Yes – Close To The Edge

Yes is a band that went through many lineup iterations. Although they found success in all variants, few Yes fans will dispute Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe and Squire as being the group’s most creative, most talented, most progressive lineup. 1971’s “Fragile“, the third album from Yes, was the debut from that combination of talent. It’s follow-up, “Close to the Edge”, was released in ’72 and carried on with the embodiment of rhythmic complexity and instrumental virtuosity.

I’ve read that unlike with its predecessor, there were a lot of creative conflicts going on during the recording sessions for “Close to the Edge”, which explains drummer Bill Bruford’s departure after its completion. This is an album that exasperates a multitude of conflicting ideas being brought together. At times, it feels as if it is going to fall apart in a heap of chaotic discords. But the multitude of ideas are somehow tied together with a cohesive beauty that make it one of the most significant records from the classic age of vinyl and one of the staples of progressive rock.

“Close to the Edge” is a landmark album in every sense of the word.

Yes – Yessongs

Sometimes two records just aren’t enough for your first live album – especially when your most popular songs were the epics Yes was famous for in 1973. Add into that the extended solos and improv jams, plus a excerpts from Rick Wakeman’s first solo album and you start to wonder why they didn’t go for four.

I’ve been wanting to listen to this album for a while, but I had to find the right time. More accurately. I had to find enough time. I love listening to “Yessongs” its entirety. It reminds me of what an incredible live band Yes was.

When you listen to the first five Yes albums, it’s easy to write off their musicianship as multiple take, over dubbed and edited together studio wizardry. Then, when you hear “Yessongs” it becomes an eye-opening – or rather, ear-opening experience; they really are that good. So good in fact, by the time I get to the end of “Yessongs”, I wish they had gone for four. It always leaves me wanting more. Then again, this was only 1973; Yes had plenty more to offer up after this.

Rick Wakeman – The Six Wives Of Henry VIII

Self indulgent and virtuosic, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” is Rick Wakeman’s first solo record. As the title implies, the album is a collection of six songs, each representing the lives and characteristics of the 16th century’s King of England’s wives.

Wakeman wrote and arranged most of the music for this album while reading a book about Henry VIII while on tour with the bad Yes. Members of Yes are some of the backing musicians performing with Wakeman on this album. Members from Wakeman’s first band, The Strawbs, also make appearances.

Henry VIII is most remembered for the six wives he had during his reign and the annulment of his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope, refusing to recognize the annulment prompted the start of the English Reformation when Henry VIII created the Church of England, breaking away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Even without the meaning behind each of the songs, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” is a joy to listen to just for Wakeman’s keyboard wizardry and the strength of his compositions that combine classical European with rock and roll. The underlying historic theme of the album just adds another layer to an already incredible solo record by Rick Wakeman.

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.