09 July 2008

The Prodigal Yesfan: Coming to Grips with 90125

I'm probably not divulging anything too earth-shattering in acknowledging that I am a consummate fan of the band Yes. I'm nearly a bass disciple of Chris Squire, and have equal admiration for Steve Howe's impeccable guitartistry, if that is a word. Same to be said for Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman. I have a general affection for the first two albums which were more psychedelic folk-rock than true progressive, but I generally consider the golden age of Yes to span from 1971 with the release of The Yes Album to 1977 with the release of Going for the One. Later albums either fell apart into a messy, half-hearted shambles or dissolved into commercial 80s pop mush.

Thus my general resentment for that album for which Yes is so widely known....90125. It has a crisp, well-produced sound, catchy 4 minute pop tunes, and a wide general appeal. A far cry from anything Yes had done previously. But I've been listening to it more lately. When Chris Squire and Jon Anderson formed the group in the late 60s, they were huge fans of folk music, and started the band with the desired goal of combining great, technical musicianship with excellent harmonies and vocals. In a sense that is what they got back to on 90125. The music is still well written and technically interesting, but with a much greater emphasis on traditional vocal hooks and pop songs. Here is a great example:

Yes - Changes

While few things are quite as laughable as a pushing-middle-age Chris Squire dancing and preening about the stage, finally contented to find that he is a POP STAR!, the musicianship, even live, is very evident in that clip.

And also, continuing on the vein of 90125 apologetics, compare it to the previous two Yes albums. While Going for the One represented one of the high points, with the hugely epic and ethereal "Awaken" closing the album as well as that period of the band's history, the next album, Tormato, had a few standout tracks but generally felt listless, drab, and uncreative. It should be noted that the album still retained the classic Yes lineup: Howe, Anderson, Squire, Wakeman, and White. This lineup recorded Going for the One and Tales from Topographic Oceans, and Relayer, Close to the Edge, and Fragile were all recorded with just one personnel change (Patrick Moraz for Wakeman in Relayer, and Bill Bruford for Alan White in the latter two). But Tormato was uninspired and flat-sounding on the whole. "Release, Release" and "Arriving UFO" had some interesting moments, particularly at the end of the latter song, as the keys continue an ascending pattern of chords, with Squire continuing his interesting pattern of root-fifth-root-fifth in the background, Anderson's "look out!" admonition layered above. "On the Silent Wings of Freedom" is a wonderful song and probably the best on the album, with the scattered, busy intro coming together in a very cool way with Howe's somewhat victorious sounding guitar riff pulls it all together right before the vocals start. But even the sound of Tormato is rough and unvarnished. Wakeman sounds like he's playing a Casio, and it feels like you are listening to an old worn out tape of demo recordings, nothing like the glistening airiness of Going for the One, the sparse alien wildness of Relayer and Tales, or the earthy, warm presence of Fragile and Close to the Edge.

Then things got even worse. Apparently disillusioned by the band's musical faltering along with the fall of prog rock to the musical blights of punk and disco, Anderson and Wakeman left. Things got a bit strange here...Squire, who is the only musician to appear on every Yes album, kept the group going. Do you remember a group called Buggles? I don't. But apparently they are the ones we have to blame for the song "Video Killed the Radio Star". Wait for it. And so Squire invites the two main members, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, to join Yes as singer and keyboardist respectively. The resulting album was Drama. There were a few interesting bits on the album; "Tempus Fugit" and "Machine Messiah" were both complex and musical songs, but in comparison, this was the sound of prog rock dying a slow and painful death. The band broke up.

So when 1983 rolled around, they reformed without Steve Howe, and the lineup was White-Squire-Anderson-Kaye-Rabin, with Trevor Rabin being the fresh blood in the group (Tony Kaye reemerging, being the group's original keyboardist before being dumped for the more virtuosic Wakeman). Realistically speaking, I have to confess, the resulting album 90125 was the right and best album for the group to make at that point. Continuing to attempt to produce progressive rock in the vein of their 70s material would have just produced another (likely worse) version of Tormato/Drama. Evidence of this can be seen when looking at the later albums Yes has done recently, such as The Ladder and Magnification. I bought both of these albums and tried to like them. They were obviously trying to revisit their prog roots (having given up on pop in the early 90s, thank God), but it just came out awful, bland, and forced. For one thing, Jon Anderson is likely off of the herbal recreation nowadays, and it is apparent from his lyrics. In the 70s he would write strange, seemingly meaningless lyrics that were interesting and exotic, but ostensibly lacking the layer of obscurity and randomness provided by the drugs, his lyrics became clearer, and revealed a silly, artless sort of mystic New Age feel-the-love gibberish.

I draw the line at later Yes attempts at pop though. Big Generator was crap, with songs like "Rhythm of Love" and "Love Will Find a Way". To those songs, I say PHHHHBBBBSSSSSHHHH.


Percussivity said...

That was a rather lengthy way of saying "Dad I'm home!".

In either case... shall I kill the fatted calf?? It might go nicely with the honey porter, depending of course on how you cook it.

Percussivity said...

I will add that 90125 is for me also the last Yes album I really paid any real attention to as I agree that the 'pop' devolution they underwent from there is at best unsatisfying and at worst just plain bad.

I will further add that as a child of the 80's I absolutely dig 90125; some songs more than others, but it is rare for me to really like every single cut on an album and this is one of those exceptions.

The Irascible Neufonzola said...

"Changes" actually makes one of the best uses of an 8-string bass I've ever seen. An 8-string bass is essentially equivalent to a 12-string guitar, with each string of a four-string standard bass paired with a lighter gauge string tuned an octave higher, giving a thickening octave effect. On "Changes", he has the two higher (in pitch, not location) "courses" or string pairs tuned in such a way that the lighter gauge string is tuned to the 5th, instead of the octave of the root. So each note he plays on those higher strings is a type of chord (well, not really a chord, just a root-fifth interval or dyad), and it gives it a very complex sound that would be all but impossible to play on a standard bass. Then when the groove sets in I think he switches over to the lower strings, which I don't believe are tuned strangely, for traditional bass playing.

And Rabin, he's talented. But as I've said before, him playing with Yes is like Kenny G or Harry Connick Jr. sitting in with the Miles Davis quintet.

Speaking of cheesy 80s music and progrock, you might wonder what became of Steve Howe during this period. Listen to Asia - Heat of the Moment. Yep, that'd be Mr. Howe. Honestly as cheesy and awful as that song is, and as worthy of South Park mockery as it definitely is (the scene where Eric Cartman sings it to Congress in pleading for stem cell research), there is some great guitar work on it, towards the end, where there are really tight guitar arpeggios throughout the chorus, and then a final guitar solo.

Random Yes factoid...while recording "Going for the One", Wakeman made considerable use of a church organ in a cathedral in Switzerland, where they were recording it. In order to record live with the band, they used the telephone lines to send the organ audio back to the studio for recording with the rest of the band. Apparently the telephone lines were of such exceptional quality in Switzerland, that worked rather well!