tl;dr Version: You had me at the word ‘Yes’.
‘Splain, Lucy Version: The first studio album released in a decade by one of the preeminent progressive rock bands of all time, signifying both a return to form and, interestingly enough, a repudiation of the notion long held by many purist Yes fans that the 1980 Drama album has no real place in the Yes canon. This one clinches it, folks.
Boring Version: Today marks the triumphant return of Yes to record stores across North America. If that sounds like the very textbook definition of Unlikely (or Unwanted), then you’re going to find this review surprising.
This album not only returns Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White, the musical backbone of Yes for most of its 40+ year history, to record shelves, but it also reunites them with two of the most contentious and least appreciated former members of Yes, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, otherwise known as The Buggles.
For those few fans of the band who hold a special place in their hearts for the strange offspring that was born of this one-off union (myself included, truth be told), this album is precisely what you have been secretly hoping for all these years*. And when you consider the history of a number of the tracks, including the title track**, it’s not so surprising that the album should sound as if it could have been just as easily been titled ‘Drama, Act II’.
Without delving too deeply into the history of the band (hopefully… yeah right), let’s just say that, for a few years in the late 70s, the classic Yes line-up was put on indefinite hiatus by the departure of both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, which left Mssrs. Howe, Squire and White with an incomplete–and rather lacklustre–album, wondering how they were going to pay the Everest-like tab.
Unbeknownst to them, pop wonder twins Horn and Downes, fresh off their hit song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, were looking for a home for a Yes-like track they’d written that somehow didn’t fit their emerging style. Daring the unthinkable, they took their demo around to the Yes studio to see if their heroes would be interested in rerecording it.
The three remaining Yes-men were impressed enough to take a big chance on the duo, and drafted the young men into helping them write and record an entire new album. Yes at first deceived the boys into believing that Jon and Rick would be returning to the studio in a few days/weeks/months. By the time they figured out what had really happened, they found themselves dues-paying members of Yes, rehearsing for the upcoming tour of their latest album, which, curiously enough, still didn’t include the track they’d brought to Yes in the first place.
Drama was a fascinating mixture of Yes at its most primal, matched with the edgy freshness of one of the most successful pop acts of the day. Old school fans have repeatedly dismissed the album as an aberration, but three years before the birth of Owner of a Lonely Heart (a track Horn was largely responsible for making Rabin bring to the band, and thus pop music history), this was the best chance Yes had of continuing into the turbulent 80s.
That the tour itself proved to be something of a commercial and critical failure (only comparable to their previous tours; the sales figures weren’t nearly as bad as they were made out to be, and would make modern bands blush with envy)***, is a sad testament to an album that was perhaps a few years too early, and never really got its chance to shine.
The abandoned track would next be expanded on slightly by the Buggles, but failed to appear on their next album, which proved to be their somewhat acrimonious last. Geoff became the keyboardist for a moderately successful rock outfit called Asia or some such thing. Trevor, on the other hand, went on to produce numerous gold- and platinum-selling, quintessential 80s acts, such as The Pet Shop Boys, The Art of Noise, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. That, plus co-producing a hit album or two for Trevor Rabin-era Yes, so he made out alright.
Fast forward to 2008, where classic Yes vocalist Jon Anderson has been temporarily waylaid by a serious bought of lung illness that very nearly proved fatal. In what has proven to be the least popular line-up change in decades, the remainder of Yes elected to hire a new vocalist for the 40th anniversary tour and carry on without its spiritual leader.
Benoit David, 45-year-old former Yes tribute band vocalist and member of Canadian progressive rock act Mystery, has a strong, belltone-clear, slightly incandescent voice, not unlike a fine amalgamation of Jon Anderson and Trevor Horn at his best, without the perhaps-requisite English accent.
He’s not what one would call a true replacement for Jon, which is especially clear in the writing credits for the new album, where his name appears only once, on a band composition that also features credits for Horn and Downes (as well as former keyboardist Oliver Wakeman, who was more or less asked to step aside for returning Downes). David might not be a particularly experienced songwriter, despite his years, but after a decade of waiting and writing for Squire and Howe, he’s not really needed in that capacity, at least for this project. We’ll see how he fares next outing.
What is clear is that he is practically a godsend to Trevor Horn, who finally has someone with Anderson’s range and power to sing his (Horn’s) Yes opus at long last.
And that’s essentially what the new album is: a showcase for the final realisation of a piece born over thirty years ago at last finding its rightful home on a proper Yes studio album.
You thought I’d never get to this, didn’t you? Oh ye of little faith.
Yes is back. Really and truly back. For how long is anyone’s guess, and I won’t belittle their effort by dredging up the bad blood between Yes and former members Anderson and Wakeman the Younger. If nothing else can be said for Fly From Here, the album’s mere existence justifies everything that has come before. But as far as I’m concerned, much can and must to be said.
As suggested earlier, this album could very easily be called Drama II. Fortunately, Yes doesn’t do sequels, but this album sounds like someone (probably Chris) slipped down to the wine cellar and decanted a lost bottle of Beaujolais labelled ‘1980’.
The title track consists of five separate parts of varying length and style, which add up to almost precisely 24 minutes of music. Not precisely a fully-formed Yes epic in the classic sense, but a song cycle that tells a proper story, which we haven’t really had much of in Yes history, and certainly not one so clearly depicted. It’s not a wonder they were able to create such an evocative and narrative-driven video for their first single. Refusing to give away the story itself, I will say that it tells an intriguing and cinematic tale of life and loss cloaked in metaphors of flight.
The Overture starts off with a quiet little piano figure and then crashes into a medium-high tempo instrumental rock riff just this side of the progressive metal horizon, and then essays a few motifs from the rest of the piece, as any good overture should, without overstaying its welcome or giving away all the goodies. I could have handled a bigger helping, but it’s probably just as well that they saved some for the rest.
We Can Fly is the opening single, and after hearing the original version Trevor and Geoff concocted back in the 80s, I can honestly say that this needed to be recorded by Yes. Steve’s guitar adds a dimension not realized on the original demo, and Chris more than adequately reworks Trevor’s bass part and makes it his own. The real standout for me here is the melding of Benoit’s voice with Chris’s; Benoit is covering Trevor’s original vocal melody, but giving it both added dynamics and warmth that Trevor fell just short of. Truly, one of Chris’s best vocal harmonies in years. Aside from that, it is a nearly faithful recreation of the original.
Sad Night at the Airfield is also a vocal piece, and also a rerecording of a Buggles effort, the second half of the expanded number they demoed after leaving Yes. The backing vocals are also in good effect here, but Benoit is given the room to nail Trevor’s original performance, with Chris singing echoes in the distance. It’s a very moody, atmospheric piece, quite unlike what we’ve heard from Yes in most of the last three decades, save perhaps the ABWH album, ironically enough, though perhaps not surprisingly so, given that Geoff and Steve (of course) were involved in the writing on that album. It also puts me in mind of Jon and Vangelis. Strange how that works.
Madman at the Screens opens with a mellotron pad that then revisits the explosive opening riff from the overture, with Benoit and Chris exchanging lines of what begins to sound like a rather involved mini drama that probably wouldn’t be out of place in the next James Bond film, if one ever comes to light. I hear little motifs that suggest past numbers, particularly from the mid 70s era, but so tightly wound and directed that you never feel as if you’re being fan serviced. As the first completely original song in this piece, it evokes the best elements of their classic prog rock excesses, but with an eye on the clock that imemdiately puts me in mind of ‘Machine Messiah’ from Drama. I also suspect that the lionshare of the plot gets told in this section, but I haven’t broken down the lyrics yet, so I can’t be sure.
Bumpy Ride starts as an instrumental excursion that again reminds us of past classic delights, but with a curiously light heart. It briefly segues back to the atmospheric tone of the preceding track, but then returns to the almost too-cute instrumental motif, which dovetails into…
We Can Fly Reprise, which hammers home the anthemic quality of the opening single, and reminds us that pop music can be shaped to serve the purposes of progressive rock quite ably, if you forgive the lack of 13/8. Over all, a masterful piece that I find myself playing over and over.
The very nice thing about this piece is that it hangs well together as a whole, but also serves up three perfectly acceptable singles, which is a rarity for a prog rock epic in any decade. It also promises taht we may actually hear some if not all of this piece in concert in the not-too-distant future, which would be a nice change from the last several concerts I attended, expecting to hear my favourite new tracks, only to be treated to yet another rendition of Roundabout (which I love, but really, enough already).
The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be is a nice acoustic-driven number which distinguishes itself as perhaps the finest pop song Chris Squire has ever co-written (with Trevor and Geoff) and sang lead on. A proper (sugar-free) love song, very much in the vein of certain pop songs the band wrote on their most recent previous albums, while attempting, I often suspected, to capture their own version of the Trevor Rabin magic, but here most successfully. If radio weren’t what it is these days, I’d be very hopeful of hearing this as a second or third single. It also hearkens back to some pleasant riffing from classic Yes tunes of yore, without borrowing from anything too obvious, and gives us another lovely blending of voices.
Life on a Film Set is another acoustic-driven piece that gives Benoit a chance to evoke some strong themes in a lower register, with a lyric that sounds very like things written on Drama, but sounding completely unlike anything Yes has recorded before, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that it’s another Horn/Downes piece in disguise. About midway through the song, it transforms into something much more Yes-like that very definitely belongs to the Drama era; a deft combination of light and shadow, and all the more lovely for it.
Hour of Need is actually a shortened version of the full piece that those lucky Japanese have been enjoying for a couple of weeks now. It’s a Steve Howe folk-pop composition as only he can write them, recalling ghosts of Turn of the Century and certain songs he’s turned in for Asia in the last few years. He even breaks out a battery of acoustic instruments, while Geoff does his very best tasteful Rick Wakeman synth imitation (NOTE: This was in all likelihood Oliver Wakeman playing, rather than Geoff. I was not previously aware that any of his work had remained on the final album. Nevertheless, very much in his father’s vein, and nicely done). It’s quite lovely, and for my money, proof positive (if you needed it) that he is not merely a gunslinger with no pop sensibilities or lyrical style to call his own.
Solitaire is a simple little guitar instrumental, demonstrating that Steve hasn’t forgotten his first love, classical guitar. It’s quite pretty, with a rustic quality that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Yes Album or Fragile. And while it’s been a long time since a Yes album featured a piece like this, and though I’ve said repeatedly that this album is very much in the vein of Drama, nevertheless, it doesn’t feel at all out of place here.
Into The Storm, the band composition, crashes into life with a veritable kitchen sink of keyboard and guitar sounds, and a choral verse lyric that sounds like it could have been a lost track from the Going For the One sessions. Extremely charming and interesting by turns, and yet refusing to resort to pop cliché. It switches down to a moody bridge that definitely sounds more Drama-era, and then goes back to that main riff that seems to elegantly sum up their entire career. I still haven’t picked apart all of the lyrics, but it does seem to suggest revelations about some of the things the band has been through, though not in any noticeably biographical manner. A classic Yes instrumental passage leads into an outro that again probably wouldn’t have been out of place on Going For the One, save that they reprise the title track’s chorus lyric as an off-kilter outro, tying the whole ablum together as it sails off into some Roger Dean landscape.
I’d hate to resort to hyperbole and thus disqualify my efforts to give you some idea of what you’re missing if you don’t buy this album, but I have to say, I haven’t enjoyed a Yes album quite this much in a while, and I am inordinately fond of most of their recordings of the last thirty or so years since Drama first hit the shelves. You may not remember Drama as being one of the great Yes albums, but I do, and this record truly does succeed in capturing that magic without trying too hard to be a direct sequel or carbon copy.
I’m going to go on record as saying that this is my Album of the Year. The year is half over, and I seriously doubt I’ll hear anything that quite reaches the same peaks for me, even though Ian Thorley promised me a new, Big Wreck-tinged album for the fall. As much as I miss Big Wreck, I’ve been waiting for this album a lot longer.
I don’t feel the slightest bit of conflict over enjoying this album so much, despite the bad blood between the band and their former leader. Jon Anderson has a few tricks up his sleeve at any rate. Stay tuned for next year’s Album of the Year review, when his new project with Rick Wakeman and Trevor Rabin comes to light.
FINAL VERDICT: Buy this album. Or, you know, come over to my place and let me play it at you, while my wife will still let me play it around the house at all. 😉
* I’m thinking particularly of one young woman I used to know, who once expressed a heartfelt wish for Jon Anderson to sing some of the Drama-era tracks in concert; a wish that was never fulfilled. Hopefully she’ll get to hear the songs performed live this time around. *waves to Vicky, wherever she is*
** the first proper 20+ minute epic piece recorded by Yes since Trevor Rabin’s prog masterpiece, ‘Endless Dream’ (NOTE: Actually, ‘Endless Dream’ only rings in at slightly less than 16 minutes; interestingly enough, that probably means ‘The Gates of Delirium’ was the last proper 20+ minute studio epic) that actually makes , on the much-maligned 1994 album Talk, though ‘That, That Is’ and ‘Mind Drive’, both of the ‘Keystudio’ sessions in the late 90s, came pretty close.
*** an eventuality that helped drive bassist/vocalist Trevor Horn out of the limelight and more-or-less permanently behind the mixing desk, barrign studio performances on a number of his producing projects. Always nice to keep your hand in.