Classic Music Review: The Yes Album

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Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes are the progressive rock bands most often charged with the crime of excess by punk purist prosecutors. Thanks to pretentious groups like Yes, the argument goes, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of rock ‘n’ roll. Even non-progressives like The Beatles and The Stones were caught up in the witch-hunt. Any piece of music lasting longer than three minutes and consisting of more than three chords was suspect.

Ironically, The Beatles were one of the first to realize they might have taken things a bit too far. They tried to dial it down in the Get Back sessions, but massive group dysfunction minimized the effort. A few years later, The Ramones would pick up the torch. “By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll,” said Tommy Ramone, and he was right. Every now and then, rock goes astray and a daring, cheeky performer is needed to reconnect the genre with its elemental energy. The Beatles rescued the listening public from Brian Hyland, Neil Sedaka and pals in 1964; The Ramones and The Sex Pistols reinvigorated three-chord rock in the 70’s; and in the 90’s, Nirvana and Oasis served a similar purpose by giving us strong doses of rough-and-raucous in response to the heavily synthesized 80’s.

The discomfort I feel about the punk revolution in particular is that the rebels became the new elitists. Like Lenin and his acolytes or Castro and his guerrillas, when punk took over, its fan base turned into The Spanish Inquisition, quick to classify any music that failed to meet their dogmatic insistence on simplicity and amateurism as heretical. The adjective “pretentious” may not apply, but hard-core punk fans are some of the most rigid snobs I know.

Well, if I can be bi-sexual, I guess I can be bi-musical. I like both punk and progressive. My ears were filled with punk during my teens and I always go back to it when I feel the need for grounding—when I need earthiness, clarity. Great progressive rock triggers the higher intellectual centers, and when it’s done well, excites both the emotions and the imagination. That only happens when the musicians have a great deal of talent, discipline and a clear artistic vision—and frankly, there were very few bands who did progressive rock consistently well.

As much as anything else, progressive rock is defined by its commitment to the long-form song, and too often progressive bands used the extra time to fuck around aimlessly. You can always tell when a long-form progressive rock song isn’t working: your mind starts to wander because the theme doesn’t hold your interest. When you listen to “A Day in the Life,” you listen to every bit of it; you strain your ears to hear every detail; you even sit there during the forty-five seconds it takes for all the sound from that last piano chord to drain from the speakers. When you listen to something like Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready,” you’re thinking about the grocery list by the middle of the third section.

I tune out only occasionally when listening to The Yes Album. Whether you like them or not, you have to admit that Yes created a distinctive sound and the musicians in the group had definite talent. When the song called for it, they could rock as hard as any band I know, but their musical curiosity pushed them to explore possibilities beyond the obvious. Their vocals are consistently excellent, whether it’s Jon Anderson’s natural alto flights or the tight, layered harmonies. Their music is full of rhythmic surprises and well-integrated themes. They excelled at creating musical tension and resolution. As mentioned in the introductory post to this series, their lyrics could often be obscure to the point of extreme esotericism. Compared to more traditional lyrical forms, Yes lyrics are like a mobile of metaphysical phrases and symbols. According to one source, the lyrics were the reason Bill Buford and Rick Wakeman later left the band, so if you feel uncomfortable with them, you have good company. For me, the sound of the music more than compensates for the lyrical deficit. I just hear the lyrics as “metaphysical scat” and avoid trying to make sense of them; they’re often quite euphonious and blend well with the music.

The opening track, “Yours Is No Disgrace,” is a certified attention-grabber. The dazzling opening passage is played tightly at full power, guaranteed to get you out of your concert seat. When they shift from hard-and-driving to relative stillness for the stop time vocal passage floating over organ and synthesized growl, the effect is terribly suspenseful and anticipatory; when they return to the hard stuff, you feel both relief and delight. Throughout the song the band displays marvelous command of dynamics, a superb sense of tension and resolution and the ability to weave together compelling musical themes. The ten-minute length may intimidate or prejudice some listeners; all I can offer is that after listening to the track several times in preparation for this review, I didn’t hear a second of wasted space or superfluous nonsense. The variation of music and rhythm is seasoned with just the right amount of repetition, leaving the listener constantly engaged and holistically satisfied.

The Yes Album was the band’s third effort, but their first with Steve Howe on lead guitar. Talk about a guy who brought a lot to the table! “Clap” (unfortunately mis-titled “The Clap” thanks to Jon Anderson’s introduction) is a bouncy, diverse and endlessly engaging display of a master guitarist at work. What I love about the song is its accessibility—so many virtuoso guitar pieces seemed to be designed to intimidate the listener. Howe’s travels over the fretboard are full of humor and diversity, loaded with blues licks and country twang, but though his finger speed absolutely astonishes me, I never get the sense that he’s trying to show off. It sounds like he’s having a great time and wants to share that with the audience. I was intrigued to learn that the piece is influenced by an earlier piece by Davey Graham, the J. D. Salinger of British folk guitar and a virtuoso in his own right. It helps explain the breathtaking stylistic reach of Steve Howe, who would play in a multitude of styles on a plethora of stringed instruments over the years.

“Starship Trooper” gives us another memorable but simpler opening: two flanged rising chords leading into arpeggiated guitar that resolve quickly into the verse. A suite in three parts (i. “Life Seeker” ii. “Disillusion” and iii. “Würm”) with a mingling of time signatures (4/4, 5/4, 7/4), the track is most memorable for Chris Squire’s moving bass lines and Steve Howe’s magic fingers. The shifts between the different sections are somewhat contrived, but not any more than some of the shifts on Thick as a Brick, and Yes compensates by reintroducing themes from “Life Seeker” into the patterns on “Disillusion.” “The Würm” section definitely feels like it was tacked on; it’s the simple C-Eb-G pattern that any intermediate-level guitarist has stumbled into by moving the hand position for the C chord with added G up three frets to get to Eb major, then four more to arrive at G major. It’s nice to listen to because the band is so good, but as a holistic totality, “Starship Trooper” is a warm-up for the better developed work on Close to the Edge. Much of The Yes Album was recorded in “bits,” with the group working out each passage in detail before combining them all into a track; it’s an interesting way to work but risky if the core theme isn’t strong enough to provide the necessary unity.

There are no signs of a lack of thematic unity on the next track. When was doing my favorites lists back when I first started the blog, I listed “I’ve Seen All Good People” as one of the top two or three harmonic performances of all-time and I haven’t changed my mind. Kicking off the song with two lines sung a cappella in three-part harmony establishes harmony as the center and the resolution of the piece. When Steve Howe enters playing a lovely pattern on either the laúd (a Spanish lute) or a “Portuguese 12-string” (as Howe described it), forming a bridge between the a cappella section and Jon Anderson’s clean and clear lead vocal, we await the resolution in harmony, which reappears in the closing line of the verse. The second verse introduces background harmonies in a delayed response to the lines of the verses; the third brings in the warm voices of harmonizing recorders. Near the end of that verse we hear a glorious melding of the “don’t surround yourself with yourself” lines as Jon Anderson’s vocal and the background harmonies converge before the verse-closing line. They could have stopped right here and still made my top five list! I have to add that I love the way Jon Anderson varies pitch and delivery of the last line on each verse; here it leads to the melody in syllables immersed in beautiful background vocals.

On the second repetition of the third verse, Jon is soaring and the background harmonies have the feel of a small choir. Jon closes this segment by scaling to the upper end of his range but still managing to retain the passion in his vocal. At this point, a church organ intervenes, reinforcing the choir effect as the background vocals slip in “give peace a chance” on the left channel. The first section ends with the vocalists holding the sustained note on the word “captured,” a glorious finish indeed. The second section frigging rocks from the get-go, with Steve Howe giving us fabulous runs and fills, Chris Squire thumping that bass, Bill Buford delivering an off-beat rhythm with intuitive punctuation and Tony Kaye doing a nice job tinkling the ivories. The vocals simply repeat the main line, “I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day/So satisfied, I’m on my way” as the rhythm fades and the church organ and synth bass provide background. Putting aside the paradoxical chessboard metaphors and partially-syntactical lyrics, “I’ve Seen All Good People” is a piece of music that makes me feel wonderful and alive.

“A Venture” begins with swirling piano in deep background that morphs into a pretty duet with Tony Kaye on piano and Steve Howe on guitar. It ends somewhat abruptly with the verse and its somewhat awkward, mechanical rhythm. The lyrics sound particularly crowded and the stuttering tempo never takes firm hold. There are obvious elements of jazz, particularly in some of Howe’s patterns, but it sounds like they needed more practice on this piece to get it right.

Sharp, insistent chords open “Perpetual Change,” and the sense of urgency is heightened by Bill Buford’s unexpected drum attacks. The band rather quickly relieves us of the tension and slips back into a more comfortable groove where Howe and Buford shine, but this is just a brief interlude before we shift from 5/4 to 3/4 and the relative quiet of the verse. The layering increases rather quickly and steadily as the verse proceeds and in the end we find ourselves forcibly jerked back into the sharp, insistent 5/4 section that opened the song. The choppiness of the arrangement gets tiresome very quickly, and while the vocals are still first-rate and Chris Squire gives us the best bass performance on the entire album, I find it difficult to get comfortable with this piece. It’s certainly not the shifting time signatures; the opening to A Passion Play has multiple shifts and is one of my favorite musical passages. I think the piecemeal recording process let them down on this one, and the attempt to dramatize the piece through the sudden changes in direction is reminiscent of alarm/hit-the-snooze-button/alarm/hit-the-snooze button.

I think Yes can be forgiven for the relatively few displays of thematic collapse on The Yes Album. Progressive rock was in its infancy and by its very nature represented greater challenges to the musicians. To me, The Yes Album is when the band found its voice, and they would become more skilled at composition and collaboration on subsequent albums after Rick Wakeman joined the band on Fragile. Close to the Edge is the album where many of the threads came together; The Yes Album is the moment when they really began to realize their capabilities and find their direction.

2 responses

  1. I haven’t listened to this one in years. Now I have to. It’s the only Yes album I still own, and I’ve always thought it was right up there with Fragile and Close To The Edge as one of their best. I love Steve Howe’s solo guitar piece, and I hadn’t known that it should just be called “Clap.” That would be such a better title! Nice observation that he sounds like he is having fun and not showing off.

    You are so right about punk rock snobs. I could sense that about the punk rockers before I ever got a chance to hear the music (I grew up in a small town), and probably for that reason, punk rock never clicked for me. Groups like Pink Floyd and Yes were lifelines for kids like me who lived in small towns and wanted to expand their horizons. Punk didn’t make it through to any large extent. It was kind of alien, as I didn’t really know what they were rebelling against. It was a punch-line to which I had missed the set-up.

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    1. Both American and British punk were efforts to restore the raw energy of rock to a scene that had drifted away from the basics; unfortunately, the movement became incredibly dogmatic, undercutting its message of personal freedom. It’s easier to understand the rebellious side of punk from the British perspective, because British youth in the late 1970’s had a lot to rebel against in a country going down the shithole. Even though America was headed that way, too, punk in the States wasn’t nearly as political—the rebelliousness was more existential than political. Contrast the socio-political emphasis of The Clash and Sex Pistols with the relatively politics-free music of The Ramones—the musical values are similar but the mood is completely different. I was a huge punk rocker in the 90’s and I still love it today, but for me it was more about the sexual-physical nature of the punk experience until The Clash expanded my horizons. I wasn’t rebelling against anything but punk gave me an avenue to express my urges.

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