The convoluted, ongoing saga of Yes is one of rock n’ roll’s most entertaining stories. In addition to a half-dozen classic albums, Yes will be primarily known as The Band That Refused To Die, surviving an absurd amount of lineup changes and drama throughout their nearly 50-year history. Not once did this group ever have a consistent roster, and after 1977 they pretty much lacked any sort of direction as well. Despite their somewhat consistent release schedule, there was so much instability in their lineup that they never managed to build any momentum whatsoever. What was once a collective of dedicated, mega-talented musicians devolved into the sort of thing you get when you assign a college group project – everyone parties too hard and the new guy winds up having to do all the work. Therefore if you’re buying a Yes album after ’77 it’s a good idea to do the research first, lest you wind up with something that started life as a Billy Sherwood solo album. There are really only two things that kept this band together – one is Trevor Rabin, the other is the realization that the Yes brand was worth bank, meaning anything with that logo was destined to sell ten times more than say a Chris Squire or Steve Howe solo album.
Regardless, we keep buying them, out of loyalty, out of curiosity, or maybe out of hope that the group might pull it together, even if only for one song. I mean, these guys could definitely still play – I saw them in 2004 and it was clear that they still had it, impressive given how technical most of their setlist was. But in the studio they were a tumble of the dice on the wings of intentions of deeds past, to coin a phrase that Mr. Jon Anderson might say. The fact that these two most recent Yes albums even exist is kind of a miracle, given that Yes were (again) down for the count as recently as 2008, with Squire and Anderson battling health issues, while the band itself had been inactive for several years. What happened next was something completely out of left field, even for Yes. Squire healed up, Jon didn’t, so Squire promply booted Jon out of the band and replaced him with a singer from a Canadian Yes-tribute band that he found on YouTube. That’s Jon Anderson by the way, the singer, the band’s face, the guy who only missed one album, 1980’s Drama. So you see, there was a precedent…
Flash back to 1980, for a second…Jon Anderson decides to leave the band in order to make albums with Vangelis, while Rick Wakeman quits for the second time. Meanwhile, the young aspiring duo of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, otherwise known as the Buggles, start sending Yes demos of songs they wrote for the band to show their appreciation. As it turns out, Yes were down a singer and a keyboard player, and Presto! You get Drama, which would go down in Yeslore as the great unappreciated album, though after three decades of lousy albums I’m not so sure it’s “underrated” by anybody anymore. 30 years later, Yes find themselves again without Jon Anderson, and wouldn’t you know it, the Buggles’ calendars were clear. So they hired Trevor Horn as producer and commenced with Fly From Here, an album that was very much intended to be Drama 2, particularly given that it was to feature finished versions of the songs from the same demos that Horn & Downes gifted to the band 30 years past. Horn brought back Downes, who replaced their current keyboard player – Oliver Wakeman, son of Rick, thus booting their chances at having TWO musicians in the group that were under a half-century old.
But hey, it’s still something to be excited about. I mean, you at least have to be curious, right? First album in ten years, first with Benoit David, plus it features a good chunk of material written when Yes were actually good, even if technically these were just repurposed Buggles songs (a version of “Life on a Film Set” appeared on a Adventures in Modern Recording reissue). I for one thought their sound on Drama was quite interesting, a rare intersection of prog rock and New Wave, two genres I dig anyway. Surprisingly, Fly From Here does not disappoint; if Drama is a solid four stars than this is three-and-a-half. The title track is a 24-minute, 6-part suite, somehow different than the sidelongs they’ve done in the past; more of a song cycle than an epic, centered around a four-chord riff that is so obviously lifted off a Buggles tune – in fact it’s not until “Bumpy Ride” that you remember that you’re actually listening to Yes (being that it’s Steve Howe’s only contribution to the suite).
The second half also works, more or less – less wonk and more AOR, probably not a good thing, but hey, if you gotta be boring, might as well be tuneful (“The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be”). Funny just how hooky the Horn/Downes tunes are compared to the rest of the album; that cheery synth riff halfway through “Life in a Film Set” sure as hell isn’t something the other guys were going to come up with. Which makes this more a good Buggles album than a good Yes one, not that I’m complaining. Best album since 90125? Backhanded compliment, but yeah, it really is. It’s not super proggy but they at least get the vocal harmonies and bass work right, plus there’s a Howe solo spot (“Solitaire”). The biggest knock – no “Tempus Fugit”, though “Into the Storm” is a decent shot at it – a bit poppier and the tempo’s a little slower, but it’s got that classic Yes sound to it.
As for Benoit David, he’s fine; despite all the hoopla about Anderson getting booted for a tribute singer, I don’t think it ever occurred to me while listening that this was a stand-in. He doesn’t really sound like Jon, just a guy with a high voice. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t quite hit Anderson’s vocal parts, and had troubles making it through the (fairly awful) 2011 tour, eventually missing some time with a respiratory illness. And you know what that means. So the search for a new lead singer was on, and the good news for Yes is that they finally got their Jon. That is, Jon Davison, who was the lead singer of Glass Hammer at the time, a band who’d been outdoing Yes for the last 15 years. Look, I feel bad for the Hammer, getting their singer snaked from them like that, but to be fair, he probably wouldn’t have gotten that job in the first place if he didn’t sound so eerily close to Jon Anderson.
Heaven and Earth was the band’s next album, and I for one was optimistic. Davison didn’t get to write a whole lot in Glass Hammer, but the stuff he did was good. Plus, with Fly From Here being their best effort in my entire lifespan I had to figure that maybe this would be alright…maybe even…good? My hopes were dashed pretty quickly, when Anil Prasad, a guy who I have a lot of respect for, got an advance copy of it and savaged the album in a way you rarely see these days – attacking not only the music itself, but also Yes for letting it come to this. Okay, so it’s awful, but now my curiosity is piqued…just how bad is it?
If you really want to know my thoughts, check out this review I did for the Quietus upon its release. Now that we’re almost two years on, it still baffles me – I’m used to the dinosaur-band-playing-at-half-speed thing by now, but these tempos are so slow, these songs so lifeless and dull, that there’s almost something surreal about them. It’s not unlistenable – the melodies still sound good and there are a lot of catchy bits. But I hear what Prasad was talking about; outside of the Roger Dean artwork, this is barely recognizable as Yes. In a way I’m almost mad at them for making such a bad album, because there have been so many great prog albums released in the last few years that would love to get half the attention that Heaven and Earth did. Are these really the guys that put out Fly From Here just three years ago?
Sadly, it would turn out to be Chris Squire’s final album, as the only man who played on every single Yes album passed away just last year. Believe it or not, Yes are going to play about 75 shows this year anyway. Look, I’m not one to tell a band they should break up. I hate when people do that, especially when you’re dealing with groups like this one, full of guys who have been professional musicians for four decades and probably don’t know how to do anything else. But, like…do you remember the moment you realized there are more bad Simpsons episodes than good ones? Yes have passed that point long ago, and quite frankly I have no idea what they have to offer anymore. Will Heaven and Earth go down as their last album, or does this lineup, featuring Billy Sherwood (of Open Your Eyes fame), NuJon, and a 200 year-old Steve Howe have anything in the tank? And if they do…well, wouldn’t you be the least bit curious?