Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yes - The Yes Album (1971)

Because I was a huge fan of progressive rock back in the 70s I believed I was among music's most enlightened devotees. My love of prog grew from being a fan of Yes, the sub-genre's most popular and successful band.

It all started with a song that, to this day, remains the biggest prog hit single of all time, "Roundabout," from their 1972 album, Fragile. The LP version of the song ran for more than eight minutes and was highlighted by Rick Wakeman’s hard hitting organ solo that he later bettered on "Close to the Edge" from the album of the same name.

After Edge Yes still produced quality work, and remained popular for years, even though they never quite reached the heights of those albums again. Their next release, Tales of Topographic Oceans, was a double disc set featuring only one long song on each of its four sides, and with it the outfit's pretentiousness was no longer teetering close to the edge, it fell over of it.

My affair with prog-rock has waned somewhat over the years, and my feelings toward Yes along with it, but I still have a lot of room in my heart for their third album, the best one of their career, simply titled The Yes Album. If you only ever buy one Yes record make sure its this little gem from 1971. It's their first with the fabulous Steve Howe on guitar and the last one for over a decade with Tony Kaye on keyboards. (Wakeman would replace him following its release.) As usual, Jon Anderson was the singer, Chris Squire played bass, and Bill Bruford was the drummer.

Why is this album, the first of their three classic discs, their best? While I still don't have a clue what Anderson's always pretentious lyrics mean (Does anyone understand his spacey, pseudo-intellectual poetry?) instrumentally this record is outstanding. On later albums Howe was often overpowered by Wakeman and his extensive collection of keyboards and synthesizers but The Yes Album was Howe's moment in the sun. He anchored the band with a virtuosity that led the group to its finest work as a cohesive ensemble.

Listen to Anderson's voice soar over the instruments on "I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move." His perfect vocals never meshed as well again on a Yes arrangement because he sang this song with untypical restraint. It's one of the rare moments when he and the rest of the quintet sounded as if they were all headed in exactly the same direction.

"Clap" is a live, solo instrumental track that is really nothing more than a vehicle for Howe to show off his talents as an acoustic guitarist. "Yours Is No Disgrace" is the album's standout song. It rocks in a much freer way than most Yes tracks do, it almost functions as an anti-prog statement, and Howe turns in some of his finest work ever. "Perpetual Change" became a concert favorite that features more tasteful acoustic guitar. Even the little known "A Venture" benefited from a bit more subtlety than most Yes songs do.

The album closer, "Starship Trooper," almost rivals "Yours Is No Disgrace" in its appeal. The song's coda, "Wurm," is an exciting, extended riff that Howe, Kaye, Squire, and Bruford used to feed off of each other almost as if they were jazz musicians.

Overall, while The Yes Album is truly a product of its time it doesn’t overwhelm you with as much bombast as every Yes record that followed it. Therein lies its appeal.

I've always been a Wakeman fan. I saw him live a few years ago and it was one of the best concerts I ever saw. You can read about that wonderful night here. The famous keyboard player always received more credit and press than Howe who, to me, was often the unsung hero of Yes's glory years.

I became a Yes fan because of Wakeman and Howe. To me Anderson sometimes just got in the way. Yes is a hall of fame caliber band that still needs to be taken seriously today, but not as seriously as Anderson always believed they should be.

4 comments:

  1. While I enjoy a lot of Yes material, for some reason I've never enjoyed them quite as much as I enjoyed Genesis or even some of King Crimson's earlier works (perhaps it was Jon Anderson's lyrics that have kept me from appreciating Yes more than I might otherwise have).

    My favorite Yes album is Drama as I thought Steve Howe had an incredible chemistry with keyboardist Geoff Downes-- a chemistry that would carry over into Asia after both guys left Yes to form Asia with Carl Palmer & John Wetton.

    All that said for classic prog albums I'd rate some of Genesis (Selling England By the Pound and King Crimson's albums (Red and In the Court of the Crimson King) over this one... but that's just me.

    Just curious for prog rock keyboardists, what are your thoughts on Keith Emerson? I've read that Wakeman and Emerson could not stand each other. It's unfortunate as I believe it would have been amazing to hear those 2 keyboardists collaborate.

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  2. Being a major Yes fan, I could easily get carried away here, so I'll try to keep it short...

    Steve Howe replacing Peter Banks in Yes made a world of difference. Going from the Beatles-ish sound of the first two albums to a colorful wall of sound filled with instrumental jams was a vast improvement.

    After that, Yes steadily climbed artistically, peaking at Topographic Oceans. The albums that followed like Relayer, Going for the One and even Drama were all great!

    After the release of blockbuster hit album 90125, as the band was going through a carousel of band members, saw a decline artistically. (Though the both of the Keys to Ascension albums are recommended)

    Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman to jam together? THAT would be interesting....

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  3. "Starship Trooper" is brilliant and a few light years ahead of its time in many respects. The addition of Howe to the lineup and the ideas that he brought to the table are what make this disc so listenable after 40 years.

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  4. I too am a huge fan of yes and got to see them live for the Union tour. After starting with the cassette of Classic Yes, I methodically starting buying every Yes tape I could get my hands on. This album was the doorway to better things to come. I think Perpetual Change is has some great twists and turns and the live version of Starship Trooper from the Keys to Ascension album is one of my favorites that I have heard. Back in the day, my buddies and I would just jam on the Wurm riff over and over, improvising fills. It was a lot of fun.

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