When the British pop-charts were full of cheap to produce, long forgotten Punk and Disco, Yes where selling out 70,000 seat stadiums to millions around the world. If anything, in those days, being largely ignored by mainstream radio was almost seen as a stamp of approval for the band who unashamedly blended delicate acoustic numbers about fantasy and transcendence, with stage lighting and theatrical productions to rival any broadway show.
Yes songs wake you up at three in morning with ideas you’ve never had before. Their music is a conduit into other ways of thinking. It’s about more than just the facade under which the music is made flesh; the fingers on the fret-wire. Their structures are like fractals—windows into the Roger Dean album-art which have adorned their L.P.’s since the early 1970’s. Shapes within shapes, each similar to the last and yet re-imagined each successive playback, in the mind of the listener. Moreover their sound is based up on a trust that the listener will “get it”, in a way which renders superfluous any pretensions of being “radio-friendly”.
So, when I heard the news that Chris Squire, Alan White and Steve Howe were uniting with Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn to record a new album my anticipation was high.
Trevor Horn needs no introduction. His production mastery and attention to detail have touched upon every musical genre under the sun. He first worked with Yes in 1980, as well as briefly replacing the erstwhile Jon Anderson on vocals for a short world tour. This time around he originally agreed to “help out”, but found himself kidnapped by the group in New York, unable to leave until he’d agreed to produced the entire album—an offer, he says, he couldn’t refuse.
Geoff Downes was Horn’s coconspirator in The Buggles. ‘Age of Plastic’, which gave the duo their 1979 hit single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ stands to this day as a masterclass in music production and song-craft. He is also a long-time band-member with Steve Howe in that bastion of Americanised Prog-Rock, Asia.
Squire, Howe and White have persevered with changes to the Yes line-up for decades. This incarnation of the band sees former ‘Close to the Edge’ frontman Benoit David replacing Jon Anderson on vocals. With an eerily familiar Anderson-like tone to his voice, honed no-doubt in his years as frontman to the aforementioned Yes tribute band, David’s unique compliment to Squire’s trade-mark backing vocals leaves the diehard fan in no-doubt as to his Prog-Rock credentials. It’s also a rather happy accident that where his vocal style differs from Anderson, it’s in its leanings towards Horn’s vocal sound on tracks like ‘I am a Camera’ from the second Buggles album ‘Adventures in Modern Recording’, which was later rearranged as a Yes song for the ‘Drama’ album and retitled ‘Into the Lens’.
‘Fly From Here’ is built around the central theme of the title track, orientally penned 30 years ago by Horn and Downes and pitched to Squire when they were angling for the job of producing what became the group’s first album without Anderson, ‘Drama’. The main signature is reprised harmonically throughout the album, breaking only for a charming acoustic guitar interlude from Howe, ‘Solitaire’.
Fans of the group’s ‘90125’, ‘Big Generator’, ‘Talk’ & ‘Union’ recordings won’t be disappointed with the high-fidelity, no expense spared sheen, synonymous with Horn’s production style throughout. And for many this alone would be enough to warrant repeated playing. Indeed some might see this as more of a third Buggles album than it is a strictly new Yes album. For some Yes just isn’t Yes without Anderson.
But returning to the studio again after all-but vowing “it’s all over” and essentially breaking the band up, over 20 years ago (save for a 2001 collaboration with an orchestra and the album ‘Magnification’), ‘Fly From Here’ should go more than half way to convincing even dyed in the wool Anderson fans that Squire et al still have something they want to say worth listening to, despite that also missing from the line-up is keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who opted instead to record a collaboration with Jon Anderson, producing the duo’s first project together outside of Yes, ‘The Living Tree’.
But despite missing the magic Anderson and Wakeman breathed into the Yes sound, Downes keyboard stylings and Howe’s layered guitars are as luscious as ever and the overall character of the album is in keeping with the post 1983 sound of the group, which many actually prefer to the band’s earlier, more fragmented works (‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Fragile’ notwithstanding).
Overall ‘Fly From Here’ lacks a ‘Gates of Delirium’ or ‘Going for the One’—or some killer interlude that in the old days would have had the grooves of the vinyl worn away from repeated skipping back to play over and over again. But this is a post-Ozric Tentacles genre, which even the sandals and socks, 40 to 60 year olds who predominate the target audience, whose nostalgic yearnings for the days when music was about Bakelite headphones with a curly lead, elaborate artwork and gatefold sleeve designs, would have to admit Yes, as a musical force at least, have been largely surpassed.
But the moments of clarity which do leap out are largely at the hand of messieurs Horn and David—and for their appointment alone one has to look to the insight and passion for brand Yes, for which Squire and Howe still fly the standard.