I don’t do record reviews that often, but it’s been a long time since a record impressed me this much. I’ve been playing it on repeat, and my wife is probably getting sick of it. To recap:
In the early eighties, progressive rock band Yes brought in Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes of the Buggles. (They replaced the legendary Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman on vocals and keyboards.) Drama, the album that resulted, has always been an oddity in the Yes catalog. Thirty years of band-member musical chairs later, Jon Anderson has left the band for a second time, this time replaced with singer Benoît David. Geoffrey Downes is back on keyboards, and Trevor Horn is again the producer.
Yes has lost a spiritual, ethereal quality, doubtless due to Anderson’s departure, and that’s something I loved about their music. In its place is a dramatic, cinematic feel, particularly on the multipart piece Fly From Here and the spectacular Life on a Film Set. This is unsurprising since, as was the case on Drama, some of the material on the new disc is based on unused Buggles material.
I’ve listened to Fly From Here several times–iTunes informs me I’ve listened to the songs anywhere from ten to fifteen times, depending on which track. After 2001’s uneven Magnification album, Fly From Here manages to take the best elements of the Drama-era sound, the classic material (particularly on the final track, Into the Storm), and even bits of the modern Yes sound–and make them all sit well together. Toss in a smattering of math-rock time signatures and this prog fan is smiling ear-to-ear. Not everything here works, but most of it succeeds quite well. I haven’t listened to a new Yes album over and over to this extent since 90125.
Here are my impressions of the album, track-by-track:
Fly From Here, a 24-minute song cycle, is without a doubt the centerpiece of the album. The piece starts with a short overture, featuring smooth, snappy polyrhythms. Some of the synthesizer sounds are warm and distinctly analog-sounding, as if they had a Prophet or a minimoog in the studio. (Or, more likely, a very good software emulator of one.) The next movement, We Can Fly, opens with a signature Buggles moment if there ever was one: The band dropping out and Downes playing a quiet piano introduction. (Oliver Wakeman played some keyboards on the early sessions, so I suppose it could have been him. If it was, the mood is still there.) We hear new singer Benoît David for the first time now. His voice sounds pure, unassuming, and quite beautiful. The mix is clearly meant to evoke the early 80s sound; we can hear Squire’s chunky Rickenbacker bass guitar quite clearly, and he’s not afraid to show off a little.
When Steve Howe’s double-tracked acoustic guitar takes over in the beginning of Sad Day at the Airfield, we really don’t care anymore that the movements seemed a little patched-together for a moment. Then the band comes back, playing eerily in a minor key; I get chills every time I head this bit. Madman At the Screens starts with synth-orchestra sound, but quickly snap back into those 5/4 polyrhythms we heard in the overture. This movement, more than any other, makes me think of the Buggles’s The Age of Plastic, although there’s some math-rock influence mixed in quite cleverly. The interlude section Bumpy Ride takes the math-rock feel and bumps it up even more. The cycle concludes with synth patch florishes and low guitar riffs that wouldn’t have been out of place on the album Asia, and We Can Fly – Reprise brings back the original theme and puts the piece gently to bed.
The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be is my least favorite track on the album, kind of like leftover pizza that’s still quite excellent. (But it was better last night at dinner.) The song feels like an out-take from Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe in that the song is uninspired and pointless. It’s possible that the production is simply distracting me from the music; there’s a nice melody here, but it’s buried under what sounds like autotune or a vocoder effect. The song is pleasant enough, and better than most of the music they’ve been putting out. It works well as a bridge between the end of the Fly From Here tracks and the song to follow.
Life on a Film Set contains what is probably Benoît David’s best vocal on the album. The track starts with Steve Howe playing a gently stuttering acoustic arpeggio, then builds to a full band. This will likely become a live favorite.
Hour of Need is a more conventional acoustic-guitar/squeezebox song. Some of the odd robotic vocal treatment from earlier is used here as well, but I think it works a lot better on this track.
Solitaire is a kind of song Yes has been using since 1971’s The Yes Album–the showpiece solo guitar fingerstyle song. Steve Howe has become a better and better guitarist since then, and it shows in his more confident, gentler playing.
Into the Storm is a great album closer, with a driving rhythm and great vocal harmonies. More than any other tack on the album, this one channels the Yes of the mid-seventies. (Some of the keyboard sounds evoke atmospheres Yes favored in the nineties, though it works well here.) Some of the sections where the band plays in tight unison made me warmly think of Heart of the Sunrise or Perpetual Change.
I find new things to love every time I listen to Fly From Here. I’d without a doubt find different things to write about if I wrote this, say, next week. This one’s a keeper.