Sunday, July 5, 2015

How Fragile the Fish: First Steps into Broader Horizons

When the word came of Squire’s leukemia diagnosis, I envisioned that we would have him longer than we did. At the very worst, I thought that his recovery would sideline him for live shows and he would carry on as Yes’ musical director, much like Brian Wilson did for the Beach Boys when his mental health proved too fragile for live performances. Too soon, though, we lost him.

Clearly, I am a Yes fan, but Squire was, and is, a significant influence on my personal musicianship. Squire was the first bassist that I began to explore outside of my rapidly expanding Rush catalog. Once I was able to create what I thought was a reasonable facsimile of Moving Pictures, I felt quite unstoppable. My self-directed research led me to Yes, who I had already connected with through 90125. In the name of delving deeper into progressive rock, which was my newly-adopted genre of choice, I decided to start working my way through their catalog as well. The first step was Fragile.

Fragile was touted as a landmark album, but it ended up being the one in which Chris Squire put me in my place. On 91025, Squire’s bass playing was relatively constrained in deference to Trevor Rabin’s concise compositional approach. Fragile was a different matter entirely. I got lucky on one count: Roundabout was in the same key as Tom Sawyer, so, despite being steadfastly opposed to using a pick (because, you know, Geddy didn’t), I was able to come with a recognizable version of this iconic track.

That was where it stopped. My relatively immature ear and self-developed technique simply could not process the brisk fluidity of Long Distance Runaround. It moved too fast, and the form of the song was too erratic, for me to zero in on all of the details of that bassline. I never really got it. By the time I started to tackle Heart of the Sunrise, I knew that I was in over my head.

In addition to the breakneck speed and ferocity of the song’s opening riffs, Squire’s melodic approach throughout the piece felt freely improvised, and was difficult to pin down. With better transcription skills, I might have fared better against these monstrously complex tunes, but I simply did not have them back then. I eventually cut my losses and gave up.

Regardless, the damage was done. Fragile made me a dedicated Yes fan, and I subsequently began working my way through the catalog. Since then, however, it has not left the shelf much, mainly due to my recollections of the irregular track listing. Fragile boasts four full-group compositions that are arguably some of the best progressive rock tunes ever created. It also includes five “solo” contributions, one from each member of the band. While none of these tracks are particularly bad, I remember feeling a little let down by them, especially when set in contrast to the defiant intensity of the group work.

In revisiting the album upon the announcement of Squire’s passing, however, my perception of Fragile as a holistic statement has changed. Seen as a whole, Fragile plays out like a mansion with many rooms and hallways for the listener to explore. By all accounts, featuring Yes’ individual members in this way arose somewhat out of necessity, but it ended up being a bold statement about progressive music that, regrettably, many contemporary progressive artists ignore.

Progressive rock is most effective when the voices of individual players are allowed to shine through the material.  Fragile featured what was arguably the most virtuosic lineup of Yes, with five distinctive musicians.  The active contributions of each person were absolutely necessary for Fragile to make a coherent statement, which it does.  Squire would employ this mission statement repeatedly during the band's long, continuing career by bringing new voices into the group to keep it alive.

Squire’s contribution on Fragile is The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus). It is an orchestral, multi-track statement in which Squire explored the edges of the bass’s timbral potential. It was not really a bass song that a singular late 80s garage musician on a shoestring budget could learn and perform without the aid of delays, loops, and effects.  It is, however, a powerful example of the kind of broad musical virtuosity that Squire continued to seek throughout the rest of his career.

And so it came to pass that Chris Squire became known as "The Fish" to his fans (not to be confused with Fish, or Phish, for that matter).  He wore this moniker proudly enough to employ it in the title of his singular solo album Fish Out of Water.  Although I think that this album may be the clearest statement of Squire’s distinctive songwriting and performance skills, I won’t revisit it here.  I have posted about this fantastic album elsewhere, and in the big scheme of things, Fragile had a much more profound impact on me. By the time I discovered Fish Out of Water, I had already decided that Squire was in a league of his own. His presence on Fragile shone a very bright light on the limitations of my own musicianship while also pointing towards its horizons. He will be sorely missed, not just by me, but by a vast ocean of fans with discerning ears and open minds.