‘Sound Chaser’ or — I Listened to Every Single Yes Album in One Go and Almost Survived?
Opening Overture -
I distinctly remember the precise moment in 1985 when, at the tender age of 15, my mind was blown and my favourite band suddenly became Yes (it was hearing Steve Howe’s guitar kick in on ‘Siberian Khatru’ on ‘Yessongs’ that did it). From that moment on Yes were the band of my teenage years, and for quite a while beyond, until I became an exclusively ECM listening asshole.
Many albums, and even more years, later (as well as the fact that their studio output seems to be over) I thought it was about time I sat down and ranked every Yes studio album (including ‘ABWH’ just for completionist’s sake) according to my own, subjective taste. It’s a futile task as any list would shift on an almost hourly basis according to my mood for that day but I thought it was finally time to nail a ranking upon the coloured door of time, even an imperfect one. But how to do it? How can I get an accurate overview of their entire discography? Easy. Listen to them all in one go!
And that’s exactly what I did last weekend and even though the doctors say I shouldn’t be sitting up in my hospital bed and writing right now, as well as the fact I should be technically dead, I was determined to transcribe my thoughts before the next batch of medication kicks in.
I have some precise ground rules for this — All my opinions will be totally sincere but whenever there’s the choice between a safe pick or a contentious one I’ve steered towards the latter. I mean, do we really need another Yes ranking with all the usual suspects in the top spots? I wanna shake things up a bit (just wait until you’ve seen where I’ve placed ‘Big Generator’ — some of you’ll freak!). There’s also a couple of albums here that despite being classics I haven’t placed as highly as they deserve and for various reasons ranging from preferring the material live to the curse over familiarity, so if I just so happen to have listened to any particular record to death then I’ll just have to accept that’s the case… and so will you. This will also help keeps things a bit more interesting as, much like Yes themselves, I want to upend orthodoxy, experiment, get playful and see what happens.
There’ll also be cheap jokes, brutal takedowns and quite a bit of swearing because I’m not going to go easy on these maniacs (I’ve just listened to 22 of their albums at once and trust me, they’re all maniacs) even though I love them all.
So, with ass-covering caveats out of the way let’s have some fun!
22. ‘Close to the Edge’
It’s perfect. What else do you want from me?
In fact, it’s SO perfect and I love it so much that I literally have nothing interesting to say about it or anything new to add that hasn’t been said already; I can sit and listen to it in a state of blissful negative capability but that’s about it. Besides, it’s an album I still regularly put on so revisiting it again meant it held zero surprises hence automatically rendering it, by far, the least interesting album to write about on this list. The title track is a stunning piece of work, ‘And You And I’ might be their most beautiful song and ‘Siberian Khatru’ is what got me into Yes in the first place but just go listen to them rather than expecting me to have anything insightful to say about them.
Am I being mean and unfair? Of course! Only a total idiot would put an album this great here! But I did warn you about this at the start and if you’re already seething with rage at me placing ‘Close to the Edge’ last then you’d better stop reading right now because it’s only going to get worse. Much, much worse.
See what I mean?
Fuck it, the same goes for ‘Fragile’ too. A staggeringly sublime and truly transcendent rock album… but did I REALLY need to hear ‘Roundabout’ for the billionth time this weekend? No! And I could sing you ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ in my sleep. ‘We Have Heaven’ and ‘South Side of the Sky’ provide some of the most gorgeous vocals harmony and piano work you’ll ever hear in your lifetime but I’ve known that for almost forty years so I’m not going to pretend to act all surprised about it all now.
This is the classic line up in place, writing well and perfectly integrated with each other and you can tell purely by listening.
Still, if these are the Yes albums are the bottom of this list then everything else from here on must be even better? Awesome!
20. ‘Heaven and Earth’ (2014)
So the Yes album ‘Heaven and Earth’ is very much like a tortoise with a chainsaw for a face — i.e. there is absolutely no earthly, or heavenly, reason for it to exist.
Unfortunately a chainsaw-faced tortoise would be infinitely more interesting than whatever the hell this bland, sonic-vanilla mush is (listening to this album’s like being serenaded by a bowl of unseasoned mashed potato only less compelling).
Of all the dangerous pitfalls Yes faced there was one that damaged them the most. It wasn’t the arrival of punk, the onset of aging or the departure of any particular band member but something much more insidious — the fact the compact disc could contain 70 minutes worth of music. This one added element immediately saddled many post-Seventies Yes albums with one massive problem — bloat. Gone were the days of spritely 38 min LP’s perfectly served up to us and, instead, their albums arrived as a massive dollop to be slogged through till our jaws ached.
‘Heaven and Earth’ isn’t the worst offender in that regard (it runs just over 50 mins) but what material is here is dull, fey and castrated.
19. ‘The Quest’ (2021)
Say what you want about him but Jon Anderson frequently had the knack to seemingly pull a distinct vocal melody out of thin air. Like the previous ‘Heaven and Earth’ Anderson’s not around here so none of that emphatic melodic distinctness appears on ‘The Quest’ hence rendering the whole album another aimless trudge. The textures, sound and feel are mostly identifiably Yes but ‘The Quest’ could easily have been an album by any of the other, newer Yes-inspired neo-prog bands and when you find yourself dabbling in that musical territory you might as well book your ticket to Dignitas now.
The opening two tracks aren’t too unpromising but after that it’s strictly very much generic prog by numbers, and not very interesting numbers at that (certainly no fractions or polynominal equations).
The good news is ‘Heaven and Earth’ and ‘The Quest’ are the only two albums here I genuinely didn’t care for and considering they’re the two most recent releases then I can’t begrudge a band that’s been around for so long for finally dipping this hard in quality.
Anyway, hopefully everything from here on out is plain sailing. After all, it’s not as if the classic 70’s line-up could record something as bad as this, right?
18. ‘Tormato’ (1978)
I always thought I liked ‘Tormato’ but it turns out… it’s shit!
‘Tormato’s the sound of an exhausted band spent after a cosmic orgasm reduced to furiously wanking away in the studio but we all know nothing of substance is going to come out. Putting together ‘Awaken’ for their previous album had creatively drained the group and listening to the finished result you can distinctly tell as, despite their best efforts, this rarely comes together and whenever it briefly does you wish it would immediately fall apart again.
‘Madrigal’ is listenable, ‘Don’t Kill the Whale’ is silly and annoying, ‘Arriving UFO’ even more so whilst ‘Circus of Heaven’ is a load of shockingly infantile bollocks. Meanwhile ‘Release, Release’ is like an aircraft with square wheels in that it frantically trundles along but never manages to take flight the way it should (you know an album’s in seriously terminal trouble when the group has to drop in the sound of crowds wildly cheering simply to keep a song’s energy artificially going; it’s an act of sonic desperation) and whilst despite containing a great central bass riff ‘On The Silent Wings of Freedom’ is distractingly scrappy; Wakeman’s keyboards sound emaciated and gimmicky and does Howe EVER shut up with his endless and pointless guitar interjections?!
Squire’s ‘Onward’, however, is one of the prettiest tunes the group ever recorded (Anderson’s vocals and Squire’s bass tend to carry this album) and is easily the best track on offer here.
I was gobsmacked at how tough sitting through ‘Tormato’ was this time round because boy, this album has not aged well. Not, admittedly, that it was ever that good in the first place but this is an uninspired, thin, grating, actively irritating album.
And talking of “grating” and “actively irritating”…
17. ABWH (1989)
Look, ‘ABWH’ (Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe) was on highly precarious territory even before we get to that unmentionable monstrosity that’s lurking here deep within: ‘Brother of Mine’ is as painful as toothache, ‘Fist of Fire’ more sonically irritating than my tinnitus whilst ‘Quartet’ is so unbearably sickly sweet and self-referential it makes me want to puke.
And that’s one of the big problems with ‘ABWH’ — it induces explosive nausea. It might have the (almost) classic line-up back together again, playing well and decently produced but it’s hard to lose yourself in an album when, as soon as it starts, you’re through in the toilet on your hands and knees vomiting your guts up.
And then there’s ‘Teakbois’.
Christ Jesus, fucking ‘Teakbois’. Not just an album destroying track but, potentially, a reputation destroying one too, ‘Teakbois’s a ghastly, horrific, possibly offensive nightmare of a song that demonstrates nobody in or from Yes should never, EVER attempt Caribbean music. And Bill Bruford’s “drumming” certainly doesn’t help either.
You see, Bruford is a very cerebral percussionist, often hanging back on the beat almost as though his drumming is wryly and dryly commentating on the music rather than directly emotionally engaging with it (you can almost feel him thinking as he’s playing… and I don’t mean that as a compliment). It’s the reason his style suits chin-stroking outfits like King Crimson. Yet this highly intellectualised approach precludes him from being able to fully loosen up, swing or groove in any way shape or form, let alone play fucking CALYPSO music… and on an electronic kit at that! Christ, he sounds like a malfunctioning robot sporadically exploding at a carnival, nuts, bolts and springs randomly shooting out everywhere.
If you’ve ever wondered what an album would sound like made by some middle-aged prog rock musicians holidaying on a tropical island, occasionally playing cricket and engaging in wholesale cultural appropriation then it would sound like this. It would sound EXACTLY like this.
16. ‘Magnification’ (2001)
“‘Magnification’ is an album that starts with a very strong opener only to then immediately fall off a fucking cliff and land face first in a desert of mediocrity. Melodies meander meaning songs lack a compelling identity. Momentum is sorely lacking and the banal orchestration just makes the overall sonic palette even more monotonous. This is awful. I know ‘Magnification’ has its admirers but I’m not one of them. Thank god!”
That’s what I wrote after revisiting ‘Magnification’ this time round and I thought that was that. But here’s the thing — I’ve had ‘Don’t Go’ stuck in my head for the last 24 hours and it won’t go away. So I listened to ‘Magnification’ again and even though I stand by my comments — ‘We Agree’, ‘Give Love Each Day’ and ‘Dreamtime’ all bore the crap out of me and that orchestration is certainly dull and unadventurous — there’s some nice stuff here and the band do sound on relaxed form. ‘Don’t Go’ is catchy (if a little too cute), the title track hooky as hell and ‘Can You Imagine’ is a nice chance for Yes to remind us just how lovely a voice the much-missed Chris Squire possessed as a lead.
It’s still an overlong, safe and not terribly thrilling album with numerous melodic dead spots, and the orchestra gets in the way more than it augments the music, but ‘Magnification’ ain’t that bad.
15. ‘The Yes Album’ (1971)
‘The Yes Album’ is one of the greatest prog rock albums ever made, so why isn’t it higher? Easy — I prefer the live versions of these songs which made listening to this oddly infuriating.
‘Starship Trooper’, ‘Perpetual Change’ and ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ are all outstanding so although sitting through ‘The Yes Album’ again was great I kept thinking “I can’t wait until this is over so I can put on the live versions” which, hence, acted as a massive, unexpected distraction. For example — ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ is a blazing opener but listen to the Greensboro Coliseum performance on Progeny and it will blow you through the wall!
It’s a fantastic record and this is not a case of me putting it down but, rather, a declaration of just how much this music soars live.
14. ‘Keystudio’ (1996/2001)
Ever wanted to listen to angelic-voiced Jon Anderson sing about urban decay, gang killings, the social impact of rampant drug use in American cities and child mortality? No, nobody does because when he does, as he does here, it’s inadvertently hilarious! Sure, sing about dead babies if you want but don’t, for the love of god, also have Rick Wakeman furiously playing synths over the top of it.
Despite all that ‘Keystudio’s (amazingly!) a bit a of return to form for the band with all the classic members — Anderson, Howe, White, Squire and Wakeman — indulging in long form pieces again with what appears to be a discernable amount of enthusiasm.
And there’s some pure prog stuff here: ‘Mind Drive’ would have been held in higher regard had it been released a few years earlier whilst ‘That, That Is’ is easily their most full-on proggy track since the 70’s with some dynamic playing and imaginative arrangements.
‘Keystudio’s okay and without a doubt the most joyously upbeat and side-splittingly hysterical album about poverty, crime and inner city violence ever recorded.
13. ‘Time and a Word’ (1970)
An album of a group frantically trying to discover their “sound” and not quite fully succeeding. The orchestra is a bit of a misstep but the use of it here is vastly more varied, brave and compelling than on ‘Magnification’ with the sensation of the arranger taking some risks (the arrangements here are more angular as opposed to a standard, generic orchestral wash).
Of most significance is the dramatic increase of confidence in Anderson’s vocals, almost as though you can hear him realising exactly just what he’s capable of and further flexing his talent. The songs are decently catchy and performed with a load of energy but there’s also the sense of the band trying a little too hard here. The result is, for me, that it lacks a little of the easy going charm of its predecessor.
Still, if this was a band finding their feet and learning to walk then after this they’d be running about and causing vast amounts of musical mayhem.
Talking of musical mayhem…
12. ‘Talk’ (1994)
‘Talk’ is a Yes album full of tender, sensitive and touching love songs… if you’re Michael fucking Bay!
Unfettered bombast reigns supreme (check out ‘I Am Waiting’ as an example of that, a love song that veers violently from the sweetly touching to the offensively overblown with all the delicate subtlety of a meteor strike), taste is jettisoned utterly and nuance is nowhere to be found anywhere here at all, but all the songs do have a clear identity (even if that identity is of being spectacularly laughable) and I’ll always dig that ludicrous moment in the ridiculous ‘Endless Dream’ when Rabin’s myriad guitars start interweaving like crazy robots.
The first Yes album to be recorded straight onto a hard drive the result is a clinical, sterile sounding product with the music contained within often hurting my ears (Rabin’s guitars often have the quality of razor blades). This is an album that desperately needs more sonic breathing room breezing through it, that plus the fact that the lyrics here are a total embarrassment (Anderson’s lyrics should always be impenetrable because once he makes what he’s singing about intelligible we immediately wish we couldn’t understand him again).
Trevor Rabin would go on to score Jerry Bruckheimer movies after this and once you’ve heard ‘Talk’ you’ll realise that that was always going to be inevitable.
11. ‘Union’ (1991)
‘Union’s a shocking mess… but it’s a bloody fascinating one.
It’s got CD bloat, SEVEN producers, two full versions of the band plus countless session musicians and the result, not surprisingly, it’s a ghastly Frankensteinian nightmare.
The thing is — I kinda like it.
The overly ornate, sugary, twee-twiddliness of ABWH is drastically scaled-back (thank god!) in favour of a more direct approach to the sound. ‘I Could’ve Waiting Forever’, ‘Shock to the System’, ‘Lift Me Up’ and ‘Miracle of Life’ (a Trevor Rabin track at its most Trevor Rabin-y but you can’t deny that the guy had total control of his material) are all straight ahead rock well executed. ‘Masquerade’ is lovely and ‘Silent Talking’s main riff is muscular and beefy but, ultimately, feels somewhat wasted and thrown away which sums up the infuriating nature of the entire album.
Look, I like Union, okay, even though it has unforgivable problems. It’s not that it’s an irredeemably terrible album (although it kinda is) but more its biggest problem is that it might not, technically, be a Yes album at all (just check out the list of guest musicians appearing on it for confirmation of that). No wonder it made Rick Wakeman weep.
10. ‘Open Your Eyes’ (1997)
Remember I was talking about bloat earlier? Well, here’s the band’s biggest culprit with an objectively weak album that’s over 72 minutes long!
This is one of Yes’s most reviled releases and understandably so because this is not good. So why is this not at rock bottom? Because there’s a track on here called ‘There’s No Way We Can Lose’ that I really, REALLY like. It should represent everything about Yes I hate (Chris Squire even whips out his harmonica here) — it’s a standard, generic pop-rock song with no widdling, no real invention and nothing “progressive” about it — but it’s perfectly constructed, clearly executed, hooky as hell and expertly exploits their vocals. I love it. Unfortunately it’s surrounded by a sea of guff, filler and fluff.
Yet it’s also a decent, straight forward listen. Cut a good thirty minutes off this, relax the production, alter arrangements and you’d have a Squire/Sherwood album with Yes members guesting that would be more bearable than what we have here.
‘Open Your Eyes’ is FAR from perfect but like watching an elderly man climbing out of a pool in some loose fitting swimming-trunks we’re at least exposed to some brief flashes of balls.
9. ‘The Ladder’ (1999)
Did you know that Yes weren’t just a prog rock band but also a sparkle pop band, too? You know — music that sparkles?
‘The Ladder’s a fun and sparkly listen and the band is clearly functioning as a cohesive unit here which sounds like Yes again… but HOLY-MOLY, this is lighter-than-light fare without a single challenging track on the entire record! Seriously, this is an album so relentlessly upbeat and sunny it makes Hanson’s ‘MMMBop’ sound like Penderecki. Just listen to the track ‘To Be Alive’ (Hep Yadda), a song so furiously cute that it could only be made more adorable if it was performed by a litter of Labrador puppies, if you want proof of that.
A good, maybe even medically essential, album for those suffering from rickets due to vitamin D deficiency.
8. ‘Fly From Here: Return Trip’ (2011/18)
If revisiting ‘Tormato’ was a nasty surprise then ‘Fly From Here: Return Trip’ was a side-swiping delight!
This is the ‘Drama’ line-up back together again to record some material left over from the ‘Drama’ session. So it’s Drama: Part 2? Awesome! And you can really tell with echoes of ‘Machine Messiah’ running throughout the lengthy title track which, despite its 24 minute length, might be Yes’ most tolerable long piece in decades.
‘Life on a Film Set’ (if you think the title is awful just wait till you hear the lyrics!) is a nicely constructed Yes song that, after a somewhat generic intro, suddenly skips along so playfully it’s almost unreal whilst ‘Hour of Need’ is one of their prettiest tracks since the 70’s (it’s those tight vocal harmonies). Squire gets to sing lead on a song of his that perfectly suits his voice to the point I actually gulped a little with emotion listening to it (I had no idea “recent” Yes could still do this to me!).
This isn’t a classic by any means but it’s a fully formed, well thought out, consistent album with real heart and might be their most satisfying and touching album in a long time. The pyrotechnics are seriously scaled back in favour of strong playing and clearly defined songwriting (I suspect this is Horn’s guiding influence here) and the result is a 53 minute long album that doesn’t feel its length, and in the world of prog rock that’s a bloody miracle.
If you get a kick out of hearing Trevor Horn singing with Yes, which I most certainly do, then this should appeal.
(Medical Advice Warning — Steve Howe occasionally sings lead vocals on this)
7. ‘Yes’ (1969)
One of the biggest pleasures from revisiting every Yes album was this, their first release. I hadn’t heard it in decades and even though, for me, it’s not quite up there with their best there’s a bucket load of charm here as this is a delightfully sweet, endearing and groovy album.
This is Yes in full-on Fifth Dimension vocal-mode combined with a strong jazzy/rock vibe which creates some lovely harmonies, gorgeous melodies and all backed-up by some youthfully energetic playing; ‘I See You’, ‘Yesterday and Today’ and ‘Looking Around’ are all great examples of this. Excessive ornamentation has yet to make an appearance meaning the band pounds along with a more direct approach, yet the early Yes signs and sounds are all present if not yet fully realised.
For those complaining Yes turned into a sparkle-pop band in their later years then listen to this, their first record, and realise that that’s what they’d actually always been all along.
6. ‘90125’ (1983)
1985, 31st October: I listen to a Yes album for the first time. It is called ‘90125’ and my life is never the same again (are my choices making sense now?). I’d never heard anything so modern and futuristic sounding! The album seemed to be filled with so much extended space, silver in colour and leading off to distant, shining, metallic cities.
This is Yes in full on sparkle-pop mode with Trevor Horn’s production making it sparkle even brighter. Anderson’s clear alto-tenor fits perfectly into Horn’s precisely created sonic space and that’s because Horn knows how to exploit and use Yes’ vocals, something he pushes to insane levels of multi-tracked accapella lunacy with the nutzoid ‘Leave It’ (I LOVE ‘Leave It’).
Trevor Rabin’s guitar opens up this sound world in contrast to Howe who would constantly fill it, Tony Kaye doesn’t so much play the piano as let isolated chords brightly ring out as chiming textures as opposed to a providing a musical accompaniment whilst White’s drums are stripped back for a Stuart Copeland tone (Yes+Horn=The Police it seems).
90125’s main strength is that it is clear and consistent, even if it loses steam towards the end with ‘City of Love’ and ‘Hearts’ which are both kinda meh. It’s forty years old but still sounds like a million bucks.
5. ‘Drama’ (1980)
Whenever anybody asks me why I love ‘Drama’ so much I don’t say a word but quietly put on ‘Tempus Fugit’, sit back and watch their jaw slowly drop open before they invariably turn to me, eyes glistening with tears of wonderment and emitting the barely audible awestruck whisper of “That’s the greatest bass riff I’ve ever heard in my entire life” as I cradle them in my arms, soothingly replying “I know. I know.”
‘Tempus Fugit’ is a stonker of a track with Squire’s bass line a thing of fat-stringed wonder… and just listen to how Howe’s guitar squeals over the top of it! It’s a spectacular opening to a song and Yes at their integrated best, although any band that sings their own name through a vocoder on one of their songs should be automatically imprisoned.
‘Does It Really Happen’ is another great example of the group working well together and centered around an extraordinarily catchy chorus of the bouncy sort that always seemed to occur whenever Trevor Horn was involved. Howe’s guitar playing is fiery without being excessively frantic, Downes provides reliable support as opposed to showing off, Horn’s no Anderson but his vocals suit the music, White’s on typically strong form whilst Squire lays down some of the greatest bass lines you’ll ever experience. Hell, I even love ‘Man in a White Car’ and that’s a load of nonsense.
‘Drama’ is 36 minutes of ridiculously energetic fun, great playing and excitable grooves. It’s an incredibly easy and upbeat listen. None of which can be said about what’s coming next.
4. ‘Relayer’ (1974)
Ever wondered what it would be like listening to an album that’s the sonic equivalent of a witnessing a vast, overpowering force smashing through a crack in the fabric of reality which then pounds you into the ground like Thanos whilst he’s in possession of all the Infinity Stones? Well, ‘Relayer’ makes that seem like listening to Val Doonican.
It opens with the epic ‘The Gates of Delirium’, a cosmic version of War and Peace with hallucinogenic theological overtones, so it’s not quite exactly Maroon 5. It starts innocuously enough with Anderson singing about oncoming conflict, the gathering of evil forces and the awakening of Gods, but when battle does commence the piece explodes. Patrick Moraz (replacing Wakeman on keys) and Steve Howe furiously fire off each other whilst the rhythm section pins everything down with incandescent momentum. 9:40 mins in Moraz raises the stakes to which Howe responds with a blazing run up his fretboard before the entire piece suddenly shifts into a blistering bass lead groove.
12:50 and this groove shatters into a thrilling new theme from Moraz and when Howe takes it over with his slide it’s one of the most spine-tingling pieces of guitar work I’ve heard (and just listen to what Squire’s doing on his bass!) which lifts everything even higher… and it was functioning at a pretty rarified level as it was.
The chaos is replaced by calm with the plaintive and evocative ‘Soon’. Which is just as well because up next is the demented ‘Sound Chaser’.
This is Yes at full tilt, but is it maybe too much? Howe’s playing here is seriously attention grabbing; every space needs to be filled, (almost) every silence annihilated by MORE NOTES. Christ, his solo on ‘Sound Chaser’ is so maniacal I genuinely can’t figure out if it’s a piece of inspired ragged brilliance or a fucking appalling mess. But when those “CHA, CHA, CHA”s kick in followed by a demonic keyboard solo (Moraz’s fierce jazz sensibilities replacing Wakeman’s more classical leanings) all musical sins are immediately destroyed (even if new ones are also immediately committed).
‘To Be Over’ takes its sweet bloody time to get going but is a very pretty track once it does, especially when Howe’s slide comes in again.
‘Relayer’ doesn’t have the perfection of form of ‘Close to The Edge’ and is a little too emotionally cold at times, yet it contains such a unique energy it’s a spectacular experience. ‘Relayer’ is berserk, insane, bonkers and legitimately crazy but it isn’t their craziest album. Oh no. You see, there’s this other, somewhat overlooked Yes album called…
3. ‘Big Generator’ (1987)
If you thought ‘Relayer’ was batshit crazy then just wait until you get a load of this!
This is what happens when you give a group of middle-aged men huge unexpected mid-career success, a load of drugs, two million dollars, unlimited studio(s) time and absolutely zero direction — i.e. total insanity. Critically reviled at the time as an attempt to recapture the sound and appeal of ‘90125’ for me that’s somewhat underselling and misrepresenting it as ‘Big Generator’ isn’t so much a re-tread of its clean and shiny predecessor but more its filthy, dirty, crazy cousin. It is also, and by some margin, the more interesting and exciting listen.
Side 1 opens with ‘Rhythm of Love’ — part pop song, part Brutalist sonic construction where everything is ramped-up to the max and beyond (the production of this album should’ve been certified and sectioned on release). The following title track is abrasive and squalid yet packed with sophisticated detail (just listen to how the entire song imperceptibly lifts when Anderson sings the word “gold”) and compensates for the following two tracks dropping in energy and interest.
But it’s on Side 2 where ‘Big Generator’ fully becomes a uniquely overwhelming dynamo. ‘Love Will Find a Way’ is an expertly written and insanely catchy pop-rock song with a better structure than almost anything else the band had ever recorded that’s then followed by ‘Silent Eyes’, a showcase for Anderson’s crystal clear vocals and Rabin’s steel string acoustic guitar, the combination of both making everything shimmer in a way only Yes could. Is it cheese-over load? Of course! But it’s just so pretty and cute!
Then there’s ‘I’m Running’.
I adore ‘I’m Running’. I love that awkwardly ugly bass line, I love those tasteless accompanying Latin vibes, I love those vocal harmonies layered so densely on top of each other they’re in constant danger of total, irretrievable collapse. I love how manic it is. I love how intense Rabin’s guitar work sounds, how White’s drumming almost anticipates the beat providing the piece with a furiously unstoppable forward momentum.
‘Big Generator’ is a hideous, metallic, catastrophic angel of geometrical destruction and I think it’s fantastic.
So if ‘Big Generator’ seemed to stand in direct opposition against everything Yes stood for and represented what then, exactly, did Yes stand for and represent?
2. ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ (1973)
Everything you’ve heard about this double album is true. It’s overblown, pretentious, frequently boring, sporadically ecstatic, overlong, undercooked and a slog. Consisting of four songs inspired by the Shastic scriptures (although you’d never be able to tell from listening to them) this is Yes at their most emphatic and uncompromising. I loved it as a teenager, but listening to it now?
Bloody hell, this is some of the most tedious material the band ever recorded so far. Side 1 is strong but there’s an unwieldy nature to it, as though the listener is required to do all the heavy-lifting. Soul-destroying monotony sets in with side 2, the opening ten minutes of which are the most mind-numbingly dull music the band ever composed to the point it automatically raises the question — so why..? so why..?
So why do I have tears streaming down my face? Am I crying at ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’?!
You see, Side 2 is heavily flawed but the final ten minutes are some of the most emotionally arresting music the band ever produced. Howe’s playing on the Relayer section is outstanding, Wakeman’s keyboards are lush and gorgeous whilst White’s drumming pushes the band along so forcefully it feels like he’s almost daring them to keep up. The side climaxes with Anderson and Squire pulling off some heartbreaking vocal harmonies and when Anderson sings “Alternate view” with Squire’s backing vocals rising as he does so only to then descend on the following word “sunlight” I automatically tear up. It’s one of the most beautiful moments any prog rock band ever recorded.
The album closes with ‘Ritual’ where the material finally fully comes together allowing the group to seamlessly switch from powerful bombast to tender sensitivity with startling effect so by the time Anderson was singing “We hear a sound and alter our returning” at the end I was in bits.
For all the excess, flaws (side 3 is a captivating mess), pretention and pomposity ‘Tales’ contains some of the band’s most delicately touching moments and when the emotional beats hit they do so with a genuinely earnest and sincere impact. I was shocked at how much this album got to me.
But after three heavily serious albums in a row Yes desperately needed to lighten up. If only there was an album that combined their capacity for majesty, technical brilliance, energy, emotion, fun, choral craziness and theological sparkle pop. But could such an album possibly exist?
- ‘Going For the One’ (1977)
The sense of freedom, liberation and space opening up when ‘Going For the One’ kicks in is immediate and palpable. Maybe it’s the fact the album was recorded in mountainous Switzerland, maybe it’s because the band were having fun again or maybe it’s because it has a naked man on the cover with his bum out.
The opening title track is Yes finally engaging in straight rock and roll, although any remnants of the blues have been stripped out so it’s still very much a sexless affair.
‘Turn of the Century’ is a song so silly that if I explained it to you you’d burst out laughing (a sculptor’s wife dies which leaves him heartbroken so he painstaking carves an exact life-size replica of her. This model magically comes alive! They embrace, they dance, they make passionate love, presumably leaving the sculptor with bits of clay in his willy afterwards). It’s the band at their most romantically histrionic but it somehow works: Anderson’s clear voice sells it with touching sincerity whilst Squire’s choirboy-on-steroids “aahhh”s over the top act like sonic icing sugar. The lyrics are transcendently schmaltzy, hilariously wacky but also undeniably sweet.
‘Parallels’ is next and I’ll say this as simply as possible — Parallels might be my favourite song Yes ever recorded in the studio. The track itself is another one of those booster-powered choral pieces Squire excelled at, its immensity further enhanced by Wakeman playing a church organ. White’s drumming keeps everything moving, Howe’s constant restlessness isn’t intrusive here but ecstatic; Wakeman pulls off an outstanding solo accompanied by some absolutely monumental chords, Squire’s bass and vocal harmonies ground the centre whilst Anderson’s voice reaches delirious heights that make the hairs on the skin reach up in order to join him (the weight of the organ allows the vocals to soar even higher). When Anderson sings “It’s the beginning of a new love inside!” there’s a moment of briefly suspended bliss before the rest of the band crash in with all the power they can muster and the whole piece swirls, interlaces and careens towards its climax.
‘Wondrous Stories’ is cute as a button and a much needed breather after what came and what’s about to come next, and that’s ‘Awaken’.
‘Awaken’ opens with Wakeman’s shimmering piano as Anderson sings “High vibration go on”, which is only appropriate as ‘Awaken’ seems to vibrate on some elevated plane of existence all of its own. Or maybe imagine a vast, blue crystalline column that pierces separate universes. It’s that kind of sing-a-long ditty.
Around this central, invisible, vibrating, towering multi-dimensional pillar the musicians form a cohesive whole of disparate elements: Howe’s guitar crackles like lines of arcing electricity; the percussion’s a dazzling stream of relentless bursts of impact; Squire’s bass both thunders and yearns; the imagery of Anderson’s lyrics further expands the scope beyond all imaginable horizon lines, his voice soaring; a choir kicks in, Wakeman’s church organ emits chords of unimaginable vastness; my spine shoots straight up, all my chakras perfectly align and my head explodes as my kundalini energy shoots out the top, spurting all over my room and waking up the neighbours.
You know, I thought listening to every single Yes album in one go would be a somewhat dull and tedious affair but bloody hell, it’s been a delirious blast!
Sure, their back catalogue contains swaths of material that’s undeniably pretentious, embarrassing, idiotic, deranged and hilarious (and frequently all that once) but it’s nearly always fascinating, exceptionally well made, rarely truly dull and often highly entertaining. The only two albums I genuinely wouldn’t recommend are ‘Heaven and Earth’ and ‘The Quest’. Everything else, no matter how variable in quality, always has something of merit going for it or buried in it somewhere… and that’s not bad for 22 albums.
Yet it’s the sheer amount of ear-boggling variation within their music that really helps keep Yes interesting. They’ve a crazy history with countless line-ups but all were of excellent musicians meaning there’s a huge range of styles — prog epics, energetic rock, acoustic, classical, choral, pop, etc. There’s way more variation here than any other prog rock band I can think of, especially variation in quality, and that helps keep Yes fascinating.
Rick Wakeman was right when he said Yes wasn’t about technical virtuosity, musical expertise or the search for hit singles. It was about one word and that’s “emotion”, and Yes did that better than almost anybody else.