Peter Banks Empire – The Mars Tapes (2014)

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The Mars Tapes helps fill a notable gap in the recorded career of Yes’ lost founding guitarist, as Gonzo Multimedia collects a fascinating two-disc set of odds and ends from Peter Banks’ late 1970s-era collaborations in Empire.

By 1979, as Banks gathered with Sidonie Jordan (his future wife, she was going by the stage name Sydney Foxx) Paul Delph, Brad Stephenson and Mark Murdock, Empire had already released two albums that had failed to find distribution in the U.S. Mark III, alas, would suffer the same fate as 1973’s Mark I and 1974’s Mark II, disappearing into undeserved obscurity. Well, at least until the late-1990s, when a belated reissue campaign revealed their long-withheld delights.

Photo credit: Peter Banks Estate/George MizerAside from being one of the few women fronting prog groups at the time, Jordan also possessed a dark occasionally Joplin-esque vocal grit that stood completely apart. Couple that with Banks’ reliably intriguing flights of guitar fancy, and the prog-blues of Empire begins to look like a lost treasure from a time when the genre badly needed something to restore its creative momentum.

The Mars Tapes both amplify the successes of Mark III — as we find Peter Banks and Co. collaborating during six months of studio rehearsals, recorded direct form the control desk at Mars Studios — even as they dig further back into the band’s heady beginnings. A fascinating bonus track finds Banks performing with Phil Collins on a track called “Sky at Night.” They’d been working in a loose amalgam called Zok and the Radar Boys before Collins settled into a more regular extracurricular schedule with Brand X during his downtime with Genesis. (Murdock, more recently, produced Cymbalic Encounters with members of Brand X.)

Unfortunately, Empire wouldn’t return Peter Banks, who died in March 2013 at 65 of heart failure, to the same lofty places that he’d seen with Yes, or even his subsequent group Flash. The fault, as we hear on this remarkable set, lies not in the things he tried, but in something beyond Banks’ control. Whether it was ill timed, poorly promoted or just bad luck, we’ll never know. But his work in Empire, all of it, richly deserved to be heard. Luckily, we have that chance now.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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