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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

These should be the golden years for Yes

Published: September 9, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

After a brief period in the spotlight when Hammond organs were the coolest thing in the world, the band Yes had to endure 30 years of criticism as one of music’s persistent punchlines. In the late ’70s, the punks used the band to epitomize the complexity and pretension that they believed was destroying rock music. In the ’80s and ’90s, Yes did it to themselves, releasing a string of mostly-laughable synth-pop albums in a misguided attempt to remain relevant. The 2000s saw years of creative silence as the members spent their time publicly bickering over the band’s future and embarking on never-ending, overpriced tours with washed-up acts like Peter Frampton and Styx.

Within the past few years, however, the band’s image among music fans has turned for the better. The short attention span of the musical community has turned the excesses and punk insults into ancient history, but the groundbreaking vision and technical mastery of Yes’ best work has endured. Bands like Dream Theater, the Mars Volta, and Coheed and Cambria have repaid their debt of influence by proving that musical complexity and genre-splicing still have a place in rock. As prog-rock-hating critics like Robert Christgau have waned in importance, the alternative music establishment of 2011 looks at the Yes canon with respect; Pitchfork rated the 2004 Yes remasters very favorably (9.0 for “Close to the Edge,” 8.8 for “Fragile,” 8.1 for “The Yes Album,” etc.), and Rate Your Music puts three Yes albums on their top 500 (led by “Close to the Edge” at 73).

Meanwhile, the last few Yes releases have shown a surprising creative renaissance. Though the band has long lost the inspiration for (and interest in) crafting the ultra-complex epics of their heyday, it still created original, listenable albums by mixing pop and prog influences in novel ways. 1999’s “The Ladder” incorporated Caribbean horns and percussion and reggae rhythms; it’s a bright, buoyant work, bursting with positive energy. Two years later, Yes shifted direction by working without a keyboard player, instead incorporating a full orchestra as an integral part of its sound. The ensuing work, “Magnification,” embraced lyrical and musical romanticism to become perhaps the first album of prog love songs; there are moments of true tenderness and beauty.

Neither album sold well and the only attention they received was from Yes die-hards, who criticized them for departing from the classic Yes sound. Today, however, it would be easy to imagine a quirky, listenable Yes album finding some level of success from a reinvigorated fan base, proving the band’s enduring worth and earning enough publicity to augment their critical momentum.

With all this in mind, it’s hard for me to consider 2011’s “Fly from Here” as anything but a major disappointment. Just as the band’s recent risk-taking was primed for reward, Yes has instead turned backwards, releasing a dated album fit only for a dwindling retro-rock audience.

The first sign of trouble is the band’s line-up. Drummer Alan White, guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire have been mainstays for years but keyboardist Geoff Downes and vocalist Benoît David are recent additions, both of whom raise red flags. Downes has been in Yes once before for 1980’s “Drama,” but his main claims to fame come from his membership in the goofy synth-pop band The Buggles and bland arena-rockers Asia. David’s story reads like a farce; until 2008, he sang in a Yes tribute act and Yes asked him to join only because his voice resembles that of former front man Jon Anderson. Throw in the return of producer Trevor Horn, a fellow Buggle who produced some of Yes’ worst synth-pop excesses and the stage was set for frustration.

Conspicuously absent are Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, the creative heavyweights behind the most successful Yes releases. They have been the lightning rods for the band’s most voracious critics: Anderson for his fey falsetto and abstract lyrics, and Wakeman for his over-the-top playing and stage costumes. But they were also responsible for Yes’ greatest strengths. Anderson was the spiritual guru and creative visionary pushing the band to explore complex themes and compositions, and Wakeman had the classical training that structured this vision.

Squire and Howe are masters of their instruments, and their role has been important in grounding Anderson and Wakeman’s tendencies to excess. On their own, however, they prefer chasing commercial trends to writing substantial music, Howe in Asia and the forgettable GTR, and Squire as the architect of 1980s Yes. Whenever these opposing forces throw the band into open warfare, Wakeman, who has no stomach for conflict, bolts, leaving Anderson outmanned and able only to compromise his vision or to leave as well. Now that Howe and Squire have his clone at their disposal, they can play hardball with Anderson and whatever trifles they want.

Unfortunately, their tastes are so outmoded that they cannot even release radio-friendly music anymore. Perhaps a song like “Life on a Film Set” would find an audience in 1984, but now the wanton synthesizer abuse is a relic, and the “anthemic” chorus (“You’re RIIIIIIIID-ing a tiger”) sounds laughable. “Into the Storm” finds Howe dismissing his lightning-fingered style to rip off U2’s the Edge, and the Squire-sung “The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be” lacks a hook but makes up for it with middle-school poetry (“I was lost / Now I found myself in you”).

The centerpiece of the album is the 25-minute long title song, not a single work but a series of six tracks haphazardly stitched together so Yes can pretend it’s writing epics again. It contains the best moments on the album; both “We Can Fly” and “Sad Night at the Airfield” have decent, atmospheric melodies. “Madman at the Screens,” however, is built around an absurd, processed call-and-response, and the whole work drowns in layers of synthesizer noise. From a band that used to base its lyrics on works like “War and Peace,” the flimsy airplane metaphor is also an irritation.

I’ve admired Yes for as long as I’ve listened to music, and I’ll always count their greatest works among my favorite albums. In its heyday, the band redefined the limits of rock music, and it’s gratifying to me as a fan that critical consensus is finally beginning to give the band its due. “Fly from Here” is a missed opportunity to build on that legacy; thankfully, the album is too forgettable to tarnish it.