I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: peak-era Yes, from 1971 to 1974, is one of the greatest four-year stretches in musical history. Not to discount the albums they made outside that period, some of which are quite good, but the fact remains: eventually one runs out of good Yes albums to buy. Luckily, Yes are perhaps the most imitated band in the prog-sphere; not only did they influence plenty of bands making music at the time, there also seems to be an entire generation of bands who were raised on them, and as a result there is a rather large library of Yes-influenced music from the last 25 years or so. Of course for many of these bands Yes is just one of a large list of influences, which often cover the usual suspects; Genesis, King Crimson, Floyd, maybe Gentle Giant if they’re feeling particularly adventurous. And so on, and so forth. But there are several bands that flew rather close to the sun; close your eyes and maybe they could really be Yes, plus or minus a member or two. Certainly they lose points for originality, but they do scratch the same itch. Here’s what’s been getting me all Yessed out lately:
Starcastle is one of those bands that’s so on-the-nose that you almost wonder if they’re a record company ploy. When Yes broke up in 1974, no doubt there were some labels looking to fill the void, especially since they were still selling a considerable number of records at the time. Starcastle not only fill that void, but they do so in a very radio-friendly, focus-grouped sort of way, which must have seemed like a godsend to the radio stations who were growing frustrated with Yes’s inability to record anything less than 10 minutes long. Not only that but they were from Chicago, potentially bringing in a whole new audience that way.
As it turns out, the ploy worked: Starcastle sold a decent number of copies and got worldwide airplay, though the similarity to Yes did not go unnoticed. In fact it is nearly impossible to find a review that does not point this out; Yes were already unpopular among critics at this point, and as such they had a field day with this one. I mean, just listen to the first track, the 10-minute “Lady of the Lake” – the whole song sounds like it’s overlaid with the “Sound Chaser” rhythm, with a “Your Move” rockabilly bit, a bridge full of Steve Howe-style guitar soundscapes, a climax ripped straight out of “Roundabout”, and an ending that is nearly identical to “Siberian Khatru”. If that wasn’t enough, the band does themselves no favors by sounding exactly like Yes – singer Terry Luttrell does an impeccable Jon Anderson impression (especially in those vocal harmonies), and bassist Gary Strater has Squire’s muscular sound down to a T. There’s the same sort of country twang that was a trademark of Steve Howe’s playing. Not to mention the Hammonds and video game-like synths; keyboardist Herb Schildt isn’t quite on the level of Wakeman or Moraz, but he’s got the style down. The lyrics are even cut from the same cloth (“Living what we are/breathing of the forces burning/candles of a star/let the wonder be”). In fact the only reason one wouldn’t mistake this for a new Yes album in 1976 is a doubt that Yes would repeat themselves to this degree.
That said, if you can overlook the somewhat blatant plagiarism (“To the Fire Wind” rips off the intro to “Perpetual Change” wholesale), Starcastle is really a pretty good album, and in fact winds up quite a bit more accessible than the bulk of Yes’s work. If you like it, be sure to check out their next album, Fountains of Light, which I would say is a bit better and more original than this. I haven’t heard anything after that, though sadly the band did not last long; in 1978 they released the requisite “prog goes pop” album, essentially killing their career.
The Flower Kings – Back in the World of Adventures (1995)
The typical prog fan goes through a number of stages – you start with that initial infatuation, something like In the Court of the Crimson King or Fragile, then you buy up all the classic albums by King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis, before moving on to lesser-known but still great bands like Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, or Renaissance. Soon you start checking out newer prog bands, like Porcupine Tree and Echolyn, maybe getting into neo-prog such as Marillion and IQ. Eventually you wind up at the brink of the abyss, staring down at The Flower Kings, Sweden’s #1 progressive unit. I don’t want to say there’s anything wrong with them, but they truly are a band for the man who has run out of prog albums to buy; not only do they have a massive discography, with several albums topping the two hour mark, they also write the sort of music that takes a number of listens to really appreciate. Every album is a Tales From Topographic Oceans-like experience; full of epics and long instrumental bits, with some undeniably great parts buried within a sea of noodling (for the record, I dig Tales quite a bit). While bandleader Roine Stolt is certainly no Jon Anderson on the microphone – he’s got this limited, nasally tone which is hard to take in large doses – his approach to songwriting is quite similar, full of harmonies, nonsensical lyrics, and compositions with a large amount of sections jammed together. As if further evidence was needed, Anderson and Stolt teamed up to create a very Tales-like album just this year, called Invention of Knowledge.
I chose Back in the World of Adventures because it’s the first album under the Flower Kings moniker (Stolt’s solo album The Flower King is sort of the de facto first FK album but whatever) and the title track is a bona fide prog classic; perhaps not much more than a pop song stretched out to over 13 minutes, but it’s a good one, and it captures the hippie vibe of Yes so well. Granted the Kings lift from a number of prog bands but the spectre of Yes is always there – Howe-like picking (“Kaleidoscope”), big meaty bass lines (“Go West Judas”), church organ solos, and of course the massive amounts of mellotron slathered all over the place. Certainly the band has its flaws – they tend to jam on forever instrumentally, but they can’t exactly rely on Stolt’s voice either. Plus they have this weird affinity for sax solos, which by the third or fourth one tend to come off as little more than time wasters. But despite the massive amounts of music they’ve put out, none of this is done cheaply – there are plenty of layered parts and the band has a sneaky amount of talent, which is a bit hard to discern given that they hardly ever ratchet up the tempos. Their albums do sound great, with a full dynamic range that you simply don’t hear a lot these days. So when the hooks are there, it works quite well – “Theme For a Hero” is a gorgeous instrumental, and the pop-ish “My Cosmic Lover” is a lot of fun despite being kinda dippy.
Still, the question remains: are the Flower Kings worth your time and money? I’m four albums in and still trying to figure that out. I appreciate what they do, but the fact that entire 20+ minute epics can pass me by with no lasting impression is…not good. I guess in the meantime I’ll keep listening.
Glass Hammer – If (2010)
Glass Hammer have taken a lot of knocks in their career for being a Yes clone, which is unfair but understandable. I mean, they do bring a lot of that on themselves, bringing in Roger Dean to paint an album cover, attempting to rewrite both “Awaken” and “Parallels” several times, and leading off their 2007 album with a cover of “South Side of the Sky”, which features Jon Anderson on backup vocals no less. But by and large I never thought of Glass Hammer that way. For one, their music is good enough to stand on its own, and for two, they’ve developed their own identifiable sound over the years. Clearly influenced by a number of groups, but it’s still their sound.
That said, If sounds…just…like…a Yes album. Granted, maybe that’s just Glass Hammer’s sense of humor – “if we keep getting this criticism, then we’re going to go all-out to imitate Yes and show them once and for all”. Whatever it is, If is basically the album Yes should’ve made in 1978 instead of Tormato, an observation which was not lost on most of the critics who reviewed it. Most of this is due to the presence of new lead singer Jon Davison, whose resemblance to Jon Anderson is so uncanny that it’s almost spooky. In fact, he’s so good at it that Yes themselves tapped him to be their new lead singer in 2012. Which is too bad really, since Glass Hammer is making way better music than Yes is these days, but I guess you really can’t pass up an opportunity like that.
Still, it might not have been good for GH to keep Davison too long, since they probably would have been doomed to sound like a Yes clone forever, and I think the band is better than that. If is probably one of their more toned-down records, particularly compared to their last prog disc Culture of Ascent, which had the sort of double-bass drumming that you don’t really hear on non-metal albums. That’s not a knock on it though – If is as complex and technical as anything they’ve done, but it’s a tad more inviting. In other words its kinda what I wish the Flower Kings sounded like, since the instrumental jamming is a bit more pointed, and Davison’s voice is a hell of a lot easier on the ears than Stolt’s is. Plus, there’s a lot more hooks on it, which is why songs like “At Last We Are” totally soar, as they pogo from one section to the next. But the album is (of course) built mostly on the epics – four of the six tracks go over 9 minutes, and the finale is a big honker at 24. Luckily these tracks tend not to lose the plot; the final track has the ambient/mellotron interlude that usually loses my attention, but in this case it works because the album is so pretty. Having Davison in the group allows the band to go into full-on astral prog territory, and as a result the album reminds me a lot of the better parts of Tales, particularly during the last epic which would have fit in snugly.
The good news for Glass Hammer is that If wound up becoming their biggest seller (pretty notable when you’re 18 years and 11 albums in), though I guess that comes with a cost, since the album and the band very quickly developed a reputation as a Yes-substitute. Unfortunately that is the reality of progressive rock in the new millennium; originality is cool and all, but for PR reasons it’s better to be known as the band that brings back the 70’s. Alas, sometimes you’re in the mood for just that.