With the recent news that Billy Sherwood is returning to do some studio work on the new Yes album, fans may be wondering just what the ex-1990s-era collaborator has been up to lately. Here’s a primer, with key songs from his subsequent solo career, work with ex-Yes bandmate Chris Squire and with Circa — which features Tony Kaye, another fellow Yes alum …
“AND SO ON,” with CIRCA (AND SO ON, 2011): Circa has every right, of course, to sound like Yes, considering that its two principal creative forces are former members of the band, and this is the tune that makes the most of that prog-rock promise. “And So On” actually 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, a period that saw him co-write “Yours Is No Disgrace” for The Yes Album, before Rick Wakeman took over. Kaye then returned to Yes for its synth-driven prog-pop era a decade later — staying from 1983-1995 in his second stint. It was then that he met Sherwood.
Together now in Circa, they were joined for this album 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. 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 a time-machine levels.
Kaye returns to the Hammond organ — the instrument he was featured on during his last album with Yes, 1994’s underrated Talk — as Sherwood sings with an unguarded abandon while deliriously thumping away on the bass. But it’s Bruhns, perhaps, who surprises the most – somehow combining both the modern edge of Trevor Rabin’s thundering 90125 riffs with the atmospheric intellect of Steve Howe.
“LIVING IN THE NOW,” (WHAT WAS THE QUESTION, 2011): On an album boasting a number of wind-swept, very dark ruminations on life in this digital age, 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.
Nothing new there, I suppose. Nor is it all that surprising to find Sherwood playing every instrument on his fifth solo project. After all, Sherwood’s earliest standout moment in Yes can be found during 1991’s Union, where his one-man band demo “The More I Live” appeared nearly unedited — with just the addition of Jon Anderson’s vocal. Sherwood wouldn’t officially join Yes until 1997, but not before touring with the band and then engineering and producing the Keys to Ascension albums. His official tenure would last just three years, but the impact the band had on Sherwood was lasting. You certainly 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.
Yet, Sherwood remains more than the sum of his Yes years. Across the breadth of What Was The Question?, as on his denser concurrent efforts in Circa, Sherwood 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 — fitting, since Sherwood produced John Wetton’s 2011 solo project, and has Wetton as a guest on this album’s “Delta Sierra Juliet.” That’s not to mention the girder-shaking improvisational references to Weather Report, a Sherwood favorite.
Still, for all of that musical and perhaps topical familiarity, Sherwood’s message on this track somehow lands with a particular resonance: “For all the worrying and losing sleep,” he insists, “we don’t have much to show.” The answer, Sherwood seems to be saying, is right in front of you — blinking like Gatsby’s beacon. Hit the power button. Turn it all off. As “Living in the Now” abruptly ends, you can almost feel that quiet space as a computer powers down, when the fan dies out and the screen goes into black — that moment when you can finally hear your own heartbeat again.
“NEW WORLD,” with CONSPIRACY (CONSPIRACY LIVE, 2004): Squire and Sherwood, it seemed, had an immediate spark. Only Yes, the band Squire co-founded in the late 1960s, just kept getting in the way. Beginning in the run up to 1991’s Union, the pair had been writing songs together, but the fruits of those labors would be sprinkled over a series of Yes projects, and Sherwood himself wouldn’t become an official member of the group for years.
After Sherwood’s eventual departure in 2000, they finally issued a pair of albums as Conspiracy, and recorded this private show in 2004, but there remained a star-crossed sense of unfinished business. When Squire, who had been living on America’s West Coast, moved back to the UK, Conspiracy morphed into Sherwood’s current project Circa — even as Squire returned his focus full time to Yes. In their brief moment of collaboration, however, they left behind some intriguing gems.
Consider the eight-minute epic “New World,” part of an original 2003 song cycle called The Unknown that focused on the September 11 attacks. It begins with a swoon, quickly ramps up into a patented Squire thump, and then settles into a nervy, propulsive groove — with Sherwood taking the vocal lead until the track’s soaring chorus. Squire’s voice intertwines in a brief sun-soaked moment, before Sherwood unleashes the first of several gnarled guitar asides. “New World” then moves through an impressive array of episodic moments, allowing every member of the group a moment to shine. It certainly leaves you to ponder what might have been.
“CAST AWAY,” with CIRCA (AND SO ON, 2011): For an example of Circa’s typically overlooked non-Yes influences, head straight to this literally out-of-this-world, space rock-influenced track. Perhaps hinting at his future successes with William Shatner of Star Trek fame, Sherwood takes us on an end-over-end trip out into a weightless wonder. That ambient feel couldn’t be further away from his most recent large-scale projects with Yes on 1997’s Open Your Eyes 1999’s The Ladder. Then there’s the recently un-retired Kaye. In adding a series of bluesy gurgles, he moves well away from the jabbing style of his second tenure with Yes.
“I never really think much of Yes when I’m making music,” Sherwood tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “I’m thinking of my own thing, because my roots are so deep in prog. It’s natural for me to do those things. That led me all the way to Yes’ doorstep — and Tony’s the same way. But he brings his own thing to the table. People who were bagging on the guy are finding a new-found faith in him after hearing him in Circa. He’s really kicking it.”
With its portent-filled groove, “Cast Away” is notable too in that its doesn’t betray any of Sherwood’s obvious debt to Squire’s playing style. Circa had suddenly become its own band, doing its own thing. “I like that I can play really loud on bass. You have to construct and design your own band in order to do that. I took Chris Squire’s lead! [Laughs.] We’re very proud of the record. It kind of feels like it did back in the day — you know, where the third album is the one where a band hits its stride.”
“DRONE DECIPHERS,” (THE ART OF SURVIVAL, 2012): A tweeked-out piece of information-age alienation that recalls Peter Gabriel at his flower costume-wearing best, “Drone Deciphers” highlights yet another subcurrent in Sherwood’s influence base — and, in so doing, unleashes one of his most interesting amalgams of sound yet as a solo artist.
Sherwood’s subject matter isn’t as groundbreaking, as he continues to try to sort through the difficulties of managing life in a world of technological encroachment — a favorite topic. But Sherwood is still pushing his musical craft to new places: After setting up a dream-like atmosphere, complete with a sweetly conveyed sense of reverie for simpler times, Sherwood mixes in a series of smeared otherworldly effects, recalling Billy Thorpe’s thunderous starship landings. An insistent mechanical voice starts intoning “target acquired,” and soon Sherwood is encircling the song in vocal reiterations of the initial theme.
Finally, as “Drone Deciphers” moves into its final movement, Sherwood settles into a confidential, very Gabriel-ish whisper. He continues asking big questions, and answering those questions with still more, until “Drone Deciphers” comes to a sudden stop. It’s as if being awakened from a dream, so complete is Sherwood’s hypnotic musical spell.
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