Tag Archives: Yes

July 2021 – single & track reviews – Yes’ ‘The Ice Bridge’; Brachmond’s ‘Teufelsdanz’; Brainsqueezed’s ‘My Fears in the Night’

23 Jul

There was a time when Yes defined their own musical shapes, and did it incredibly well. You can quibble about their otherworldly detachment and high pitching, their grandiose poly-stylistic gestures, their lasers, harps and ’70s frocks; but behind all of that detailed prime-prog fantasia was a furious collective musicality in which virtuosity served the music rather than vice versa. These days (minus their original core of creative-spark singer Jon Anderson and recently-passed choral bassist Chris Squire), an ageing Yes seem content to graze, like cosmic cows, on their own long-established tropes. While the band do still revisit some of their former intensity in their concert catalogue, current studio recordings have shown the acrobatic flights of the old Yes replaced by a cruising argosy of pomp as long-term members age, fade and lose focus.

That said, ‘The Ice Bridge’ is a near-heroic attempt by current Yes singer (and de facto songwriter) Jon Davison to pull his lumbering bandmates back uphill. Co-written with keyboard player Geoff Downes – whose fantasy-soundtrack synths and trumpeting analogue leads provide the song with most of its pomp – it’s an attempt at linking our current precarious position of climate threat to the Paleo-American crossing of the Beringian steppe, over sixteen thousand years ago. A survival song, in blurred terms. “With fear of extinction, / we’re pushed to the edge of the ice. / Instinctive direction, / a drive to survive.” 

It’s never precisely clear what Davison’s “Snowflower Elder”, leading his people across the mammoth steppe to Alaska, has to do with our current, floundering status as twenty-first century blitzoid man; but lyrical exactitude has always been rare with Yes. Still, ‘The Ice Bridge’ is a typically Yes-ian melange of ancient wisdom, the past-as-future, and fanfares for spiritual unity. While the music remains as earthbound as a pilgrim caravan, it’s expansive; and after a decade of creative disappointment, it’s good to hear something which echoes at least some of the Yes strengths of old.

While Squire’s soaring Anglican harmonies are much missed, his replacement Billy Sherwood recaptures some of the ex-bassman’s grinding instrumental swing. Rather than winding his guitars into the heart of the music, Steve Howe now flies in stern flaring pronouncements like an occasional god on a cloud. But it’s Davison’s show this time, tumbling harmony cadences against the rolling rhythm, persistently pushing his saga of hope and determination, and ensuring that all of the proggy pennants are backed up with heart – and at least Yes now sound like a version of themselves again, rather than a shadow of themselves.

Mediaevalism has, on occasion, been an ingredient in the Yes stew; for other bands, it’s a raison d’etre. German “mediaeval rockers” Brachmond embrace it ardently, entwining bagpipe, flute, violin and flights of campfire harmonies into their twin-guitar heavy metal punch. Although they’re a product of re-enactment meets and contemporary folk fayres, their old-tyme enthusiasms seem more akin to a heavy sauce-dousing than a faithful immersion. Thanks to extra guitar roar and some surprisingly punky drumming, they’re considerably closer to Iron Maiden than they are to, say, Gryphon, Ougenweide or even fellow fayrists like Schandmaul. Nonetheless, their irreverent gusto overcomes any purist qualms.

Mining the Brothers Grimm and the dark-fantasy TV series ‘Grimm’ (more or less equally), ‘Teufelsdanz’ does what a lot of the more hectic and rebellious folk music does: linking the supernatural with wilder human hungers, and with stuff that goes on behind God’s back and out of sight of the church spire. Passing the pellmell folk-metal guitars, strings and pipes and unravelling the German lyrics reveals some zesty infernality – a Godfather Death playing a song on old bones; an irresistible dance which fires your blood and charges your loins; a hidden and seductive Devil who offers you knowledge and compels your willing surrender, but gifts you back with spontaneity.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that many European folk tales present the Devil almost as one of us – an adversary who must be outwitted and denied but whom it’s ultimately fun to spar with, and who seems closer to actual human feelings than do Christ and the saints. Brachmond understand this and take a full-hearted run at it, while singer Stefanie Schmid’s gutsy vocals and knowing glances make her the perfect cheerleader for a bout of witty wickedness

Drawing on Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, ‘Metropolis’ and Mary Shelley, themes of willingly-mechanised men (or robots with human hearts) have wended their way through futurist prog for ages; from Rush and Buggles to The Mars Volta, steampunk rock and Tom Slatter. In that respect, Franco-Australian prog-pop act Brainsqueezed‘s upcoming album (dealing with a robot attempting to transcend its programming, and to discover a soul beyond its AI) taps into a well-established tradition. But in spite of its ‘Blade Runner’-meets-Asimov video – with its iconic android at work on human tasks, running with the animals, or undergoing significantly cryptic events in Virtualworld or the forests – the lead single is much less story-specific than that.

Rather than directly wading into mechanical-man angst or changeling dread, ‘My Fears in the Night’ concentrates on habits of terror and of self-intimidation; of how childhood nightmares lay the ground for adult insecurities and hangups. Presumably it’s a drawbridge song – a straightforward pathway to lure more resistant people into the looming Big Concept. Since Brainsqueezed’s Sébastien Laloue has a basic, if slick and industrious, idea of creating progressive rock or pop (you take an straightforward song, polish it up with some alternative or electronic rock vinegar, and then escalate the choruses and bridges with layers and layers of guitars, extra instrumentation and guest vocals) this might well work for him.

Still, as with Yes’ Paleo-American, it’s difficult to see quite how the concept ties together yet; and in this case, what separates ‘My Fears in the Night’ from being yet another well-machined bit of 2D sadness-rock. I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer to find out.

Yes: ‘The Ice Bridge’
InsideOut Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
Soundcloud, YouTube, Tidal, Spotify, Amazon Music,

Yes online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music, HD Tracks   

 

Brachmond: ‘Teufelsdanz’
Hicktown Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music

Brachmond online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Instagram, Amazon Music    

Brainsqueezed: ‘My Fears in the Night’
DOWEET (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single
Released:
23rd July 2021

Get/stream it from:
YouTube, (other platforms t.b.c.)

Brainsqueezed online:
Homepage, Facebook, Soundcloud, Last.fm, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music  

In memory of Vaughan Simons, 1971-2018

5 Dec

Vaughan Simons...

Vaughan Simons…

Sometime around the end of October, Vaughan Simons died.

I didn’t see it coming. As for Vaughan, he said that he didn’t want memorials, wakes or get-togethers. I’m finding it impossible to comply with all of that. For all of the self-erasing bluster we sometimes put out in our darkest moments, few of us can simply dissolve into the murk of other people’s forgetfulness after we die. Vaughan certainly won’t.

Probably many of you reading this won’t have heard of Vaughan. He won’t be on any of the end-of-year obituary lists of the great and good, or of the famous. If you have heard of him, most likely you’ll be one of the friends I’ve directed here… or you may, long ago in the mists of the late 1990s, have read one of his reviews in ‘Misfit City’. If so, you’ll been have scrolling through reams of clumsy HTML in order to alight upon one of his confections of barbed sugar, bile and forward-looking conviction.

If Vaughan were still here, he’d downplay any credit, but he was very much the ‘Misfit City’ co-founder. In the early days, while it was me who was driving the project, writing most of the material and doing much of the legwork, it was Vaughan who was ensuring that I was less lonely while doing so. Vaughan also played a big part in shaping the incipient webzine’s tastes, and its spirit of enquiry. He lifted some of my obsessive blinkers, gently challenged some of my own unacknowledged conservatism, opened a window or three. If you’re a regular reader, or you’re becoming one, much of what you probably like about ‘Misfit City’ is built on Vaughan’s efforts and encouragement.

I first met Vaughan in 1990, when both of us were new arrivals at the University of Hull. I was a Londoner, he was a West Country boy. Both of us were a little ill at ease in this battered city resting where east England shades into north England: out on its stalk of railway line, miles from anywhere much; a place where Northerners and Midlanders seemed so much more at ease, with their accents and outlooks settling better into the Humberside atmosphere. Vaughan and I had both shown up there looking for some kind of redemption or vindication: initially on the Drama course we both attended. Both of us being serious, thin-skinned people with a tendency to cover our fear with sardonic wit, we never quite figured out the rhythms and cues of a Hull social life.

This was one of the things that bound us. Another, in a jumpy and uneasy way, was music.

Again, we weren’t coming from the same place. I was formed from a background of musical theatre, classical, the pop I’d absorbed from years of independent library raids, and the extended palette of jazz and prog rock. Vaughan was more of a staunch indie-rock man. This was partially due to an affinity with that Lou Reed aesthetic, and partly due to close exposure to (and shoulder-rubbing with) arty indie strivers from his Yeovil hometown: The Becketts, The Chesterfields and Automatic Dlamini, the latter featuring future art-rock mainstay John Parish and a fledgling Polly Harvey. By the time I got into higher education, few people seemed to care all that much about music as something to listen to, something to think about. Vaughan was an exception.


 
The opportunities for clash and camaraderie were there from the start. During our first year, Vaughan and I would occasionally huddle opposite each other in our respective rooms, grumpily playing each other cassettes. Our sessions were sometimes aggressive, often temperamental: two lonely would-be tastemakers falling over each other’s feet, finding each other’s taste inexplicable. Notably, I tried to get him into Yes – the attempt was one of several five-second failures which I’ll not bother to list. But Vaughan, in turn, exposed me to Pixies, the nagging ennui of Bleach, the disillusioned angst of Furniture, bits of The Fall; my first dose of My Bloody Valentine’s holocaust guitar; the first fumblings into the Velvets and Lou Reed records I’d somehow missed as a teenager.

For what it’s worth, when we did reach a consensus it wasn’t entirely a matter of me being schooled. For instance, we reached a point of agreement over mid-’70s King Crimson (whose barrage of rattling noise, violin drone and gnarly guitar got through Vaughan’s resistance) and when I countered MBV’s microtonal pitch-bending hallucino-pop with the tonal guitar swerves of David Torn. As for me, I gradually absorbed what Vaughan was bringing to the table, and as I held onto my roots but expanded my tastes indiewards (into the likes of The House of Love, the rare-bird shimmer of Cocteau Twins and the classical-industrial sampler bombast of The Young Gods), we came more into line.





 
By then, of course, we’d become mutually accepting, mutually supportive friends, doing what we could to back each other up. Beyond the cassette sessions, there wasn’t much more music during this part of the tale. The story of our theatre work is probably best told some other time. We did once pitch in together for a cabaret cover version of Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (Vaughan as a bulky balaclava’d terrorist on piano, me as a leathered-up comedy rock-god on bass with balled-up sports socks shoved down my trousers). There was also a brief period working on a body-politics University revue, with future Suede member Neil Codling (a rapid, matter-of-fact composer and multi-instrumental jack-of-all-trades, who took one of my lyrics about fashion and tailoring and spun it to a jaunty tune that’s yet to appear as a Suede B-side).

Vaughan probably had fonder memories of his staging of Jim Cartwright’s dream play ‘Bed’, which we took to the Edinburgh fringe in 1993. I worked closely with him on that one: acting under his direction, serving as his auxiliary brain while we combed through the script’s allusive dream-logic, and tracking down Jean Michel Jarre’s ghostly, uncharacteristic ‘En Attendant Cousteau’ as intro music. (It was one of the few times when I got the Euro-prog side of my musical tastes past Vaughan’s implacable guard. I didn’t tell him who’d created it until he’d chosen it…)


 
Post-Hull, Vaughan and I regrouped in London during 1994. While bumbling along wondering whether life was ever going to start, we kept each other stimulated by swapping homemade music comps via cassettes through the post. Quicker off the mark with job-hunting than I was, Vaughan had more ready cash than I did. He spent a fair chunk of it on hunting down left-field tunes and textures. An early adopter of communication technology, he appreciated my geeky fascination with recording details. He’d picked up a little tiny printer, and would always indulge me by sending his cassettes with little typed-out slips filling me in on who played what. These always came with irreverent miniature essays, which I appreciated even more. Even after I’d bought the original CDs myself, I’d keep Vaughan’s essays and slip them into the booklets.

Nearly twenty-five years later, I’ve still got them all. I loved Vaughan’s delighted enthusiasms, which overturned his guarded cynicism and dispelled his intermittent grumpiness. He’d wax lyrical on the phoenix-like, post-folk return to action of Eyeless in Gaza. He’d provide me with perky little ruminations on dubtronicists Seefeel; on murmuring post-Pale Saints duo Spoonfed Hybrid; on indie-folk songstress Heidi Berry, her albums festooned with various former members of Cardiacs (another of Vaughan’s favourite bands, and one which would reduce him to a guileless smirking mess of joy).

Vaughan introduced me to what we’d both come to see as a “holy British quadrinity” of post-rock – Moonshake, Laika, AR Kane and Disco Inferno (who collectively, while less prominent than the Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky consensus we’re stuck with today, achieved and meant so much more). He once bought me a copy of White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ and sent it along by post – just as the song hit number one – with a handwritten letter raving unguardedly about its homemade aesthetic, pluck and left-wing in-jokes.


 
When I decided – circa 1996 – to set up ‘Misfit City’, one of the first things I thought of were Vaughan’s miniature essays. It was natural to invite Vaughan onboard, and to encourage him to expand his original off-the-cuff enthusings into longer reviews. Also, since I’d been spending the last few years on a prog rock zine (trying, with mixed success, to get classic/neo-prog fans to expand their outlook into a broader concept of “progressive”) I thought he’d expand my own scope.

Consequently, during the first three years of the original crude-format ‘Misfit City’ webzine you’d have been able to find assorted Vaughan’s-eye views dotted through the pages. His enthusiasm for Eyeless in Gaza, Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis made it into the early postings, and he was soon bringing in more. He covered Cranes (growling at them for slumping into college rock), one-off trip-hoppers Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra, and avant-pop trio R.O.C. (another new favourite).

Only a couple of years out of the closet himself, he explored Patrick Fitzgerald’s flagrantly gay post-Kitchens of Distinction romp, Fruit. He let his romantic side and his cynical side tussle it out over The Bathers. At a time when half of the arty writers in town were fawning over Spiritualized, he delivered a measured dissection of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ (and although I’m not one for outright critical bitchery, I think I’ll always treasure his brutally blunt putdown of their parent band, Spacemen 3, in the opening paragraph).

I’d also occasionally feed Vaughan things from outside his immediate knowledge base and comfort zone, and wait for a response: whether it was positive (Jocelyn Pook, John Greaves & David Cunningham) or scathing (State Of Grace). Vaughan and I would also collaborate, via various methods, as “Col Ainsley”, combining our insights, our perspectives and our occasional cheap shots. Mostly, this involved me adding odd gracings to Vaughan’s stern dressing-down of James’ ‘Whiplash’, his intrigued exploration of ‘Wappinschaw’ (by transfigured noiseniks Cindytalk), and his surprisingly warm response to The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. It also led to reviews of erratically ambitious skunk-rockers Lo Fidelity Allstars, of enigmatic early post-rockers Labradford and emergent art-tronica force Darkroom, and of Bill Nelson during his surprisingly successful drum-and-bass/Beat-poet period.

The Ainsley method generally involved Vaughan starting a review and me finishing it, chucking in an image or association which I thought was in keeping with his perspective. He always congratulated me when he thought I’d nailed it. When I didn’t, he kept a generous diplomatic silence. If he ever found me pushy or domineering, he didn’t say so.

Don’t expect any stories of wild times in grubby shared flats; or tales of baiting or celebrating indie-hopefuls to their faces. There are none. Likewise, there were no precarious nights out on coke, E or speed; and there were none of the I-Ching pranks, the gleeful bitching clubs or the twenty-four hour fire-station atmospheres which always seem to bubble up in the memoirs of the journalists who cut their writing teeth while working on the music weeklies. Vaughan and I were more sober, more obscure characters – mostly out of the music biz loop and generally half a city away from each other, with much of our contact by phone or email. While I spent several years in shared accommodation in Stoke Newington (turning my room and my shrinking amount of shared space into a man-cave), Vaughan was working his way up through one-bedroomers in Acton and, later, Clapham.


 
Occasionally I’d inveigle him out for gigs. I suspect that getting him over to Shepherds Bush to see Barenaked Ladies was an elaborate tease, but that seeing Sylvian & Fripp (and, later, a MIDI-ed-to-the-gills six-piece King Crimson) was more of a celebration of friendship. The camaraderie remained. We were a pair of lonely, earnest, sidelined brains; writing as and when we could; bobbing on the millions-strong sea of self-obsessed insomniac lights that made up London.

By 1999, however, things were changing. I was sulking in low-status clerical work by day and obsessively, stubbornly hammering out ‘Misfit City’ reviews by night. Vaughan, meanwhile, was shifting focus. He’d always been meticulous, but now he was going professional and doing it well, working for the BBC on then-nascent internet projects of the kind we take for granted now. He found the idea of “WAP phones” particularly hilarious, mostly because the name suggested Wile E. Coyote and slapstick. The irony is that you’re probably reading ‘Misfit City’ on one now; and Vaughan’s last-ever advice to me was on how I might tailor the blog to fit better into the world of phone-browsing.

At the same time, Vaughan’s musical stance was relaxing, and my former champion of esoteric left-field indie was guilelessly singing the praises of the early Coldplay singles. I wasn’t judgemental or stupid enough to feel that he was selling out, but I could recognise that he was unbending a little. He didn’t reject ‘Misfit City’ as such, but he no longer had the time to concentrate on it. We gradually, blamelessly drifted in our different directions, birthday meetings eventually yielding to radio silence.

Vaughan out and about...

Vaughan out and about…

The best part of a decade later, I reconnected with Vaughan via Facebook – not because I was looking for a writer, but because I missed my friend and because technology was now enticing old buddies back together again. By then, Vaughan had gained plenty more experience as a writer and solo blogger; as a sardonic forum star; as a man who knew how to put things together and lead teams. Musically, his fleeting enthusiasm for Coldplay and their ilk was long gone. During the last decade of his life he was sunk deeply and appreciatively in the world of Manchester indie-folk: Louis Barrabas, Ríoghnach Connolly’s ongoing adventures in Honeyfeet and The Breath. From what I can gather, it seemed to be one of the few things which dragged him out of his flat and out of London.

Vaughan was glad to hear from me, and we were talking on and off up until the month that he died; but we never met face-to-face again. There were various reasons for this. Throughout the whole time I’d known him, it had been obvious that Vaughan suffered from assorted illnesses and troubles which affected his self-image and how certain people were likely to view him (and even, sometimes, what he was allowed to do). Later on, these roadblocks even come to affect what he was capable of doing. On top of that, there were hauntings: tormenting bits of his past that circled like ghostly sharks and regularly savaged him. Often he preferred to be alone, ensconsced at home, safely insulated behind phones and wires – even while friendships remained central to his existence.

Despite his troubles, Vaughan soldiered on and, in many respects, achieved more than many of the unencumbered. This past month, I’ve been hearing from many people (most of them strangers) about how inspirational he was as a boss at the BBC internet coalface; or as someone to virtually cross swords/slap palms with on some forum or other; as a poster of vinegar-wry wit, or as an encourager of other people’s blossoming via their own blogs. In his last years, Vaughan single-handed ran the Pixel+Pilcrow web design company from his flat, assiduously providing excellent, state-of-the-art modular homepages for customers and friends (most of whom eventually overlapped, one way or the other).

Yet, metaphorically and literally, his illnesses and challenges were taking pieces out of him and eroding his life. As I saw these things happening (generally behind the fierce shield of Vaughan’s stubborn dignity, and often only perceptible via dropped hints) I came to regret my reticence. I wish that I’d had the brass neck to intervene sometimes, and maybe risk hurting his feelings, but perhaps providing the chance to help him to make things better.

And then, one morning, he was gone forever.

* * * * * * * *

When I relaunched ‘Misfit City’ in blog format about eight years ago, I’d decided to make it much more my own thing. By mutual consent, I didn’t re-mount Vaughan’s contributions. At that point, he considered them juvenilia and curios in a writing career which spanned original blogwork, technical writing and sardonic children’s stories.

Since his death, I’ve reconsidered my position, and those reviews are now all back up in ‘Misfit City’ as part of an ongoing reworking of the blog. You can read them via the links above; or, if you want to coast through them all, you can get them in a sorted sequence (with this memorial at the top) by following the tags for Vaughan’s name or for Col Ainsley.

Re-reading them now, two things occur to me: Vaughan was right about them being juvenilia, but it also doesn’t matter. Like many of my own writing at the time, these reviews betray many of the flaws, pretensions, awkwardnesses and quick judgements of writing by people not yet out of their twenties, yet also not quite on the ball as regards youth cool (whether spontaneous or studied), nor knowing which instinctive steps to take in order to pass themselves off as tastemakers.

Yet the man’s voice, and mind, razzes through regardless. Tart, salty, Anglo-Germanic; sometimes surprisingly coy or camp; clearly in love with his subject, and only partially covering up his enthusiasm with that deflecting humour and that peanut-gallery sarcasm. It was right for the zine. At the start, ‘Misfit City’ was unashamedly awkward, hopeful, geeky and anxious. It keeps those characteristics now; and Vaughan was, in those early years, an integral part of that spirit.

* * * * * * * *

Goodbye, Vaughanie. You never knew how much people were going to miss you. I know you hated phoney sentiment and how annoyed you got at people’s tendency to blather along with their half-arsed well-meaningness (when they should have been getting up and doing something solid to help), but I do what I can to commemorate you.

Right now, I’m tempted to pick up something I know you couldn’t get along with – one of the most balloon-headed Yes albums, say, or the Lloyd Webber ‘Requiem’ – just so that I can imagine telling you about it down the phone. Just so that I can invite you to write something about it. So I could hear the whistle of you sucking your cheeks in and squirming; and finally, hear that carefully polite, firm, impeccably-enunciated “er… No,” emerge from your mouth. As if you’d spent the intervening three seconds mouthing a sugar cube into a tiny statuette of a unicorn, and had just delicately spat it out, completed with its own little sculpted, candied glare.

You were always a sweetheart, in sarcastic-git’s clothing. Sleep well, you lovely fraud; you wise, spiky friend.
 

October 1996 – live album reviews – Yes’ ‘Keys to Ascension’ (“Yes have perpetrated their fair share of folly, but that’s not the whole story by any means.”)

30 Oct

Yes: 'Keys to Ascension'

Yes: ‘Keys to Ascension’

Bands are volatile, and when people form them they need to deal carefully with the possibility of a built in death sentence. It happens, and it can leave scars. All over the world, sitting quietly in little bedsits, are former musicians still shattered by the breakup of their first and only band.

Conversely, some bands seem to shrug off splits and explosions as if they’d been no more than sneezes. During their on again/off again three-decade career, Yes have been no strangers to such events. The fallout from the innumerable bust-ups and drop-outs now seems to obscure the band for three years out of every five, ensuring they don’t so much keep jumping on the reunion bandwagon as never being quite stable enough to get off the damn thing in the first place.

After years of mostly being stadium pop-rockers (albeit tremendously accomplished, envelope-pushing ones), as of 1995 Yes are back to the extraordinarily popular 1970s lineup which held sway in arenas and stadia. High-pitched Accrington-seraph singer Jon Anderson, epic bassist Chris Squire and heavy-deft drummer Alan White have brought two of the other ’70s members back into the fold (eclecti-guitarist Steve Howe and ultra-flamboyant keyboardist icon Rick Wakeman). Despite the lofty title, though, the ‘Keys to Ascension’ double album is basically a holding exercise while Classic Yes glue themselves back together again. It’s an attempt to catch up on whatever ground may have been lost during fifteen years enmired in a Los Angelis rocker’s honeytrap with one foot jammed firmly in the AOR arenas.

So… there’s (two and a half hours) of live Yes classics from the ’70s, taken from the San Luis Obispo concerts earlier this year in which Yes took it to a smaller-scale theatre stage. Give or take a bit of backdrop projections, these were devoid of the band’s previous synaesthesic live trappings of lasers, revolves, or Roger Dean crystal outcroppings – for the most part, Yes just let the music speak for itself. There’s also about half a disc of new music appended onto the end. The odds aren’t on the project being a classic, but what it does look like is a fine and overdue opportunity to re-evaluate Yes, after they’ve spent twenty years in the critical doghouse as the target for any stroppy reviewer with a chip on his shoulder about being a middle-class honky under all of his street talk. Yes have perpetrated their fair share of folly, but that’s not the whole story by any means.

If you’re already properly familiar with Yes music – complex, electric and revelatory when it hits its peak – then you’ll know what to expect, and you get it in spades. Fragile their alliance may be (Anderson has often compared the band to a football team of pushy talents needing to be marshalled, as opposed to a mythic rock gang or sentimental brotherhood) but they’re sounding better than they have for ages. Apart from Wakeman’s dodgy new digital keyboard sounds – if you’re going for that full-on classic-prog majesty, it’s essential that you should also go for some blurry 1970s warmth – the Yes sonic armoury has been reinvigorated. Squire’s grinding sinewy bass is roaring back with a vengeance, and Howe’s back in the saddle with his elegant yet fiery mongrelised guitar styles. The rhythms still kick and charge like a mule on a diet of angel dust and Dada; many of Anderson’s baffling lyrics and fluting vocals are still a mystical jumble of tossed salad word-sounds, and the whole band’s playing as a unit again at long last.


 
If you’re not familiar with Yes – or if you’ve been suckered by all of that self-righteous punk bullshit about the worthlessness of the prog bands – there’s enough wonder on here to make you reconsider their legacy. For a start, ‘Keys to Ascension’ is laden with blazing melodies even in its most convoluted moments. It confirms Yes’ love for a mighty pop tune, as evidenced in the resurrection of their driving, pinwheeling and elaborately vibrant cover of Paul Simon’s America or on the surprise revisitation of 1978’s hymnal ballad Onwards (drawn from Squire’s formative experiences as part of an English cathedral choir, and rearranged here as an acoustic display of Yes’ uplifting harmonies).


 
As ever, Yes’ musical peaks sound timeless. Despite their flashy/esoteric/unpalatable reputation, during their first wind, they were actually a mainstream band: ferociously musical pop lovers with a weird streak who were restless to blow open the envelope and expand the possibilities, but who were always too abstractly sensual and romantic to tie in with modernism or the politics of underground music culture. That said, they were busily transgressing musical boundaries in a way that the mainstream is only now daring to attempt again.


 
Siberian Khatru remains a bucketing roar of jazzy harmonies and of splintered time and space; Anderson’s welter of images spurt like one of J.G. Ballard’s crystallised rivers. In the soaring, furious ritual of Awaken, hovering pouncing piano leads into a stark sunrise ceremony dominated by Anderson’s ascending liturgies and Howe’s guitar hurling itself upwards in an assault on the mountains. An interlude of Wakeman’s sedate celestial church organ, before another push upwards by the ensemble leaves Anderson triumphant on the summit, singing his faith into a clear sky. Monolithic, esoteric fantasia perhaps, but it strikes as many complex emotional chord as it does musical ones. It might not work as clear literature or as the amplified folk music of the classic songwriters, but this is nonetheless spiritual music in its ambitions and effect, ultimately serving a greater aim than to merely showcase the virtuosity of Yes members.


 
Elsewhere, there’s the rhythm-and-blues-meets-skywatchers coil of Starship Trooper; and the inevitable Roundabout. The latter in particular is despatched with the usual Yes flair – glitteringly elegant classical guitar, corkscrewing Hammond organ, Anderson’s joyfully kaleidoscopic lyrics and the best bass line which no one’s yet ripped off for a dance track. There’s even a chunk of that infamous folly ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ which (even if it does sound far bittier than everything else on the record) has been reclaimed from an overcooked mush of windy symphonic chanting and has become a sort of wobbly musical dragon kite. It’s still unwieldy and inescapably over-ambitious (Yes attempted to net the whole world and its metaphysical forces with that particular album, and they didn’t succeed) yet now there’s an odd grace and buoyancy to it. And that’s something I never thought I’d catch myself saying.


 
So far so good. But if Yes are to be taken seriously as a contemporary creative force then current work’s got to be taken into account. And listening to the new tracks can’t help but set a few alarm bells ringing. For a start, it sounds as if Yes are attempting to arbitrarily erase the intervening seventeen years since this line-up last played together, and to go back to the glitzy tail-end-of-first-generation prog they were doing in 1979 just when the rot first set in (and when cocaine, disco and attempts to steal a march on New Wave first began to interfere).


 
Right now, they seem to be writing off the stadium rock years led by former guitarist (and broad-spectrum producer-pop enthusiast) Trevor Rabin as if they were a temporary embarrassment, while simultaneously ditching everything which they learnt from those years. Into the bin goes the multi-track layering, MTV rock hooks and chart-teasing love songs. Out of the setlist and onto the shelf goes their early ’80s mega-hit Owner of a Lonely Heart. Also, it also seems as if Yes have gone from attempting to please the commercial market to attempting to indulge the 1970s fanbase. (Yes, choose your own route to potential artistic death, lads. Well done.)

The new tracks are indubitably a stopgap to keep those fans happy, pulling out all of the expected Yes ingredients. Classical guitar web-work, tight ensemble soloing; a structure as convoluted and precariously balanced as an orchid, dashes of classical structures and jazz harmony and an exploded concept that’s at least five times as big and bright as the world around it.

The problem is that Yes no longer sound haunting: they sound haunted. By their own past, no less. Hearing them continual harking back to ‘Topographic’ ambitions (fucking hell, you’d’ve thought they’d’ve learnt their lesson the first time round), dredging up old circus tricks and even incestuously close cousins of old riffs, one’s forced to think of an old acrobat slathering himself with liniment to handwalk the high wire in front of a cheering audience of young rivals and comeback rubberneckers… and then forgetting to wipe his hands before he takes hold of the rope.


 
Be the One kicks off with all the peak Yes joyousness, but sinks rapidly into baroque burbling and inflated pomp, Anderson’s melodies stretched to breaking point over slabby slices of ’70s seriousness. At nineteen minutes and seven sections, That, That Is sets itself up to be today’s Yes epic: and it nearly succeeds, with Chris Squire’s slithery bass riff capturing the blazing driven rush of On The Silent Wings Of Freedom and the whole swishing along in a set of colourful swerves you’d never have imagined could’ve come from a bunch of fifty year olds. Taking on contemporary concerns of crack in the cities and gang warfare, as if they were conscious hip hoppers, Yes conspicuous fail to do anything more to dress them up in cosmic flash and hurl them into orbit along with all of their old giant fish props and Roger Dean spacecraft.

It’s a bit like watching the Pope and all his cardinals trying to wrest control of a street football match. Anderson’s probably sincere, but he should leave this sort of thing to the hip hop nation… or at least to people who don’t point to New Age therapy as the obvious solution. Much ado about something important, achieving nothing despite its densely packed music. “Disjointed, but with purpose…” Yeah, Jon. You wish. Trying to force this flimsy, gaudy conceptual sheath onto a much knottier and uglier problem comes across as foolish at best, and as actively insulting at worst.


 
A prime old mixed bag then. There’s enough wanton brilliance on here to remind us of just what, in their chequered past, made Yes such a fantastic band and such a strong fusion of musical forces. There’s also enough rancid old codswallop to remind us just what insufferable heights of folly they can reach when they turn off their bullshit detector. Same old story… and it’s worrying that the codswallop counter is pointing more at the new stuff than at the old. But Yes’ often-naïve but unashamedly, sometimes transformatively beautiful light is shining brighter these days; and that’s definitely something to be glad about.

Where now, though?

Yes: ‘Keys to Ascension’
Castle Communications/Essential Records, GAS 0000417 EDF (5 017615 841725)
CD-only double album
Released:
28th October 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Yes online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

SWOONAGE

Swoon. /swo͞on/ A verb. To be emotionally affected by someone or something that one admires; become ecstatic. Here are some people and things that make me swoon. #swoon #swoonage

Post-Punk Monk

Searching for divinity in records from '78-'85 or so…

theartyassassin

...wandering through music...

Get In Her Ears

Promoting and Supporting Women in Music

Die or D.I.Y.?

...wandering through music...

The Music Aficionado

Quality articles about the golden age of music

THE ACTIVE LISTENER

...wandering through music...

Planet Hugill

...wandering through music...

Listening to Ladies

...wandering through music...

ATTN:Magazine

Not from concentrate.

Xposed Club

improvised/experimental/music

The Quietus | All Articles

...wandering through music...

I Quite Like Gigs

Music Reviews, music thoughts and musical wonderings

furia log

...wandering through music...

The Recoup

Yesterday's Sounds Today

A jumped-up pantry boy

To say the least, oh truly disappointed

PROOF POSITIVE

A new semi-regular gig in London

We need no swords

Organized sounds. If you like.

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

...wandering through music...

When The Horn Blows

...wandering through music...

:::::::::::: Ekho :::::::::::: Women in Sonic Art

Celebrating the Work of Women within Sonic Art: an expanding archive promoting equality in the sonic field

Ned Raggett Ponders It All

Just another WordPress.com weblog

FLIPSIDE REVIEWS

...wandering through music...

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

The One-Liner Miner

...wandering through music...

Yeah I Know It Sucks

an absurdist review blog

Obat Kanker Payudara Ginseng RH 2

...wandering through music...

Pop Lifer

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Do The Math

...wandering through music...

Archived Music Press

Scans from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. circa 1987-1996

The World's Worst Records

...wandering through music...

Soundscapes

...wandering through music...

OLD SCHOOL RECORD REVIEW

Where You Are Always Wrong

FRIDAY NIGHT BOYS

...wandering through music...

Fragile or Possibly Extinct

Life Outside the Womb

a closer listen

a home for instrumental and experimental music

Bird is the Worm

New Jazz: We Search. We Recommend. You Listen.

...wandering through music...

Life Just Bounces

...wandering through music...

Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Aquarium Drunkard

...wandering through music...

eyesplinters

Just another WordPress.com site

NewFrontEars

...wandering through music...

%d bloggers like this: