May 18, 2015

I want to believe in that love yet again

I made a decision the other day. I bought a new Yes album.

When Yes put out their part-orchestral Magnification album, all Myst-style computer graphics artwork and a sound that was an English stately home personified, I was thrilled. The subsequent DVD, Symphonic Live, with the European Festival Orchestra performing alongside Yes—a Yes still featuring Jon Anderson, of course, with Tom Brislin doing sterling work in Wakeman's stead—was also superb. And then poor Jon had all manner of vocal problems that with a tour looming eventually saw him bow out of the band, to be replaced with a diminutive Canuck called Benoit David. Brislin departed and Oliver Wakeman came in for the tour. I remember going to their concert at the Usher Hall, in which David put in a solid performance (if also rather tambourine-happy). Man-mountain Chris Squire, a bit of a hero of mine, scowled and plunked at his Rickenbacker with his usual gusto but unimaginatively. Steve Howe alone saved the day by being absolutely on fire.

The tour came and went, and a new album was in the works. Wakeman and son of Wakeman were long gone, replaced by one-time Yes alumnus and, with Steve Howe, co-founder of Asia, Geoff Downes. At the controls was Downes' earlier partner in crime and one-time Yes vocalist, Trevor Horn, and everything looked it would be absolutely peachy. Except that the new work, Fly From Here, turned out to be total rubbish.

It shouldn't have been. With all the right ingredients there was plenty of sparkle in the production, as one would expect from Horn, but there was no spark in the playing. In fact, there is only one little section that sticks in my memory, a sort of hi-tech, herky-jerky version of the repetitive ascending organ section of Awaken. I can also gauge how much I like an album by its position in the pile of CDs that don't have an allotted place in the rack that's full. Fly From Here is languishing two-thirds of the way down; higher up than some The Alan Parsons Project stuff and 90s Iron Maiden, but lower down than Pink Floyd's Division Bell, various Gentle Giant albums, and much, much lower down than Soft Machine, Magna Carta and SBB. Heck, Fly From Here is lower down in the pile even than Starcastle! Unfortunately that's how much it excited me.

What then, for Yes? Follow Chris Squire's method of course. Hear about another musician who could fill your bandmate's shoes better, and nick them. And so it was that Benoit David parted ways, and Glass Hammer vocalist Jon Davison came in. Another Jon! In fact, another Jon dressed in white who was equally interested in Paramahansa Yogananda and for two pins sounded remarkably like Jon Anderson, a timbre slightly thinner perhaps but a perfect fit in the mystery and mystique of Yes music.

Even the fans readily accepted Davison. Not for him I suspect was the reaction of the crowd when Horn sang his heart out at Madison Square Gardens in 1980, and someone shouted "Fuck off!" Anderson might be short in stature but has very large shoes to fill, and Davison was up to the job. I was burned buying Fly From Here, so I decided to wait a while; give it a few months for the reviews to appear. Of course, the only Yes studio albums I don't own are Union and Open Your Eyes, both of which I'm in no hurry to acquire, thus it was only a matter of when—not if—would I buy the new one. And so it was, twelve months later or so, that I did.

It's called Heaven & Earth. Squire, Howe and White are the three elders now. Squire got divorced, got married again, lost some weight and regained his cheekbones. Howe grew out his hair again into a wispy grey cape, probably to get away from looking like someone's grandma. White has hardly changed for thirty years, but ought to grow his moustache again. Perhaps that would give him some imagination in his performances. Downes is looking quite middle aged these days, still bouncy but quietly spoken on the keys. Davison looks much younger than I think he is; he ought to grow a beard to place him more in the shaggy disciple role that singing lead in Yes demands. That's why Horn's big round bank manager glasses didn't quite fit, even in the rolled-up sleeves days of the early 1980s. Remember Anderson's shoes, and so much of Yes is Anderson, groovy, hippy, cosmic and slightly barking.

The first thing that struck me about Heaven & Earth, in reading the liner notes first in my best homage to vinyl's gatefold sleeves, was that Billy Sherwood was part of the production. Sherwood was all over Yes' The Ladder album, prog-AOR par excellence, and he seemed dull as ditchwater. But so too do we have Jon Davison! The sound of the album is bang up to date in its clarity—you can practically hear individual windings as a pick scrapes along a guitar string. You can hear sub-bass frequencies spilling out like those in the control room would hear, as synth bass and possibly real bass plumb the depths. You can hear Davison's voice soaring, a little penetrating at times yes, and Squire's ever-present harmony is there too. But it's also too clear, too sharp. Too accurate.

Albums from the 1960s have a wobbly, sometimes muffled, always close-up sound to them. In the 1970s as microphones and tape recording came of age you could saturate the tape signal, as you might overdrive your Marshall or Ampeg, but you still operated through oscillators, valves, transistors, knobs and switches and pieces of wire. There was always a feeling that an organ or an electronic instrument or a mixing desk or some recording apparatus was alive, because it was affected much more by heat or radio frequency. You never quite got the same thing twice. It was said (by Ralph Denyer, I think) that if valve amplifiers had been invented 30 years after transistor amps, they would be called harmonic processors. This audible interfering with what should be something immutable and programmed, coupled with tape's accommodating response to overloaded signals, is what brings that pleasant vibe to recorded sounds. It's called 'warmth'. If you didn't know what you were doing in the 1980s, digital meddling would clip harshly, ending up sounding gritty and jarring. If you did know what you were doing, like Alan Parsons, you could create incredible depth and realism to a production.

What Heaven & Earth—and Fly From Here before it, and sundry other works like Rush's Test For Echo and Vapor Trails, and Primus's Tales from the Punchbowl—is missing is that warmth. Fans mourn the passing of Chris Squire's crunching Rickenbacker tones, Rick Wakeman's Moog that sounded like a laser beam going through butter, and the way a real Hammond B3 has a creakiness that Downes' artificial Hammond doesn't. So why not pull out those ancient instruments? Use a real Mellotron, and a chrome plated microphone, and dig those vintage vibes, because they sound good. That's what Wobbler does. They have a rule about no post-1972 instruments. You can hear it all over Afterglow or Hinterland. Or play your guitar and drums like you always do, but record and mix it with analogue equipment, and analogue only. Brain from Primus knew this, which is why The Brown Album has that fat, dirty, close-up sound quality to it. A bit too dirty, many say, but it gives it a proximity to the listener that's miles away from the scientific, razor edge of its predecessor. But I'm talking about prog, or at least the halcyon days of prog.

Wobbler's output is also chock full of clever riffs and themes, but they don't have what Yes did when Yes was their age: a hard-battling but ultimately democratic consciousness that bound those riffs and themes together in a cohesive way with the maximum musical value. Wobbler simply lurches from one to the next.

The first track from Heaven & Earth actually excited me. In fact, I even picked up my bass and jammed along—to a song I hadn't even heard before. Squire's bass was too low in the mix, but my own Rickenbacker made up for it. The album loses its footing towards the middle, becoming a bit too pedestrian and safe in its lyrics. Towards the end it picks up again, chucking in some pleasant and rousing orchestral stuff that would've sounded better coming from real French horns. Gravitas, you see. Some more odd-meter playing is a tip of the hat to days of yore, and the climax is Right There, and suddenly that's it. There's no gentle fade out, letting the listener gradually swim back to reality. Yes's later works will always be compared with the stalwarts of the early 1970s, and it's very hard to be objective and to measure performance by the standards—and preferences—of it's now 65 year-old musicians.

Heaven & Earth is really nearly there, but it's definitely more Earth than Heaven. What I wish for, more than anything else in the latter-day Yes canon, is for Squire, Howe and White to ditch Pro Tools, go back to tape, and bloody well start showing off again.

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