Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Yes' Big Generator and Previews of Coming Attractions

The Yes identity is partially defined by its constant lineup changes, some of which have had a more noticeable impact on the band's sound than others. One of the more dramatic changes came with the installation of Trevor Rabin in the early 80s. His textured, muscular, and (most importantly) accessible take on progressive rock was a purposeful turn from Yes’ sweeping epics of the 70s. Even today, nearly thirty years later, Yes fans are sharply divided on whether this lineup had the right to carry on the Yes name. Inarguably, however, the Rabin-led Yes produced the band’s greatest hit. Owner of a Lonely Heart became almost ubiquitous towards the end of my elementary school career in 1983. As a result, Rabin’s lineup was the one that I came to initially know and love as Yes.

A lot can happen in four years, especially during the early teens. By 1987, I was a self-proclaimed progressive rock devotee. I had learned every gesture that I could discern on 90125 and gained some familiarity with Yes’ back catalog. It would be an understatement to say that I had built up a lot of anticipation for Big Generator. This was also the year when driving a car by myself was a new and beautiful thing.  As a result, when the album was released it played incessantly in my blue Subaru GL as I learned to commute across town to my desegregated eastside school.

I genuinely liked Big Generator. I felt like there was an effort to recapture the successes of 90125 by tracing its more defining moments, but I also thought that there were also efforts to redefine the band’s sound to more closely align it with the Yes tradition. Especially on the second side, as the songs passed the six and seven minute mark, Jon Anderson’s vocals began to soar above the rhythm section in a way that was distinctly Yes.

As much as I outwardly advocated for the album, though, even back then I secretly sensed that at times, Big Generator seemed a little forced. As I revisited Big Generator recently in anticipation of Yes’ upcoming release Heaven and Earth, time and nostalgia has not eroded this feeling. The album is not unlistenable by any means, but there are a few moments that just seem to ring hollow. In retrospect, the discrepancy between accessibility and experimentalism that this lineup was forced to wrestle with would not be fully resolved until nearly a decade later with the release of the woefully unrecognized Talk album. Big Generator itself, though, is still a somewhat jagged listening experience, with great highs and a few dubious lulls.

I have always held that despite the somewhat radical change in style that Rabin’s songwriting and production brought to Yes, this lineup was as valid as any. The thread that held the legacy together through this period is, I think, Jon Anderson’s distinctive vocals. Certainly, the band could not have convincingly carried on the Yes name if Anderson had not returned to the fold when Rabin overhauled the Yes sound.

With this in mind, it might seem contradictory that I also cite Drama as one of Yes’ best releases and also unashamedly support the flawed but enjoyable Fly From Here. While both of these albums feature lead vocalists other than Jon Anderson, from a musical standpoint they fit more readily into the stylistic conventions of the Yes oeuvre. In both cases, the presence of Trevor Horn and Benoit David  challenges the group’s musical identity far less than Rabin did.

In a month, a new Yes album, with yet another lead singer, is due out. Jon Davison, who over the course of the last few years evolved into the lead singer for Glass Hammer, stepped into these very big shoes. When I first heard, I was very, very apprehensive. To see so many big changes in such a short amount of time did not sit well with me, even for Yes. Then this video surfaced:

In my opinion, Wondrous Stories is virtually a Jon Anderson solo piece executed by Yes. I think that it would have been a hard sell for Fly from Here's Benoit David to pull off.  In this clip, however, Davison’s stage presence and his clear passion for the song buoys the band's admittedly geriatric performance, and it convinced me that he might be an even better fit for Yes than David was.  This has piqued my interest in Heaven and Earth because Davison, in addition to being a good Anderson sound-alike,  is also a pretty prolific writer.  Since 1980, Yes has been most successful when they have an inspired collaborator to act as conjurer. I hope that Davison is able to act in this role in the current lineup.

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