing a stirring platform for Howe’s often-overlooked virtuosity in a variety of guitar styles, from acoustic and electric to Spanish and classical. Howe appears for the first time without drums, but nevertheless blends seamlessly into these more traditional formats — without relinquishing any of his sharply constructed ideas, or prog-inspired verve.
18. JON ANDERSON – “LOVE OF THE LIFE”: This one boasts a punchy bass figure that strongly recalls Chris Squire, but with a torrent of polyrhythms that couldn’t be further away from the pop-prog favored by modern-day Yes. Anderson, it seems, has made peace with his time with Yes. More importantly, he’s finally ready to re-claim, completely and so very movingly, his own stake in that legacy. You hear a lot of his former band in Survival and Other Stories, and as welcome as that is, you hear just as much, maybe more, of Anderson himself. That’s why it’s his very best solo record, simultaneously a brilliant valedictory for his time with Yes and a bold move away from his old band.
19. YES – “FLY FROM HERE, PART V: REPRISE”: This album was, in many ways, better than it had 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. That 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. By 2011, Anderson and a Wakeman (this time, Rick’s son Oliver) were gone once more, and Horn and Downes were back again. They even brought along the a lead single in the form of “Fly From Here,” reprised here, that was originally performed on the tour in support of Drama. Yet the album transcended both this lineup’s previous mistakes, not to mention the inevitable let down expected from adding a former frontman from a Yes tribute band to fill Anderson’s shoes.