Monday, June 27, 2011

Revisiting Yes' Lost Years: "Talk" and "Keystudio"

In 1994, I had just returned to finish my music education undergraduate after taking a year off and was living in a duplex across the street from UNT’s art building.  “Mulberry house,” as I called it, was haunted, poorly maintained, and overpriced, but it was the first place that I ever actually paid rent and called my own.  In my listening during this time, I was consciously trying to reconcile my elitist fascination with Frank Zappa with the genuine interest I had developed in Nirvana, especially as I was starting to find fault with some of my favorite prog rock bands.
TalkYesUnion was one catalyst for this reflection.  Although I initially liked the album when it was released in 1991, it began to wear poorly after a while, and as I found out more and more about the issues with its creation my opinion of it plummeted.  After the tour and its subsequent legal wrangling, the last Yes left standing was, surprisingly, the entire 90125 line-up from 1983.  They released an album in 1994 called Talk, an album I actually count among one of Yes’ stronger overall releases. 

As I revisited Talk last weekend on a roadtrip to a friend's wedding in Denton, I still find it to be a good, if slightly flawed, album overall for both nostalgic and musical reasons.  Obviously, this song Walls, like Owner of a Lonely Heart, features Trevor Rabin prominently on vocals.  This is not always the case on Talk.  Quality clips from this era are scarce, though, and despite the poor resolution capacities of 90s era computer video, this clip sounds pretty good (although Anderson seems like he has sort of “checked out”).

 Rabin's influence on this lineup of Yes was profound.  He had a bit more streamlined approach to progressive rock than the classic 70s group, so again, many members of the Yes fanbase had serious issues with anything he did.  Talk seemed to confound this judgement to an extent, though, because it was more expansive and experimental than the other entries from the 90125 lineup.  In sound and scope it was identifiably in the Yes tradition.

After Talk, Rabin moved on to a pretty successful film scoring career, and the Yes lineup jumbled up again, resulting in a reformation of the “classic” 70s lineup that put Steve Howe  back on guitar and Rick Wakeman back on keyboards.  This group had two releases in 1996 and 1997 called Keys to Ascension, and each one was a double disc set consisting of rehashed live material and new, undersupported studio recordings.

I flatly refused to accept these as full Yes releases.  I felt as if I was being milked for four discs consisting mostly of live “greatest hit” songs that I had already heard from this lineup when I really wanted just one new album that I had never heard.  This was the first time (of several) that I thought that Yes was done, and I opted to let Talk serve as the swansong of one of my favorite bands rather than support the Ascension releases. 
KeystudioWakeman left the band (again) due to the treatment of these releases, though, and Yes sauntered on.  After the questionable Open Your Eyes in 2001, the Keys to Ascension studio tracks were released under the rather uninspired name Keystudio.  Until recently, this “lost Yes album,” ostensibly the follow-up to Talk, was glaringly missing from my Yes studio collection.  It seemed time to make the plunge though, as my interest in Yes’ later material is reviving, and Keystudio is presently holding a place in the player until Fly from Here is released.  Clips of material from the Keys era are also relatively rare, but this medley of songs from a 2004 performance provides a taste.

The contrast with Walls is pretty staggering, especially since these pieces were originally recorded within three years of Talk.  Having Wakeman back on keyboards is essential, especially in contrast to Tony Kaye, of whom I have never been particularly fond.  I also think that here, and in subsequent Yes music, Anderson’s melodic sense seems to sometimes drift and lose focus. Without some guidance, he tends to chant lyrics in short scales rather than craft the compelling melodies of Yes-teryear (pun totally intended). 

The most fundamental difference between Keystudio and Talk, however, is more structural than the stylistic capabilities of the individual players.  It seems a little scattered, especially in comparison its predecessor, but even when compared to Yes' earlier, more epochal work from the 70s.  Keystudio does have moments, though, that conjure up the amazing music of Yes’ heyday (hang on until about 4:30), but there are also some cringe-worthy moments of low inspiration (fast forward the beginning).  I think that the instrumental aspects of Keystudio are its strongest asset, and when they come to the fore it might even beat out Talk in terms of overall creativity.  Regardless, it is not the worst entry in Yes’ oeuvre – not by a long shot. 

Looking forward, with a new Yes lineup in 2011, there is a combination of Yes musicians that never existed in a sustained creative environment, and that was one including both Wakeman and Rabin.  This was sort of my "dream team" after Union.  With Anderson no longer in Yes, however, there are rumors that the three of them will be getting together, so you can bet I’ll keep my ear to the ground for any progress on that project. 

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