Essentially Yes

John Kelman BY

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Essentially Yes
Eagle Records

Essentially Yes collects all four studio albums released by progressive rockers Yes between 1994 and 2001 (with the exception of the studio material recorded for the two Keys To Ascension sets from 1996/1997). As a special bonus it includes a disc with an excerpt from the group's performance at the 2003 Montreux Festival (soon to be released in its entirety on DVD). Collecting together Talk (1994), Open Your Eyes (1997), The Ladder (1999) and Magnification (2001), it charts the group's move from its pop- oriented incarnation with guitarist Trevor Rabin through a return to more progressive roots following the departure of Rabin and the return of classic-era guitarist Steve Howe.

But first some background.

In the progressive rock arena, the only group to last as long as King Crimson and have an even more constant shift in personnel is perennial favorite Yes. Crimson has had its share of personnel changes over the years to be sure, but it has also lain dormant for long periods, sometimes as long as a decade. And while many musicians have passed through Crimson over the years, with rare exception they stay for some period of time (sometimes spanning multiple incarnations) and when they're gone, they're gone.

On the other hand, while there have been relatively short periods of inactivity, Yes has together more often than not in the nearly four decades since it first formed, and is the definition of revolving door personnel. With the single exception of founding member bassist/vocalist Chris Squire, there's been little consistency across the decades. Original keyboardist Tony Kaye left after The Yes Album (Atlantic, 1970), returning for an extended run from 90125 (Atco, 1983) through Talk (Victory, 1994). Guitarist Steve Howe, who joined the group for The Yes Album, stayed through Drama (Atlantic, 1980), taking a sixteen-year hiatus before rejoining for Keys To Ascension (Castle, 1996).

Even vocalist Jon Anderson—an unequivocal signature sound of Yes—left after Tormato (Atlantic, 1978). A few years later, after hearing new material by Cinema—Squire's new group with Yes drummer Alan White (who replaced original drummer Bill Bruford for 1973's Tales From Topographic Oceans and has remained with Yes ever since) and guitarist Trevor Rabin—he was encouraged to take part and, along with Tony Kaye, the more pop and contemporary technology-oriented Yes of 90125 was born.

Keyboardist Rick Wakeman has been the most frequent player through the in and out door. After joining for the group's classic Fragile (Atlantic, 1971), he left following Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic, 1973), only to rejoin again from Going For The One (Atlantic, 1977) through Tormato. Barring the Keys To Ascension studio sessions and concerts, he's toured with the group in recent years, and appears on the bonus Live At Montreux 2003 disc in the Essentially Yes box.

The problem with a group that has changed its personnel so many times is that it runs the risk of losing its identity. And when a progressive rock group like Yes shifts gears from epic albums like Close To The Edge (Atlantic, 1972) to the adult-oriented rock of 90125, it runs the risk of alienating its existing fan base, even as it attracts a new (and younger) one. Still, while the albums included in Essentially Yes aren't classics by any stretch of the imagination, they serve to demonstrate the group's flexibility, and when distanced from past successes and glory days, are enjoyable and stand on their own merits.

Eagle Records
2006 (1994)

When Yes returned to the scene in 1983 with 90125, it was a reinvigorated and reinvented band that was on the cutting edge of technology. Gone were the capes, banks of keyboards and epic compositions, replaced by a leaner and more radio-friendly sound. Yes had tried to go for shorter form before on Tormato, but was unable to shake the expectations of its loyal fan base. By the time 90125 was released, influenced in a big way by newcomer Rabin's pop orientation and driven by the emergent MTV culture, Yes managed to do what few bands have: completely reinvent itself. And while die-hard fans missed lengthy forays like "Close To The Edge," the Yes of 90125 was undeniably catchy, had enough hints of progressive music to still hold interest to all but the most inflexible older fans and was unequivocally not a sell-out. 90125 would go on to become one of Yes' best-selling albums ever.

Sadly, none of the subsequent Rabin-era albums would ever match the success of 90125. With no new studio material and a desire to keep the momentum going, Yes would make one of a number of career mistakes by following 90125 with 9012Live: The Solos (Atco, 1985), an album of mostly solo spots from the 90125 tour that, after the refreshing changes of the new group, harkened back to the worst excesses of the old one.

The next studio record, Big Generator (Atco, 1987), tried to recapture the successes of 90125, but the material simply wasn't as strong, and it appeared that Yes was heading, once again, for another shift. Anderson regrouped with Wakeman, Howe and, in a surprising move, Bruford for the acceptable but plainly average 1989 Arista release, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and then, in a move that can only perceived as trying to please everybody all of the time, brought together members of the classic Yes lineup and the 90125-era group. But with the exception of Anderson and Squire as constants, never the twain would meet and there was no cross-pollination between the two incarnations. The resulting album, Union (Arista, 1991), was a schizophrenic offering that ultimately didn't please very many people at all.

By the time of Talk, there'd been enough distance from the failures of 9012Live and especially Big Generator to position it as an album less likely to be compared directly to 90125. It may not be as strong as the Rabin-era breakout disc, but for fans of that album it's certainly the next best thing.

Rabin, who would leave after Talk to pursue a career as a film scorer, is a remarkable guitarist who never got his due. Anyone following in Howe's footsteps would face a significant challenge. While he was a more conventional guitarist in terms of his rock roots, Rabin's compressed sound and curiously anti-solo approach—more texture and brief melodic snippets instead of virtuosic grandstanding— has its own appeal.

Probably the biggest differentiator with Talk is that, while the previous Rabin-era discs were co-written co-productions, Talk was clearly Rabin's show. With rare exception all the material was written by Rabin (lyrics by Anderson), and he was the sole producer. That said, as radio-friendly as tunes like "The Calling" (featuring a thundering drum sound from White and powerful riff work from Squire and Rabin) and the anthemic power ballad "I Am Waiting" are, the fifteen-minute, three-part "Endless Dream" signals a shift towards a more progressive sound, with shifting meters, lengthy instrumental passages and a more expansive design.

If one can accept Yes as a radio-friendly band with progressive leanings, Talk is an album that will hold plenty of appeal. It's unfortunate that it disappeared without much notice. In many ways it's the closest thing to an album that could appeal to both older fans and those who were unfamiliar with the group before 90125.

Open Your Eyes
Eagle Records
2006 (1997)

With Rabin gone and Howe back in the group following the two Keys To Ascension live/studio releases, die-hard fans of the classic Yes sound from the 1970s had their hopes up. Augmenting a near-complete reunion of the classic Yes lineup (only Wakeman was absent) was Billy Sherwood, a guitarist/keyboardist who had co-produced a couple of tracks on Union. Open Your Eyes signaled the beginning of an even greater shift towards the progressive arena, despite most Yes fans considering it one of the group's worst albums (though it's hard to beat Tormato and 9012Live for that distinction).

While the writing credits are to the entire band, the reality is that Open Your Eyes was primarily co-written by Sherwood and Squire, and remains a more straightforward rock album than the thoroughly progressive Keys To Ascension (the studio tracks from KTA would be released in 2001 by Castle on a single disc, Keystudio). Howe would later comment on the difference between Yes albums that leaned more towards the Squire/Sherwood camp and those that focused more heavily on contributions by Anderson and Howe (despite Sherwood being a co-producer on much of Keys To Ascension), a difference that would become clearer with the release of Yes' next album, The Ladder.

Still, while songs like "New State Of Mind" and "Open Your Eyes" are clearly pop-oriented, the classical guitar intro to "Universal Garden" makes it clear that Howe is back. "Fortune Seller" also features two Howe trademarks—his swooping steel guitar through the vocal passages and a jazz-tinged approach on his solo. But the shuffle of "No Way We Can Lose," which also features Squire on harmonica, doesn't seem to have any frame of reference in any previous incarnation of Yes, while Sherwood's lower-register lead vocals on "Man In The Moon" feel equally distanced.

Fan reaction may have been understandable at the time, given the return of the classic Yes lineup for Keys To Ascension. Time and distance make Open Your Eyes a somewhat transitional and uneven album, but one that is still worth a second examination. By no means one of Yes' strongest albums, it's by no means its worst.

The Ladder
Eagle Records
2006 (1999)

From the first seconds of The Ladder's opening track, "The Ladder (Homeworld)," it's clear that there's a shift taking place. Expanded to a sextet, Sherwood is found in a reduced but still key role as second guitarist to Howe's stunning lead work, while keyboardist Igor Khoroshev, who'd played on a few tracks on Open Your Eyes, is now a full and more dominant member. Closer to the studio material on Keys To Ascension, it sounded as though Yes was making a concerted effort to return to its progressive roots with an episodic 10-minute piece that echoed the epic Yes of old.

As outstanding as "The Ladder (Homeworld)" is—and there are other tracks that are equally impressive—The Ladder suffers from the same kind of multiple personality syndrome as Union. For every piece of complex writing like "To Be Alive (Hep Yadda)," there's an engaging but radio-friendly "It Will Be A Good Day (The River)." For every lengthy "New Language," which like "The Ladder (Homeworld)" is more epic and episodic in nature with Khoroshev in flat-out Wakeman mode, there's an anthemic (insert picture of massive crowd, lighters lit and arms waving) "If Only You Knew." Where the heavy-handed calypso-informed "Lightning Strikes" came from is anyone's guess.

Still, in contrast to Open Your Eyes, The Ladder bears the unmistakable imprint of the Anderson/Howe writing team. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the record is that it was produced by the late Bruce Fairbarn, who passed away before the album was completed but was, according to Howe, a major part of the project. Fairbarn was best-known for producing groups like Loverboy, Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Van Halen. Despite The Ladder's uncertainty as to what it wants to be, it's still a testimony to the value of a producer who can hear what a group wants to achieve and help make it happen. Inconsistent it may be, but when it was released The Ladder was the best progressive rock studio album Yes had made in nearly two decades.

Eagle Records
2006 (2001)

With The Ladder and its subsequent tour well-received by longtime fans, Yes realized that continuing in a progressive direction would be the right decision. With both Sherwood and Khoroshev gone and Wakeman nowhere to be found, Yes continued on as a four-piece, recording Magnification with a full symphony orchestra—the first time it had worked with an orchestra since Time And A Word (Atlantic, 1970). But while the earlier effort used strings as an add-on, the material on Magnification was written with an orchestra in mind, with Yes enlisting Larry Groupé to write and conduct the orchestral parts, along with two additional orchestrators to boot.

The result, 90125-era Yes aside, is the best Yes studio album since 1977's Going For The One. Some of the songs are clearly written with radio in mind (though with the radical shift in radio by this time that was, perhaps, wishful thinking), in particular the propulsive "Don't Go." But other than the almost Beatle-esque "Time Is Time," the rest of the short songs on the disc are like vignettes linking the longer pieces together. "Can You Imagine" is especially notable as a rare chance to hear Squire handling lead vocals.

The most consistent and adventurous album—stylistically and qualitatively— since the 1970s, it also distinguishes itself as the group's most selfless effort. Yes was always a group that relied on the virtuosity of its members, but while the personalities of Anderson, Howe, Squire and White are never less than fully present, Magnification remains an album where the songs transcend the players.

It's also a rarity in the history of rock—a combination of orchestra and rock group that actually works. All too often the orchestra, if not totally subservient, is so heavy-handed that it becomes laughable. Here, while there's no lack of drama—and, on occasion, melodrama—two disparate worlds come together, creating a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.

Yes would take Magnification on a remarkable seventy-city tour, using symphony orchestras from the cities it visited and expanding the set to include fully orchestrated versions of classic Yes compositions including "The Gates Of Delirium" (from 1974's Relayer), "Close To The Edge" and "Ritual" (from Tales From Topographic Oceans. It was a very successful tour, and one that would lead to the return of Rick Wakeman.

That two of the tracks from this album—the title track and eleven-minute, four-part "In The Presence Of"—would go on to be performed by the group after Wakeman rejoined is high praise indeed. Neither Howe nor Wakeman would typically play material from albums on which they'd not participated. Both the more straightforward "Magnification" and expansive "In The Presence Of" would prove to work just fine in the hands of Wakeman—a keyboardist who always had a strong sense of orchestration.

Live At Montreux 2003
Eagle Records

With the classic Yes lineup back together again and performing over 160 shows between 2002 and 2004, it's to be expected that an audio and video document would be released. The DVD of Live At Montreux 2003, to be released in March, 2007 by Eagle Vision, contains the entire show. The 66-minute audio disc with about half the show that's an added bonus to Essentially Yes, serves as both a teaser for the DVD and a clear marketing move to encourage Yes fans to consider the box set.

Well-recorded, with a good cross-section of tracks from The Yes Album, Close To The Edge, Going For The One, Tormato and Magnification, it's still a mixed blessing. Unlike fellow progressive rockers Van Der Graaf Generator, who reformed in 2004 and released their first album since the 1970s, it's clear that while Yes will continue to record new music, when it comes to touring it still relies heavily on its celebrated 1970-77 period for material. With its songs so heavily composed, solos aside one might think there's little to differentiate one performance from another.

That said, the Montreux 2003 disc is surprisingly strong. Better recorded than the live material on Keys To Ascension and played better as well (likely the result of being on the road for months before playing this show), it's one of the better live documents of this lineup—certainly better in sound quality than Yessongs (Atlantic, 1973). The performances of "And You And I" and "Awaken" are cleaner than previous live versions. "Siberian Khatru" is taken at a slower pace but remains a signature piece for Howe's ever-distinctive playing, as is the rocky "I've Seen All Good People," which ends the show.

While Yes may never achieve the creative heights it did in the 1970s, with its live shows weighing heavily in favor of material from the day, it's clear that the fans are just fine with that. But the four studio releases in Essentially Yes are proof that there are still some creative juices flowing, and that it's important to assess records for what they are, rather than for what they should be.
Personnel and Track Listings


Personnel: John Anderson: vocals; Tony Kaye: keyboards; Trevor Rabin: guitar, keyboards, programming, vocals; Chris Squire: bass, vocals; Alan White: drums.

Tracks: The Calling; I Am Waiting; Real Love; State Of Play; Walls; Where Will You Be; Endless Dream: Silent Spring (instrumental); Talk; Endless Dream. Bonus track: The Calling (Special Version).

Open Your Eyes

Personnel: John Anderson: vocals; Steve Howe: banjo, guitar, mandolin, steel guitar, vocals; Billy Sherwood: guitar, keyboards, bass, vocals; Chris Squire: bass, vocals, harmonica; Alan White: drums, percussion, vocals; Igor Khoroshev: keyboards (1,4,5); Steve Porcaro: keyboards (2).

Tracks: New State Of Mind; Open Your Eyes; Universal Garden; No Way We Can Lose; Fortune Seller; Man In The Moon; Wonderlove; From The Balcony; Love Shine; Somehowâ??¦Someday; The Solution. Bonus hidden track.

The Ladder

Personnel: John Anderson: vocals; Steve Howe: lead and acoustic guitars, mandolin, steel guitar, vocals; Igor Khoroshev: keyboards, vocals; Billy Sherwood: guitar, vocals; Chris Squire: bass, vocals; Alan White: drums, percussion, vocals. The Margerita Horns (3): Tom Keenlyside: piccolo, tenor saxophone; Derry Burns: trumpet; Rod Murray: trombone; Tom Colclough: alto saxophone; Neil Nicholson: tuba. Randy Raine-Reusch: "world" instruments.

Tracks: Homeworld (The Ladder); It Will Be A Good Day (The River); Lightning Strikes; Can I?; Face To Face; If Only You Knew; To Be Alive (Hep Yadda); Finally; The Messenger; New Language; Nine Voices (Longwalker).


Personnel: John Anderson: vocals, midi-guitar, acoustic guitar; Steve Howe: acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, steel guitar, vocals; Chris Squire: bass, vocals; Alan White: drums, percussion, vocals, piano; Frank Macchia: orchestration; Bruce Donnelly: orchestration; Larry Groupé: orchestral compositions, arranger, conductor; Larry Czoka: copyist.

Tracks: Magnification; Spirit Of Survival; Don't Go; Give Love Each Day; Can You Imagine; We Agree; Soft As A Dove; Dreamtime: In The Presence Of: (i) Deeper; (ii) Death Of Ego; (iii) True Beginner; (iv) Turn Around And Remember; Time Is Time.

Live At Montreux 2003

Personnel: John Anderson: vocals; Steve Howe: guitars, vocals; Chris Squire: bass, vocals; Rick Wakeman: keyboards; Alan White: drums.

Tracks: Siberian Khatru; Magnification; Don't Kill The Whale; In The Presence Of: (i) Deeper; (ii) Death Of Ego; (iii) True Beginner; (iv) Turn Around And Remember; And You And I: (i) Cord Of Life; (ii) Eclipse; (iii) The Preacher The Teacher; (iv) Apocalypse; Awaken; I've Seen All Good People: (i) Your Move; (ii) All Good People.

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