Sunday, 17 July 2011


How do I start writing about an issue so fundamentally painful as observing something wonderful - an integral part of your life in fact - that you have seen develop, grow, evolve and progress over the past 40 years suddenly come crashing back to earth, its engines misfiring after attempting to follow a flight plan which is now 30 years out of date?

Even now, as I listen to Fly From Here for the countless time, I feel such a sense of disbelief that this is indeed the latest musical permutation of Yes, the unique, heart-wrenchingly, soul-searchingly, proud and inspirational band I have loved with a passion since 1971.

Fly From Here I have tried so hard to love, but it is  not loving me back the way so many of their previous albums have done. In fact, the more I hear it, the more I feel air sickness and turbulence setting in.

Their greatest gift  has been to create and present unique soundscapes, full of soaring dynamics and multi-layer instrumental textures, enabling the individual members the freedom to take off on flights of fancies especially through using the extended compositions as their vehicles. All were individual journeys, full of beautifully, brilliant crafted passages, which took you to the higher stratospheres of your imagination and dreams. Most Yes songs had a flight plan and a direction, and as a result, the majority reached their destination safely, smoothly and often spectacularly.

It has now been 10 long years since the last Yes studio album Magnification, admittedly not one of their strongest collections, but again a bold directional move using an orchestra to fill in the sonic space which became available due to the departure of three key band members.

Fast forward to 2009 and as well as the continued absence of Rick Wakeman, Jon Anderson is no longer in the ranks for reasons discussed elsewhere in a previous blog. No more will be said about these two omissions as they are not integral to this plot, nor will any comparisons be drawn as have been made endlessly elsewhere.

The introduction of Benoit David and Oliver Wakeman to take their places did result in an extraordinary first night of the British tour in Birmingham in November that year. It was Yes, but not as we know it.

So to the album: to my mind, there has always been something very special about the distinctive Roger Dean-conceived Yes logo.  Yes is a musical quality mark which tells you that what you are getting under this particular banner is something out of the top drawer and therefore, always worth having. It might vary occasionally, but overall, it does give you a bigger bang for your buck, especially if you are a prog rock fan. They are, after all, right up there in the holiest of the holies among the true legends within the prog pantheon. 

So here, we have both the time and the word, so to speak.

Then along comes a blast from the past in the shape of Trevor Horn, such a key figure in helping to change the direction, shape and sound of Yes, and most of it for the good. From his involvement along with Buggles partner in crime, Geoff Downes, Drama still holds its own in the Yes timeline. He then shook the commercial Yes tree with 90125 and had a hand in the production of its less well-received follow-up, Big Generator.

So thirty years later and Tempus Fugit, to coin the title of one of the better, inventive songs from Drama. So one wonders if bringing him back at such short notice to produce Fly From Here was really more of a quick win for the current line-up now with Downes back in harness in favour of Wakeman Jnr.

On the back of this latest team shuffle comes the reconfiguration and lengthening of the title track from the Buggles' back catalogue along with another Life on a Film Set which are essentially the backbone of the album along with the new whole band effort Into The Storm.

So, overall, the whole offering sounds retro and refried. Even ELP, when they decided to record another composer's songs, it tended to be someone of the stature of Mussorgsky or Aaron Copeland rather than a former producer with a few offcuts to shift. This in essence is why I think Fly From Here is such a disappointment. For me, it never ever takes off or spreads its wings; and instead of moving forward, it puts on the reverse thrusters and lurches into a holding pattern somewhere between clear skies above and a dark, foggy airport below.

The greater part of Fly From Here is pleasant enough- uplifting in part, building well with some stunning harmonies, but it so lacks that spine-tingling magic and wow factor, which marks out some of its predecessors.  And on the issue of whether Benoit David is capable of filling the vocal responsibilities, he has a fine, pure strong voice which slots perfectly midway between the Anderson and Horn pipes, so the casting probably could not be better for this particular piece.

But the moments which kill it for me are contained within the ghastly Bumpy Ride which goes right to the top of most hideous Yes of all time track list. What were they thinking! Consciously or unconsciously, these moments of Keystone Kops prog madness appear to either parody or mock the  great sonic musical motifs which have been at the cornerstone of all Yes music. And positioning it in the middle of one of the most haunting passages of Fly From Here throws the whole lot out of balance.

However, what is apparent throughout is far from allowing the music ever to cut loose and get some height on the dynamic or sonic altometers, air controller Horn has contained it within the confines of a flying machine, the result being it sounds too compressed, pressurised and hermetically sealed. Those fantastic instrumental textures disappear and became flatpacked in the mix. This is particularly evident for the guitar sound which does not do justice to the terrific licks and runs for which Steve Howe is so renowned. He sounds here as though he is playing from the depths of the departure lounge.

The official side two also has its low spots. Both Chris Squire and Steve Howe have added their own "solo" spot, Squire's coming through The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be, an acoustically-led five minutes of not-a-lot which would have been better as a filler track on one of his solo albums rather than a full-blown Yes work-out.

And Howe, well, indeed how! Again, it is the production which reduces his solo Solitaire into a tinny, trite exercise instead of one full of deep resonance and passion.

Life on a Film Set could have been a much better song if the instrumentation better reflected the repetitive "riding a tiger" but at least mid-section here has a great melodic hook to which Benoit adds the vocal overlay that does at last harken at previous greatness, albeit predominantly from the Buggles canon.

Hour of Need is another track which gets half-strangled by the packed-down production with both the jangling guitars and piping keyboards sounding too restrained against some very tight harmonies.

Into the Storm is probably the only song on the whole album which does offer any resemblance of flair and originality, probably because it is an original group effort and so does travel forwards rather than backwards. All the trademark little flourishes are there including an extended Howe workout and the lyrics even have a dig at being as stupid now as they once were; but I hope the rumours circulating that some of the more barbed lines are aimed at a former key band member are untrue. That would add to this album being even more budget-airline, ie cheap and charmless.

Believe me, this has not been an easy assessment to write. Having to bite back at the band which has fed, nourished and sustained you for most of your life and written most of its soundtrack does not feel like a fair deal so late along the line. And not even an original lush Roger Dean cover can disguise what lies beneath.

This flight feels as though it was engineered by contractual or business obligations. Rather than being initialled with loving care, the current Yes is existing through this strange device, an amalgamation of what has gone before rather than a brand new adventure into the possibilities ahead. I shall not be taking off with them if they decide next time to again choose the former rather than the latter.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Just One Man

There has been much talk, conjecture, sadness and sometimes anger in recent weeks, mainly on dedicated Facebook pages about Jon Anderson. Much of it centres on the fact that the current incarnation of Yes will be releasing a new album this year, produced, it is said, by Trevor Horn, an erstwhile band member and overseer of 90125, followed by a British tour. The message is overwhelming - that Yes cannot even consider being a bona fide band without the presence of the Accrington Alto.

I share some of this anguish, but I cannot help but feel that now is the time to look at the bigger picture and move on.

Jon has been my prime musical and spiritual inspiration, mentor and teacher for the past 40 years - back to when Fragile came out in 1971. At the tender age of 13, my life had been irrevocably changed.

Without going into too much detail, my world has been influenced by him more than any other human being but, unlike a recent posting on an FB page, I would disagree with him being declared a messiah. I would rather equate him with the title of one of the beautiful songs on The Living Tree, his recent collaboration with Rick Wakeman: Just One Man.

The song reflects his continuing faith in higher spiritual powers, a theme which has been one of the main pillars of his music, lyrics and poetry, along with his perpetual wonderment and love of life. As Mr Wakeman once so eloquently summed it up: "He is the only person I know trying to save this planet whilst existing on another one."

Well, from the outset in the early 70s, he has seemed to be operating in a completely different dimension - the angelically pure voice coupled with those ethereal looks - through those sometimes unintelligible words on which books have been written that have tried to find their true meaning. In fact, we each have our own true meaning to the words so why seek a third party interpretation?

I have seen Yes a number of times over the years and Jon was always central to the cast, always the focus of attention. There have been many hiatuses and fallings-out over the years within the band but even these resulted in some sensational by-products such as the AWBH album, which is filled with some gorgeous New Age themed compositions such as The Order of the Universe.

Jon's solo career has been prodigious and has charted his spiritual and philosophical discoveries along his unique path, from the cosmically charged fantastical worlds created in Olias Of Sunhillow to Angel's Embrace, his paean of love for his exquisite wife Jane.

But perhaps three albums in particular stand out: firstly In The City of Angels, which was the album which helped me through a very dark and difficult time in my life. Another was Toltec, inspired by the book The Power of Silence by Carlos Castaneda, which feels like entering a new powerful, spiritual reality.

Thirdly, Change We Must contained two reworked songs from City, plus one from 90125 and the iconic State of Independence, one of the most poignant affirmations ever of life, love and belief. However, it was the eponymous song which has created the most resonance, based on the book by Hawaiian spiritual teacher Nana Veary. A life-affirming video, based on this glorious song and featuring beautiful people and voices from around the globe, was released last year, creating huge waves of appreciation and love for all those involved. It sounded like a call to arms.

Meanwhile, Jon's well-documented brush with death in 2007, caused by a chronic asthma attack, has changed his life and indeed those of his fans, forever. The new version of Yes was assembled in time for the 40th anniversary tour, allegedly without Jon being informed. Like other fans, I was mortified to hear of this if indeed there had been no communication between him and the other members of the classic line-up.

But it was more out of curiosity than zealotry that my brother and I went to see the current line-up on the opening night of the British tour in Birmingham the autumn before last. And it was clear the dynamic of the band had shifted from the traditional centre to the left side of the stage. And there were no programmes, which was a glaring omission! But we will be seeing them on the upcoming tour to hear the new Yesmusic taking shape.

So where are we now? Having seen Jon and Rick in their Anderson/Wakeman Project tour in downtown Basingstoke in September, it is abundantly clear they are in a completely different space musically. Jon's voice has changed discernibly and this can in no small part be due to the effects of his respiratory break-down. It is still as beautiful and clear as ever but it now bears the traces of trauma, which only adds to the poignancy of the lyrics of the songs written since then.

Jon is now working in different areas and, on my part, it is the thought of him working with young musicians and choirs in the USA which really gladdens the heart. Well, can you think of a better teacher for these kids - someone who embodies love, goodness and positivity? There are not many role models possessed of these inherent qualities these days, and perhaps his experiences with them led to him writing the words to The Living Tree that teach young people to love and value themselves. I would like to think so.

To see him and Rick performing together was simply amazing. I had seen them on their previous two-hander in 2006 and met them afterwards. All I could say to him was thank you for the music!

To bring it up to the present, let us remember Jon is 67 this October, a time when many people would have been putting their feet up and reflecting on life's labours. I think Jon will never stop making the music and creating the art which brings him and so many of us such mutual pleasure. We will never stop reading his posts on FB and hearing about his latest collaborations with songwriters and musicians across the globe.

But putting it into context, it is highly unlikely we will ever see him with Yes again. Though he looks as beautiful and together as ever, his health would probably not be able to withstand the rigours of a full-on national or international tour. Even now, his wife Jane, "his angel", is there for him at every concert and he looks to her throughout. Would this be welcome on a band tour? If you need any convincing, remember the scene in This Is Spinal Tap!

It has nothing to do with wanting to please the fans, but has everything to do with what is physically possible - and anyway, he appears to be loving what he is doing now, spreading his unique brand of joy and positivity wherever he goes.

There is so much more I can say about this remarkable and incredibly special man, but hey, you know that already, otherwise you would not be reading this. "Change we must to live again." That is just what Jon is continuing to do and so must we.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Proud to be Prog

Having made dozens of wonderful friends through Facebook, most of them due to a mutual love of prog, it struck me that like the average Rush concert - and Rush of course can never be described as average - the men outnumber the women by about 30 to one. And that accounts for my perennial joke about there never being a queue for the ladies' loo at a Rush gig!

However, it does make me wonder why so few sisters are progging it for themselves.

While my sisters were getting steamed up over David Cassidy and assorted Osmondpersons, my prog world became full of astonishingly beautiful men with long hair and languid features who played just as spectacularly as they looked. So I retreated to my bedroom for about three years to listen and learn from this extraordinary music, and tuned in every Saturday afternoon to Radio One for the weekly gospel of prog according to the Rev "Fluff" Freeman. He even wrote me a letter starting "Dear lovely Alison" after I sent him a missive about the virtues of Patrick Moraz joining Yes.

That is heavy stuff when you are 16, rather than deciding which member of the Bay City Rollers you fancy the most. Which reminds me: I had a male friend who was a bouncer for the BCRs so I went over to say hello when the Rollers roadshow came to Southampton. Somehow I managed to get myself into a newspaper photograph with a bunch of screaming tartan-clad fans while yours truly was wearing a fully visible Yes tee-shirt! What a result for sanity!

The very first prog band I embraced was Curved Air and bought their astonishing second album from the proceeds of six weeks babysitting money. I wanted to be Sonja Kristina and, if the truth be known, I still do as she has always beem surrounded by prodigiously talented music men, which must be the nearest thing to prog heaven.

From there, I suddenly plunged myself into some heavy Pink Floyd, which culminated in my writing a prose poem based on Echoes from Meddle involving a stricken submarine and astral projection. I so wish I had kept it.

Then along came Fragile and suddenly life made perfect sense. Here was the music which was to form the soundtrack of my life, along with Emerson Lake and Palmer 1 (though it has taken me over half a lifetime to get into Tarkus, but we finally got there)!

So the foundations were set in prog stone in an early age, crystallised by seeing Yes for the first time on the Relayer tour and the subsequent seven or eight times in the various permutations. They will always be my torch-bearers for prog because of the way they have fused so many styles and influences to produce something totally original and memorable.

There have been some long intermissions since because of matrimonial tensions but the prog ideology within was always there, albeit temporarily snuffed out by sadly more superficial tendencies.

Doing one such interlude, I do remember listening to The More We Live/Let Go from Yes's Union album and crying for the first few times I heard it because it reminded me of where I wanted to be rather than being in a doomed marriage.

And when my marriage broke up, Jon Anderson was there with In The City of Angels to tell me it was all going to be okay through Top of the World, For You and Hurry Home.

Prog has saved my life, restored my sanity and informed my reality every step of the way since.

So how do I explain it? Easy, really. Prog rock is a journey and an experience which is totally personal to the listener. It lets you decide what you want it to be and every definition you give is right, because there is no wrong. It is all down to perception and interpretation, and the wonderful musicians who provide it never tell you how you should think or feel while listening to it. That makes all prog fans free thinkers who find their own level in the music and then celebrate it with other aficianados. It is a totally unifying force of expression.

And there is much more. Without Sonja Kristina, I could never have had an early perception of what it means to be a liberated, independent and creative female. Without Jon Anderson, I could never have understood and interpreted the wonders of life then formulated them into a lifelong philosophy. In his words "I count my blessings, I can see what I mean". And without Keith Emerson, I could never have appreciated a man who attacks his organ with knives (and he did make some pretty good music too)!

Prog has been my backbone, my philosophy, my fun and my passion. It has been so influential in who I am and the way I think.

And so far as I am concerned, prog rock chicks will always like it over 20 minutes long with three tempo changes and an organ solo. My case rests!