Sunday, 31 July 2016

Adrift On The Oceans

With the band reviving two sides of "Topographic Oceans" for their American Summer Tour  and the marketing of "Invention of Knowledge" drawing attention to Yes's seventh and most controversial project it is a good time to look at why the Yes family draw accusations of making music which meanders and lacks form. 

I remember when I was sixteen listening to those de rigour live albums by bands like Cream or Bootlegs from Led Zeppelin or even the Allman Brothers and what they all had in common was taking neat and concisely organised arrangements that were created in the studio and then stretching them out in concert. What worked in a live setting in the cold light of day sounded indulgent and essentially musical ideas where stretched beyond their original point making, eventually devaluing the original idea. Rather like an overlong car chase in an action movie you cry out for the crescendo and to get on to the next idea. 

Up to and including "Close To The Edge" the band had developed a reputation for making concise well ordered music and as pieces became more ambitious they responded by ensuring within the longer pieces each musical idea was strong and fully developed before moving on. By using repeats and inversions they also gave the pieces a sense of connection deepening your emotional commitment and providing a pathway through which you confidently strode to the conclusion. The furious piece of improvisation from Rick Wakeman after the long tranquil elegiac piece in "Close to the Edge" is a perfect example of binding you to a pre existing narrative but in a gloriously fresh way.

With "Topographic Oceans" you can find examples of the qualities that had made previous compositions work. The tension and release of the percussion movement to the song on Ritual the building up of themes and motifs to a crescendo on "Remembering" but equally both those qualities are lacking for many moments of the music. 

Jon Anderson's "Olias of Sunhillow" begins with a mysterious slow instrumental chant, moves into a choral section and then a neat song. Each section is fully developed and has its own clear personality is fully realised before moving on to the next section and Side 1 ends with an uplifting song. The "Revealing" from Oceans begins in almost the same way builds to a song but after that there are numerous sections  which in themselves are pleasant but are not building to anywhere. They have a sense of randomness and never complete, being killed off to get to the next section. When the refrain emerges at the end of the piece it obviously echoes the beginning but in the meantime we have been busy going nowhere, rather than ascending a path, "zig zagging" it sounds like a series of musical cull de sacs where we cannot make up our mind where we are going, simply asking lots of questions with no answers.It is neither the brevity of Brian Wilson or the the building up and realisation of musical ideas of Sibelius. 

Side 3 and 4 curiously have a different set of problems there is a much greater sense of personality and development of each section. The problem is a lack of self discipline and timely resolution. An instrumental idea will begin well or a song section and they will be fresh and audacious but they fail to resolve remaining on the same level for far to long, existing beyond their natural life. 

The rejection in the British press of Topographic in 1974 (a strike related to the press meant many reviews did not appear until the new year though Chris Welch's review in Melody Maker appeared with the double LP in November 1973) was unanimous after having loved the band since 1968, these days aficionado's hail it as a misunderstood masterwork but the number of people who think back to Yes's hey day who have long flown the nest would look at the Bruford Years as the summit of their career. 

The reason I find this interesting is that I see echoes of these failings lack of resolve a sense of flatness without real tension and release in both ABWH the 1989 project with Jon,Steve,BIll and Rick and the new Anderson/Stolt work. Lots of ideas coalescing some of them very attractive (In the Big Dream and the Knowing obvious examples) but nevertheless those who enjoy them describe them as having great snippets wonderful hidden moments when for Sibelius 7th Symphony to work it has to be a glorious whole building through full realised ideas to a marvellous climax. Yes achieved that with "Close To The Edge', "Awaken Part 11" and "Endless Dream". These pieces whilst very different are architecturally sound, each idea is memorable and the playing is exciting and cuts through displaying the personality of the players (Endless Dream of course excludes TK). "The Remembering" comes very close but the playing in places and the climax is anonymous and weighed down. 
So with Steve leading the charge are they merely repeating two sides of Oceans or have they looked to revive them and strengthen them as pieces, knowing Steve's penchant for faithfulness I suspect the live performances are repeats. With a new set of very talented players I hope through repeated performances they look critically at the originals and take them to another level. Geoff for instance is the perfect foil player for much of The "Revealing" and Jon's range suits the music of "Ritual" perfectly and could give the dirge like verses before the percussion segment some much needed focus and power even reduce the musical idea to a quote before moving on. 

In art you never want to be "looking at your watch" for much of Yes's career the music was over before you knew it constantly astounding you leaving you wanting more. However with the release of "Invention of Knowledge" and the revival of two sides of "Topographic Oceans" for me the passage of time ticks up in the listening experience.

As Bill once said they got lucky with "Close to the Edge" slightly self deprecating, you make your luck, but he is acknowledging that pulling off extended works in the rock idiom is a real challenge. Many extended works are song cycles strung together by the lyrical narrative, a much easier challenge than designing a piece of music which is essentially one singular journey.   


  1. Michelle well I'm sure you know well Wakeman Snr felt Oceans had 2 sides of material not four or something to that effect...note that its mooted that ARW have a long piece[s] too, Rabin imho will bring structure and disipline to any music esp long pieces so I'm holding my breath...

    1. I have been watching the unfolding ARW tour and you know its going just as I predicted. However that does not take away my enthusiasm for new music which could be most interesting. Oceans for me is a great emotional experience once every two years but I see its faults just as those in the band did in 1973. The significance of losing that argumentative rhythm section of Squire/Bruford should never be underestimated in understanding why Edge and Oceans arrangements are so radically different.

  2. Well Oceans was afterall White's first studio album with YES and the band had not prepared music to be more 'compatible' with his style. In my view White style and skill got better after Oceans and reached a peak on Tormato

    BTW why do you say Endless Dream excludes TK ?

  3. I think the issue with the switch of drummers was more fundamental than that. From the very beginning Jon gave the band very raw ideas, early on it was covers, then he collaborated with anybody but whether David Foster, Chris or Steve this then went to the Squire/Bruford rhythm section for design and they brought form and structure to the music and then Rick would offer transitions/key changes/inversions.

    When Steve and Jon presented the rough ideas to the band it was a different band. As Chris said in 1973 they vibed things up and whereas before they could end the day with nothing there was a more laissez faire lets jam it attitude. Yes are not about jams they are, as Steve reminded the audience on Sunday, about formal arrangements. So Chris struggled and for much of the record is a low rumble he get going on Ritual and Rick had nothing concrete to build on though his work on Remembering is special. If Steve and Jon had presented the topographic ideas to the Bruford Band the outcome would be radically different indeed I doubt a double CD would have been produced . My point about TK is he is on Endless Dream but his playing personality does not come through its about Trevor/Jon/Alan/Chris and a little of TK with Trevor playing all the important keys.