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Music DVD Review: Jon Anderson – Tour Of The Universe

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My first introduction to the band Yes came via my older brother's record collection back in the early 1970s when I found his copy of the triple album set Yes Songs. The first thing that grabbed my attention about the collection was, like I'm sure so many other people, Roger Dean's art work. The futuristic and fantastic, landscapes that decorated both the outer and inner sleeves of the album were sufficiently bizarre (even today his work from that time makes me think of giant toadstools) that it made me want to hear the music that inspired it.

In those days swirling synthesizers, twenty minute songs, and the use of orchestral instruments in pop music was still a novelty and so the music lived up to the expectations that the artwork created, that this was going to be something different. However once the novelty wore off I quickly tired of their music. While there was no question that they expanded the horizons of pop music's potential with their approach to composition and their incorporation of electronics, their material all began to sound the same very quickly. Instead of continuing to push the envelope of discovery that they had begun by continuing to experiment, they seemed to have settled on a formula and stuck with it.

That's not to say that I've ignored the band, or the solo careers of various individuals after they left Yes. Periodically I've checked out what they've been doing in the hopes that they've managed to recapture that spark of invention that inspired their first albums and that maybe one of them will have come up with something a little different or new. It was for this reason that I decided to check out the DVD, Tour Of The Universe, distributed by MVD Video, that was created out of a live concert that Jon Anderson, one time, and still occasional, lead singer of Yes, gave at the XM Satellite Radio station in Washington DC in 2004. While some of the concert was going to be comprised of older material from Yes and Anderson's solo career, it was the promise of new material that really interested me.
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Anyone even slightly familiar with the music of Yes will remember Jon Anderson's very distinctive soprano voice. It was the perfect match for the keyboards and the ethereal sound that the band was after. While the voice hasn't changed at all, what has changed is Anderson's approach to the music. While the music was as lush and textured as one would expect from a former member of Yes, the focus was primarily on Anderson's voice and whatever instrument he was playing live. (As this was a real solo gig, all accompaniment was prerecorded or preprogrammed)

The combination of Anderson's voice and one of either the semi-acoustic guitar, classical guitar, harp, or simple electric piano that he chose to play resulted in a sound that had more in common with traditional folk music of the British Isles than anything that Yes had ever produced. There had always been that underlying element to a lot of Yes' and Anderson's music in the past, but here he brought it into the foreground. Instead of electronic music that had a suggestion of folk undertones, the traditional music was brought front and centre and the electronics were used to generate an ethereal atmosphere evocative of the bygone era where the music originated.

Contributing to this atmosphere were the elaborate post production visual effects that had been added to the music. Although the concert was recorded live, almost every song has been turned into a video presentation that accents its theme. While some of these were slightly cliched, the video for "White Buffalo" was almost embarrassing in the way it presented Native Americans, others were beautiful in the way they were able capture the feelings generated by the music and bring them to life. It was those times, where the music and the visuals synchronized, that the connection to the older time that the music was striving to recreate was the strongest, and they were also some of the most powerful moments on the DVD.

Unfortunately, instead of letting us draw our own conclusions from the music and visuals that he has created for us on Tour Of The Universe Anderson is proselytizing a "philosophy". It appears that he has become fascinated with the concept of the "Golden Mean" and sees it as having some sort of bearing on the answer to the secrets of the universe. The Golden Mean, as far as I could understand from the special features included with the DVD, is a geometric formula that was first developed by Euclid in Classical Greek times that expresses the relationship of two parts of a whole with each other and with the whole. So, unfortunately, we are forced to endure quite a bit of what amounts to no more than what I would refer to as New Age nonsense being foisted on us while listening to the music.

If that isn't bad enough, even more annoying are the constant interruptions by somebody from XM Satellite Radio spouting metaphysical garbage about the power of satellite radio and how it will change the world. In fact, we are subject to quite a number of commercials for the station throughout the course of the DVD, so whatever flow or sense of continuity that Anderson might have been trying to create with his music is disrupted. It's all very well and good that the concert was filmed in their studios, but they simply make themselves look silly and unprofessional by their constant interruptions.

The sound and visual quality of this disc are uniformly excellent as you have the option of 5.1 DTS Surround, 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, or plain Dolby Digital Stereo and NTSC 16:9 wide screen display. As I mentioned before the special features focus on the wonders of the Golden Mean, and unless you've an interest in that subject they can easily be ignored.

In the end, in spite of the distractions, Tour Of The Universe will be a treat for people who are fans of Jon Anderson. The twenty plus songs in the concert include reworkings of vintage numbers from his days in Yes and new material being played for the first time. Even those who may not have been fans of the band, or who tired of the excesses of progressive rock, can't help but appreciate the sincerity and elegance of his performance.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.