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Review of Fly From Here by Yes

Yes - Fly From Here

Time to get excited about Yes again! Ten years have passed since their last effort, Magnification, was released, and although it was credible and solid, I thought at its worst it began to show the age of the band proper, showcasing at times their struggle to stay musically affluent within the microclimate of today’s progressive music. After all, they practically wrote the genre, which through complex time signatures and lofty chord progressions, often caters to fantastic, mythical far away places and familiar elements often associated with the vision harbored here in this forum. For the most part, listeners tend to depend on Yes for extending the boundaries of the progressive rock genre as tempus fugit. But much like The Who returning with the advisedly posthumous Endless Wire a few years back, Fly From Here represents a much more appropriate bookend for the career of Yes, less an asterisk, and if the success of this album is any indication, there is no sign that the band will stop here.

Yes has turned the corner with this album, the very theatrical Fly From Here, by reuniting stalwarts Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes back in the studio with Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Alan White and newcomer Benoit David. What began as a lark, with Squire suggesting a return to a demo song that was submitted by the two during the Drama days, it was quickly re-invented into yet another lengthy magnum opus; their first since Keys to Ascension from the 90s. But you know what, it works, and outside the measure of a few instances of self-similarity, the piece resonates as their best work since anything off of Drama back in 1980. Without question, this can be heralded as Yes’ return to form with a follow-up that should have been issued immediately afterwards, before their embarrassingly successful 90125 album which was released in its stead, which paved a short, but unmissable road lined with subsequent albums that continued to polarize fans of the genre until their collaboration with Billy Sherwood for Keys to Ascension.

Indeed, Trevor Horn is back in the saddle. He is a sorcerer, that one. Whether it is his uncanny abilities as one of the best and most successful living producers in the business, or the fact that the band is simply inspired to compose great material once again, he takes leadership of the Yes sound and continues to steer them on course in a direction that was first navigated with precision, like a machine messiah back in 1980.

And yet, this release sounds strangely relevant (read, “modern”) today. This is probably due to the fact that Yes has injected new life in the form of Benoit David, who serves as singer replacement for an ailing Jon Anderson. While the steps germane toward this move were, and continue to be surrounded with controversy (Anderson was fired, but notified by an outside source), making the decision to enlist David marks Yes’ willingness to continue making great music. David, who works with long-time prog-rock associate Daryl Stuermer of Genesis fame, hails from the band Mystery. But it was David’s efforts as a Yes tribute band front man that garnered Squire’s attention (from a YouTube video, no less), and ultimately led to his inclusion to the band as lead singer. He may lack Anderson’s range, but he has fabulous expression and control, and his vocals are rightfully up front in the mix. Several Yes-fans have opined that Yes without Anderson is borderline profane, but to be fair, it’s been done before successfully with the release of Drama. And much how that album would exhibit an awkwardness or peculiarity with Anderson at the mic, this album simply wouldn’t feel right without the immersion of David’s vocal style and approach; after repeated listens it becomes obvious that he has a future with Yes (but I am holding out along with the rest of the jury that this marks a delineation of the band’s career, as Phil Collins did by dichotomizing Genesis, or similarly Steve Hogarth with Marillion). Again, the lyrics are expertly expressed and articulated; clearly, Horn offers guide vocals for David throughout the epic suite (“Always under-STOND-ing that we can fly”), in addition Horn’s fingerprints are all over the mixing board with his mastery of laying down backing vocals; an angelic choir of sound not tapped into since the Tales of Topographical Oceans era of the 70s.

The rest of the band simply falls into place. Howe never sounded better, and has experimented further with the textures and effects of his guitars. The strongest element of change by Howe is his healthy inclusion of minor arpeggios; being a chord master, it is refreshing to hear this side of his guitar repertoire, particularly with his acoustic entries. At the risk of taking away from his layers upon layers of strumming in the past, his approach lately was becoming a bit familiar, if not downright cliché. Here, he proves his mastery and ability to envelope other, more rote techniques… a progression of integrating greater levels of artistry throughout, if one can be so bold. Finally, couched in a family of songs that are as serious as cancer, his solo contribution (Solitaire) is a welcome breath of levity, serving as one of his career-best entries.

By now, White has earned his place as a Bruford orderly. Although I might have preferred to hear more drum fills, of his which I always enjoy and are strangely bereft on this album, it is clear he is the cohesion for the rhythm section of this band, and a perfect foil for Squire’s delectable bass riffs. To that point, Squire is properly set as coming to the fore “when necessary”, as once quoted by Rick Wakeman, whose son Adam contributes on a few songs. Where he really shines,  however, is his work on the second track: The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be. Here, he takes on lead vocals, and if there were any justice in the world, he would have the impetus to assume the role twice as often. Squire could sing the side of a cereal box as far as I’m concerned; it would still hold my interest,  as his vocals are so distinctive and “comfortable”,  much like David Gilmore or Eric Woolfson. It may help that he sings one of the strongest, if not the most “Yes-like” songs on the record (others have cited Crosby, Stills and Nash but I hear more Alan Parsons as an influence). His collaboration with Gerard Johnson of Saint Ettiene fame pays off once again; prior to this he teamed with Squire on his second solo effort: Chris Squire’s Swiss Choir, which was also outstanding. But nothing beats the pleasantness of this track, particularly the outro, and it outdistances other FM friendly pop being broadcast today by a country mile.

Speaking of influences, when asked who his were when composing music, Geoffrey Downes once told me in an unpremeditated way, among others, “Claude Debussy”… and it shows. Downes has an unprecedented ability to write joyfully tight melodies, as his work with Asia has demonstrated, but his real talents here lay within the phraseology of voice selection, from organs to pads, bringing together stanzas of material with such celerity that the progression from one idea to the next within each song is seamless.  Coupled with Horn’s underrated songwriting (his choruses are contagious, staying in your head long, long after the stereo is shut down), you have a contrapuntal tour de force, as evidenced in the coda of the album’s closer, Into the Storm, with the reprise of We Can Fly from an earlier track. Perhaps exhibiting just a smidgen of “fan service”, examples like these exhibiting such continuity are always welcome in the Yes catalog.

The bottom line is that Fly From Here is a very urgent entry in the Yes canon, and it is filled with interest, teeming with life, and marks their best production effort in over 30 years. What’s amazing is that, with their collective levels of experience and long-toothed approach, Yes sounds as virile as they do, as if they are experimenting for the first time with their sound and songwriting craft, and loving it in the process.

 

 

 

· coda of into the storm with chorus of we can fly