Monday, August 31, 2015

Curating the Past and Predicting the Future: Yes' "Union"

Hopes were really, really high when Union came out. By the time it was released in 1991, I was pretty familiar with Yes’ entire catalog. 90125 had made me a devoted fan of the Rabin-led lineup of the band, but I quietly held the opinion that the clumsily named Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe album released in 1989 was a superior album to Big Generator. The press for Union advertised that it was to be the ultimate lineup, combining the personnel from both groups. I envisioned a broadly collaborative album, with Rabin and Wakeman facing off in a virtuosic prog-rock wankery of the highest order. When I got the album to my dorm room and perused the liner notes, however, I was profoundly disappointed.

Despite its broadly inclusive roster, Union might be the least collaborative Yes album in their catalog. The two lineups had discrete tracks from one another, with the “Big Generators” contributing 4 tracks and the “Starship Troopers” contributing the rest. I was willing to look at it like Fragile, where different aspects of the band lent their voice to a larger picture. But the truth of the matter was, the majority of the material on the album just wasn’t very convincing. The best thing to come out of the album was the tour.

Still, I recently had a revelation about Union that has some relevance to the band’s current situation, so with some trepidation, I revisited it. Union has always sat quite comfortably very close to the bottom of the barrel for me as far as Yes albums go, but what if time had actually been kind to the album, and it was better than I remember? My whole hierarchy of Yes albums might come crumbling to the ground!

Fortunately, I suppose, this was not the case. Although there are a few good moments on the album and some outstanding musicianship, by and large it sounds as it did in 1991 - unfinished and uninspired.  One of the more outstanding moments on the album, however, is the track The More We Live – Let Go. I always felt that this swirling, powerful piece stood out in terms of quality. This track is of particular relevance now because it is, to my knowledge, Billy Sherwood’s first appearance on a Yes album.

Which I think is interesting. Union was intended to unify Yes’ convoluted history, but one of its more musically convincing moments also inadvertently foretold Yes’ future. Now, almost 25 years later, this single writing credit was the first stone in a long path that led Sherwood to a position in which he could significantly contribute to the band’s continuing output.

With this in mind, Union might be viewed as a reservoir of under-credited potential rather than an album sunk by record company meddling. If that is the case, despite its somewhat spotty political setting, Union could be a resource by which other musicians already woven into Yes’ history could carry on the Yes name.

If you are just tuning in, I have been playing this "Nu-Yes fantasy football” game for well over a year, and it was all fun and games when I made that first post.  Clearly, things took a more serious turn this summer, but Yes has continued (as I predicted, eerily enough) and, according to reviews, the current lineup is playing quite well, due in no small part to Steve Howe. Certainly, he shows no sign of slowing down. Still, one must wonder what would happen if he were at some point decide not to carry on as Yes’ guitarist. As the most longstanding member of the current group, his successor is not as visible as Squire's.

There is, however, a somewhat awkward situation surrounding the guitars on the Union album that most fans don’t like to address, but that might provide a solution. According to legend, Howe’s contributions to Union were demo quality, and he intended to rerecorded them before the album’s release. The record company’s unreasonable deadlines, however, could not accommodate Howe’s other commitments. Guitarist Jimmy Haun was brought in and in the end, many of the guitars on Union that are recorded in Howe’s name are not Howe. They are instead Haun’s uncredited performances.  Without Hope You Cannot Start The Day is one of several tracks that are entirely Haun.

Although I have no way to really prove it, I have sometimes had the sense that Howe’s parts felt a little different on Union, as if he was trying something new.  This track was not one of them.  It sounds like Howe, and I think it is absolutely astounding that Haun could mimic his distinctive style and sound so well.

Haun was my dream team choice for a “nu-Yes” from earlier this year, mostly due to the work he has done with Sherwood in Circa:. I knew that he had contributed to Union, but I was not aware to what extent until I began researching for this post. If Yes fans were to openly accept this uncomfortable chapter in the band’s history, it might not be unreasonable to view Haun as an uncredited Yes guitarist, and one that has enough respect for the band to carry on its creative legacy in the unfortunate event that Howe chooses to retire.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Scarlet Witch and Silver Surfer

My previous post indicated that the Little One’s interest in the Superhero Theme Project wound down earlier this year. To a degree that was true, but her interest in superheroes never really waned at all. In fact, all of the effort I put into acquainting her with Marvel characters paid off when she discovered The Superhero Squad Show on Netflix. This show is a kid-friendly microcosm of the Marvel Universe, with low-key violence and funny side jokes for the comic fan parent that is undoubtedly nearby. Although pretty bereft of any real educational value, it has familiarized her with a lot of my favorite characters and, eventually, granted her enough expertise in their backgrounds to come up with her own favorites. She had several characters that she particularly liked, and that gave me the leverage to pry the playlist back open.

During the last run on characters, I ran across the End Credits theme from The Black Hole. If you were a fan of this movie from back when it was released, it is best kept in your memory. It has not aged particularly well. The soundtrack, however, is still incredibly evocative. Revisiting this composition vividly brought back that swirling maw through the perception of my third grade eyes.

For the Superhero Theme Project, I really like to adopt themes like this – ones that time will probably forget. The likelihood that the Little One will ever see The Black Hole, much less become a fan, is pretty slim. This End Credit theme is a very compelling piece of music, though, that deserves to live on in some form.

Still, when it came to my attention, there seemed to be no characters that fit. It had potential as The Red Tornado’s theme, but it was too menacing and ponderous to make sense. I considered using it as a villain theme, but that still largely went against the mission statement of the project. The solution came when the Little One declared that one of her favorite heroes was The Scarlet Witch.

This character had a background as a villain (which is actually addressed in The Superhero Squad) who turned over a new leaf. Additionally, her probability-bending powers satisfyingly mapped to the theme’s kaleidoscopic texture. Its depth caused her to initially mistake it for the Hulk theme, but she quickly learned to distinguish one from the other.

For the second character, I had to make a concession. Over a year ago, I made a pact with myself not to use any Star Trek music, in the hopes that the Little One would one day become a Trek fan. With so much outstanding and memorable music in the franchise, however, it has been very difficult. I conceded by using material from the movies to represent on Iceman and Robin, but I resisted using any of the more familiar themes from the television series. When she told me that the Silver Surfer was one of her favorites, though, I could not use anything but the theme from Voyager.

Again, to be realistic, the probability that she will end up being a huge fan of this series is relatively slim. To be honest, even though I watched the series, I was not its hugest advocate. Its theme, however, is one of the best compositions in the entire franchise. It evokes majesty and power, and it is not at all a stretch to replace the images in my mind of Voyager gliding through space with the Silver Surfer, who is one of my personal all-time favorite characters. It seemed fitting to overlook my self-imposed stipulation in this case.

These two themes are now part of a four-track “sub-list” that was uploaded shortly after the last post, and she is very, very enthusiastic about these entries. I am too, for that matter. It helped to have some time and space to allow these themes to find their way to the right heroes. The other two tracks were a different story.

To go back to the previous post, click HERE
To go to the next post, click HERE.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Seeking Continuity in Retrospect: Yes' 90125

Although I cite Fragile as my entry point for Yes’ catalog, it was not my introduction to the band by a long shot. In 6th grade, long before I became aware Yes’ already long and sometimes sordid history, I bought a 45 of Owner of a Lonely Heart. 90125 was subsequently one of the first tapes I bought, and the CD soon followed. This album not only defined Yes for me – it laid the first stone in a path that later led me to Rush and progressive rock in general. Even today, it is, without question, my favorite Yes album.

As crucial as it has been to Yes history, 90125 was almost the Yes that never was.  Drama, its predecessor, was controversial for installing Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes into two very well-established roles within the band, but it retained a certain a sense of artistic continuity within Yes’ already established parameters. 90125 saw the return of several classic members, including Jon Anderson on vocals, but from a stylistic point of view it was a more radical departure. It retrospect, however, it was a stroke of genius to continue under the Yes name.

When considering 90125, it is impossible to ignore the importance of Trevor Rabin. From the standpoint of guitar style, replacing Howe with Rabin might not have been too much different than replacing Bill Bruford with Alan White in the mid 70s. Rabin was also an outstanding vocalist, though, and his writing contributions created the framework for a much different Yes.  The atmospheric fantasy that the band was known for in the 70s gave way to powerful, textured songwriting in their 80s iteration.

But like all of Yes’ best work, 90125 was generated in a collaborative environment. Rabin’s material was significantly rearranged and rewritten by the band’s members and their invisible “sixth” member, producer Trevor Horn. History will show that Yes is most successful with a strong producer, and Horn, continuing his relationship with the band from the Drama period, was as invaluable to 90125 as Eddie Offord was to Close to the Edge or Fragile. I have often felt that it was unfortunate that he was not more regular in this role as the band continued with Rabin.

To bemoan stability in Yes’ creative pool, however, is foolhardy.  It is far more engaging to look at the conceptual threads that hold their oeuvre together in the face of perpetual change.  Although the stylistic shift on 90125 is impossible to ignore, the input of the continuing and veteran membership granted the album a degree of continuity. I think Drama hinted that Yes’ parameters had grown past a dependency on Jon Anderson, but his contributions on 90125, which I think are the most powerful of his career, were crucial to the album's success.

For Yes fans whose associations with the band began in the 70s, continuity in and through this period may be difficult to see or accept. As an 80s fan that looked back through Yes’ catalog, I certainly saw the differences, but I also actively sought out the similarities. I will still argue that 90125 was, and continues to be, a masterpiece in Yes’ catalog that examined new horizons in progressive rock as the 80s began to get underway. In terms of content, arrangement, and performance, it represented a new kind of prog that did not rely on extended song lengths, but on pushing the possibilities of complexity within accessibility.

Listening for “backwards-compatibility” in this retroactive way has, I think, informed my conception of what Yes is, even to this day. I find their continuity fascinating, which is why I don’t fully understand the conservative faction of Yes’ fanbase that harbor so much resistance and, in some cases, anger over Billy Sherwood’s recent installation as bassist. Clearly, the circumstances surrounding this passing of the torch are grave and clouded by emotional reaction. Squire is irreplaceable, but I think that his absence does not preclude the emergence of a new lineup that can carry on the Yes name.

From a certain perspective, however, it is a little weird. Fans that invested in the band in the early 70s probably see little resemblance between “their” Yes and the current lineup. "My” Yes only has one member in common with the group that now bears the name, drummer Alan White.  I have been saying for over a year, however, that their fluid membership uniquely positions Yes to continue past the involvement of its originating members. Not just in terms of performance as a repertory ensemble or "ghost band," either.  I think that within Sherwood and Davison lie the creative potential for this current lineup to sincerely contribute to the current state of progressive rock while still keeping a firm root in its history.  Judging by 90125, that would be a distinctively Yes-like feat.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Red Tornado and Plastic Man

When last we left the Superhero Theme Project several months ago, things seemed to be winding down. At the time, the Little One was still invested, but there was a definitely the sense that she was losing interest. After the nearly devastating success of the Venom theme, it seemed that she was a little burned out on the playlist. Understandable, since she had been listening to it almost every day for nearly a year a half. To a degree, I was too, and I was starting to run out of material. I wanted to keep high standards, but I admittedly worked harder than intended to dig up the last few themes that I added to the playlist.

I was also disappointed that there was not more traditional repertoire making its way onto the list. A lot of it just seemed too “classical” when sidled up aside more contemporary TV and movie themes, and I felt like I was kind of stylistically repeating myself in this realm. It’s not that I was ignoring chamber music, though. For example, I came across Borodin’s Prince Igor theme in my research and it seemed to be bombastic enough to work if the right hero came up.

At the time, we were still riding out the Batman: Brave and the Bold series, which, coupled with the Super-Pets Encyclopedia, provided a constant stream of characters. When Prince Igor had my attention, she was very interested in the Red Tornado. I was not entirely convinced that the style of the piece fit the character. Objectively, the Red Tornado is an android, and from that perspective, the operatic pretentiousness of Prince Igor does not layer well with the character. The character’s history will show, however, that his robotic body is the host to a “wind elemental,” which might align with Prince Igor’s swirling pomposity. With reservations, I pulled the trigger in the hopes that some new music might reinvigorate her interest.

To this day, I am still a little mixed on this one. The final entry on the playlist, however, ended up being one of my favorites. The Brave and the Bold also got her interested in Plastic Man. This character is relatively marginal in the DC universe, but kids of my generation might remember that he had a brief stint in the 70s Saturday morning cartoon universe. I loved this show back then, so I had a unique investment. I wanted to do him justice, but also make him distinct from the other tracks in the playlist.

I was listening to some George Gershwin back when I was investigating the possibilities for Catwoman’s theme. I was drawn to sections of Rhapsody in Blue that seemed appropriate, but my no-editing policy excluded this 15 minute opus. Looking for alternatives, I discovered Promenade (Walking the Dog). This piece had a running time that fit playlist parameters, but it simply did not fit Catwoman. Due to the old cartoon series, however, my impression of Plastic Man is a little silly. Promenade (Walking the Dog) had a comedic feel that seemed right. Additionally, it was a huge contrast to my other Superhero themes, but was still clearly orchestral in scope. As reticent as I was with the Red Tornado, I thought that this song as Plastic Man’s theme would be my final stroke of genius.

I uploaded these tracks to the playlist, and they were relatively well-received. In an attempt to keep her listening, however, I took another step that seemed to put a decisive end to the Superhero Theme Project.

I uploaded Let it Go to my phone.

I couldn’t get around it. She was exposed to the song through her cousins and peers and, more importantly, she was trying to learn to sing it correctly. This latter development was too important to ignore. In the end, the lure of lyrics and peer pressure was too great.

Once this hit the air, there was zero interest in the Superhero playlist. By her request, I also added a couple of other Disney and pop music hits that, for reasons of dignity, we won’t go into here. The important point is that she seemed to be developing her own tastes, and there was no reason to continue cramming my narrative down her throat. For several months, she would sporadically request to “Listen to Superheroes,” but generally there was very little interest. I thought that I had gotten all that I was going to out of the project. I deemed it successful and, more selfishly, loads of nerdish fun. End of story.

However, just now, as I am writing this nearly six months later, she caught me whistling Promenade (Walking the Dog) and decisively asked “Are you singing Plastic Man?”

This reflects a recently renewed interest in the Superhero Playlist.  She requests it about once every two weeks and listens to the entire thing intently.  Additionally, now that she is nearing four, our attendant discussions are starting to reveal the way in which the seeds that this project planted are starting to take root. This will, along with a few additions to the playlist, undoubtedly be the topic of future posts. For now, consider yourself caught up.

Jump back a few months click HERE.
To see where it all started go HERE.