Saturday, March 14, 2015

Standing on its Own: Yes' "Time and a Word"

I have owned Time and a Word for quite awhile, but until recently, I have never given it more than a cursory listen. Not that I have harbored a disdain for it, but I have always secretly felt that The Yes Album was the band's first real musical statement.  I have sometimes unjustly dismissed its two predecessors. Considering I have recently defended the authenticity of controversial albums like 90125 and Heaven and Earth, however, this truly original lineup deserves the same consideration as any other. Since the release of this latter album, I have been investigating the margins of Yes’ back catalog, and over the last month, I have finally spent some quality time with Time and a Word. As a seasoned Yes fan of many years, this album is of real interest.

Heaven and Earth received criticism from its conservative fanbase because of its relatively succinct songwriting. Time and a Word, however, shows how close to the foundation of the Yes sound songwriting  actually lies. The large-scale epics that Yes came to be known for are nowhere to be found, but its tuneful psychedelia is the bedrock upon which their more expansive work would eventually be built. I would, however, stop short of calling Yes’ early compositional approach succinct. In form, they predict the approach that Rush would return to in the 80s, embedding extended instrumental excursions within strophic structures.

I would also stop very, very short of declaring that Heaven and Earth is the equal of Time and a Word. Time and a Word is driven by a countercultural fire that, I think, was lost as the band’s musical ambitions began to grow. The egos that pushed Yes into the successes that followed seem to be less pronounced, and the band’s members, although clearly on a path of musical excellence, seemed to be infused with youthful exuberance.

With one exception: Time and a Word was a turning point for original guitarist, the late Peter Banks. Quite famously, he was opposed to working with an orchestra, but clearly, the orchestra plays a significant role on Time and a Word. As a result, Banks’ playing is adequate, but it might be unfair to judge him by his playing on the album by itself.  He may have been pulling away from the group as the orchestra began to play a larger role. By the time most of the promotional materials for Time and a Word were released, Banks’ association with the band had ended. Steve Howe, who would come to be a defining part of the Yes sound, is shown miming his parts in virtually all video footage of the band.

Without a really strong guitar presence, however, the contributions of other members are much more noticeable. For example, although I have always been a fan of Bill Bruford, as Yes evolved into a full-blown progressive act, I think that they needed Alan White's hard-hitting approach to fill the larger arenas. Time and a Word, however, feels a bit more intimate than their later work, and Bruford’s calm, assertive energy is well-suited for this up-close interaction. His distinctively creative style was still in the formative stages of what it would eventually become, but it ripples and drives in a way that only the most relaxed technique can execute.

It is also a shame that, despite having listened to Tony Kaye since I first got into Yes in the early 80s, I am just now beginning to appreciate him.  Granted, the above video shows him to be a pretty lame bass player (comedically trading places with Chris Squire on what looked like a pretty miserable video shoot).  On the heels of getting into Circa: earlier this year, however, Time and a Word further reveals his unique keyboard virtuosity and his important role in the Yes canon. He has had the misfortune of being caught in the shadow of both his successor Rick Wakeman and his future bandmate Trevor Rabin, but on Time and a Word he is a driving melodic force that would continue to define the Yes sound even beyond his own participation in the group.

Thoughout their various incarnations, Yes has always found success in the synergy that exists between any given set of participants. The original lineup was no different. It had its own distinctive energy that was absolutely necessary for the group’s long-term success. Although Time and a Word would be the last time that the band would work with an orchestra for decades, it did hint at the broader palette that Yes was envisioning. On its own, though, it’s an incredibly successful work that stands on its own in terms of songwriting and technical virtuosity.

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