Yes – The Yes Album

I am really digging what an awesome bassist Chris Squire was. I mean, I always knew he was good – and all the members of Yes are great in their own right – but for some reason, when I cranked up “The Yes Album” just now, my ears started focusing in on his playing and…

…I am really digging what an awesome bassist Chris Squire was.

Rick Wakeman – Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Rick Wakeman is an amazing musician and composer. Jules Verne was an amazing author. Combine the two and you get an amazing album.

Never one to shy away from the grandiose, the former keyboardist for Yes wrote “Journey to the Centre of The Earth” following the release of his first solo album, “The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth”. Rather than going into the studio, Wakeman chose to record his second solo record live. For the huge undertaking, he employed the talents of conductor David Measham who lead The London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir for the performance. The story is supplemented through prose read in between the main musical passages by British stage and film actor David Hemmings.

Part classical, part rock, part spoken word, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” topped the British charts and made it to the third position in the U.S. It is an amazing piece of music, composed by an amazing musician, based on a story by an amazing author. If you have never listened to it, you owe it to yourself to do so. I think you’ll be amazed.

Crack The Sky

When I’m surfing the Internet, I read a lot about bands I’ve heard of. The other day, I ran across an article titled “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of”.  Now I have heard of a lot of obscure bands, so I was intrigued.

The band of topic was “Crack The Sky” and no, I had never heard of them.  I was further intrigued. It turns out Rolling Stone magazine declared Crack The Sky’s 1975 eponymous album “the best debut album of the year”. I was even more intrigued. I also ran across a 2015 post where “Crack The Sky” was included as one of the 50 greatest prog albums of all time by the same publication. I was beyond intrigued. I had to listen to this intriguing band from Vermont that never really gained popularity outside of Baltimore, Maryland.

I found a copy of “Crack the Sky” for sale on Discogs and immediately bought it. And so here I  sit listening to a band I’ve never heard of.

…And I am more than beyond intrigued. I am impressed…and amazed….

I am amazed that Crack the Sky never made it beyond their local popularity. They had it all: vocal arrangements falling in line with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the musicianship of Yes,  the pop appeal of Styx, the complexity of Focus, and the contrasting dark lyrics yet bright music of Steely Dan.

From what I am hearing on their debut album, Crack The Sky  is a band that is…what’s the word? …

…Intriguing.

I am intrigued to hear more by them.

Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans

Middle ground isn’t always easy to find. Ask any fan of Yes where they think “Tales from Topographic Oceans” ranks in the band’s album catalog and you will almost always find it listed near the top or bottom of the list. Rarely, if ever, in the middle.

Then again, “Tales…” was not an album that offered much middle ground. And it did so very unapologetically. It is the epitome of self-indulgent rock and roll. That in itself is the pivotal point of this 1973 double album. Four sides. Four songs. No singles. No apologies.

Take it or leave it.

Most took it…at first. It’s pre-orders from record stores almost immediately placed the album into gold status (500 thousand copies sold)…but it fizzled after reaching that mark. Many copies would shortly thereafter remain buried in record collections, or like mine, end up on the shelves in used record stores.

When I ran across of “Tales…” again at a record show a few years ago, I decided to give it another chance. Maybe it was life and experience. Maybe I just didn’t really listen to it the first time. Maybe I was just stupid. The second time around, I absolutely loved this album. It is a masterpiece of musicality and interpretation!

The four sides of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” were based on the four bodies of Hindu Shastra. One side each dedicated to a philosophical teaching. I think maybe it was too deep for me decades ago. The lyrics and music both require a desire to interpret and understand. But as in life, when you take the time to analyse and truly understand, you finally realize the fruits of your labor – and it’s no longer a labor. It’s a beautiful thing.

Today, that’s my take of “Tales of Topographic Oceans” with no middle ground:

It’s four sides of a beautiful thing.

Asia

I remember picking up Asia’s debut, self titled album without ever hearing a song on it. The only thing I knew about the band was who was in it – and that was enough for me. Carl Palmer, the drummer from Emerson Lake and Palmer; Geoffrey Downes and Steve Howe, keyboardist and guitarist respectively from Yes, and John Wetton bassist and vocalist from King Crimson. For members from three of my favorite bands. 

I also remember that when I first heard Asia, I was initially, somewhat disappointed. To me, this was the supergroup to end all supergroups. And in a way it was – just not in the way I expected. This was the ’80s. This was the time of pop and polish – and reverb. Progressive rock was waning in popularity. Gone were the epics that took up an entire side of an album. Gone were the extended solos. The songs on Asia were short and concise compositions – songs designed to be hits. And there were many hits on this album. 

After repeated listenings, I learned to appreciate this album for what it was. The members of Asia, having been in some of the most successful bands in the ’70s, wanted to have a successful album. They also wanted to keep their integrity as musicians and songwriters. Mission accomplished. Asia was the marriage of  ’70s prog and ’80s pop music.

Listening to Asia’s first album now, I realize what a significant record it is. Although it has a somewhat overproduced, distinctly 1980s production style to it, which I am typically not a huge fan of, the musicianship on this album is exceptional. Typical to prog-rock, many of the songs mix loud and soft passages, tempo shifts, and interesting chord changes. Those elements were just more subtle than before, and mixed in with a bit of pop and polish – and reverb. Asia is a great album for what it was: a record that marked a turning point in rock and roll, for better or for worse.

King Crimson – Larks Tongues In Aspic

I think “Larks Tongues In Aspic” is one of my favorite King Crimson albums because this, the fifth incarnation of the band, featured violin as one of the main instruments. It truly gave this album a distinctly unique character. Not that King Crimson’s music ever needed any help with being distinct or unique.

This was an album you had to be sure to take proper care of. It has many quiet passages, and if not treated properly the scratches could easily overwhelm the music. The album opens with one of those quiet passages, some soft percussion work by Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir, which leads into the an elegant violin intro played by David Cross, which is then torn out of existence by Robert Fripp’s frantic guitar work. This kind of slow then fast, quiet then loud roller coaster ride is a kind of theme throughout the entirety of “Larks Tongues In Aspic”. The glue holding all these diverse parts together is the solid bass playing by John wetton, who also does all the singing.

I suppose Larks tongue could be a difficult album for some to listen to, but it’s one well worth putting the effort into. Like a good brandy or a fine wine, “Larks Tongue In Aspic” is an acquired taste. It’s an album that intrigues your ears and mind. This is music that is intended to be interpreted, not merely listen to. Then again, that could be said of all King Crimson’s work.

Yes – Fragile

Yes was a band that went through many iterations of membership during the band’s long history. As a matter of fact Chris Squire, the bassist, is the only member to have existed consistently throughout the entire history of the band up until his death in 2015. The band lineup on “Fragile” is considered by many, myself included, as being the best lineup Yes has ever had, potentially to the point of actually defining the band.

This was proven most evident after the release of 90125 in the 1980’s, Jon Anderson left Yes and joined his former band mates in a group named after the four members in it. Along with Anderson on lead vocals, “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe” included former Yes members Bill Bruford (drums and percussion), Rick Wakeman (keyboards) and Steve Howe (guitar). While Yes released a new album under their current band roster at the same time its former members released their Collective debut. Many considered “Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford, And Howe” to be more Yes than Yes at the time.

In the long history of Yes, former band members from the band’s distant and more recent past would continue to weave in and out of its rosters. Although I appreciate, and even enthusiastically enjoy all the incarnations of Yes, the musical chemistry between the members of Yes on “Fragile” is by far my all-time favorite and this album will forever remain my favorite album by Yes.

U.K. 

It must be a chore keeping a super group together. They always seem to have a short life, but as the old adage goes, “the candle that burns the shortest also burns the brightest”. When you combine multiple people who are as equally creative as they are talented, you can’t help but have strong opinions of the direction songs and performances should go. Everyone wants to do it their way, and everyone thinks they have the right answer to make the songs great. And the thing is, each one of them is right in their own way.

U.K. was a British band that formed in 1976. They were a lesser-known supergroup but no less impressive than many others. They were definitely one of the most talented. They only released three albums in their short history, one of those being a live album, and had a personal change between the first and second album. But all of their albums are amazing. My personal favorite is their eponymous debut.

Consisting of John Wetton, formerly of King Crimson and Uriah Heep, on vocals and bass, Allan Holdsworth, a virtuoso guitarist who had been a member of Tempest, Soft Machine and Gong, keyboardist and violinist Eddie Jobson who came from Roxy Music and Frank Zappa’s band, and Bill Bruford, who was the former drummer for Yes and King Crimson, UK’s music was complex, with many rhythmic changes and challenging time signatures. Their songs focused mainly on the music with long instrumentals and only short vocal passages. They were a band that was all about playing music that was as enjoyable to listen to as it was difficult to play. Some called this self-indulgent. Others, like me, called it incredible. By definition, it was called progressive rock.

Before U.K. could release a second album, Allan Holdsworth would leave the band, followed soon after by Bill Bruford. The equally talented Terry Bozzio, who came from Frank Zappa’s band, took the place behind the drum kit. Interestingly, nobody  replaced Holdsworth on guitar. Rather, the band became a trio , with Eddie Jobson playing all the lead parts on either keyboards or Electric violin.

Eventually, creative differences between Eddie Jobson and John Wetton would split the band apart permanently, but not before they would release their third and final live album.

Strawbs – From The Witchwood

Sometimes, when I really like a band, I like to go back and check-out their origins. What bands and kind of music did their members make before they were in the band that made them famous. Today, the band is Yes and the musician is Rick Wakeman. 

Strawbs started out in 1964 as a bluegrass band. But no Rick Wakeman did not play in a bluegrass band. In 1967 they shortened their name to Strawbs and signed a deal with A&M records. They released their first album in 1968. By that time their sound had evolved into more of a folk rock sound. By the time Rick Wakeman joined them in 1970, they were starting to incorporate elements of progressive rock into their repertoire and Wakeman’s impressive work on keyboards was an obvious asset for their developing style. Rick Wakeman would only stay with Strawbs for two albums. “From the Witchwood” was the last record he would play on with them before leaving to join Yes.

“From the Witchwood” is a combination of many different styles. At times having a strong European classical influence, combined with folk music, some songss feel like they would be right at home being played at a Renaissance Festival. This is most evident on the album’s opener, “A Glimpse of Heaven”. Other songs have a more aggressive sound to them. 

Although Rick Wakeman has a few short keyboard flourishes on side one, “Sheep”, which starts off side two, seems to be written around his organ and Moog synthesizer work. If Wakeman had joined Genesis instead of yes, their music would have probably sounded something like this.

“From the Witchwood” is definitely a good album when you want to listen to music that mixes many different styles with an array of different instruments like clarinets, sitars, harpsichords, and recorder, along with traditional Rock instruments like the Mellotron, organ, guitar, bass, and drums. However, except for a few passages, it is not an album you would immediately associate with Rick Wakeman. It’s easy to see why he would have left to play on the more progressive rock songs by Yes.

Yes – 90125

Progressive rock was in its prime in the 1970s. And there was possibly no band more at the forefront of prog than Yes. But then punk rock and disco worked their influences into popular music. Going into the ’80s, Prog bands were suddenly labeled as self-indulgent and pretentious dinosaurs.

I agree with the pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in a good way. I mean, hell, if you’ve got that level of talent and creativity, by all means, flaunt it. Show off. Impress me. Blow me away with your virtuosity and showmanship. But dinosaurs? Oh, hell no! 

Dinosaurs went extinct because they couldn’t adapt. With 90125, Yes proved they were more than capable of adapting to the changing music scenes. Their songs became more short and concise. There was a greater emphasis on the underlying rhythms than on extended solos and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. 

But that’s not to say there wasn’t any of the virtuosity Yes was known for – there was plenty. It was just more focused. The interplay between the instruments had the complexity that Yes was known for, yet the production of the album gave the songs the underlying character of pop simplicity. The vocal arrangements throughout the album were equally impressive, at times becoming the focal point in the songs, or as in “Leave It,” the entire song.

Then there’s the case of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” the first, and only number one single for Yes. It became so popular they even released a 12 inch dance remix of it. Now, if you had told me in the ’70s that a song by Yes would be played in dance clubs in the ’80s, well, I’d be handing my life savings over to you right now. I would have lost that bet big time. But there it was. 

But the big thing was, they still sounded like Yes. They still sounded like the prog band their fan base dug. They were still pretentious and self-indulgent – they just did it in a way that nobody  noticed. On 90125, Yes had learned to adapt and survive…and thrive. Something the dinosaurs couldn’t do.