I am not the prog-rock fan that some are – I see a fair amount of it as masturbatory noodling in search of an idea, but when it’s on, it’s majestic. For me the peak of prog-rock was a sequence of three Yes albums in the early ’70s.
Since Yes has been around so long, mutated into so many different versions, offshoots and factions, and put out its share self-important aimless dreck, it is easy to forget what a bracing, fresh triumph The Yes Album was. “Yours is No Disgrace” opens with crisp staccato riffs from guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Bill Bruford, then continues with tricky interplay between the above and keyboardist Tony Kaye.
What could have turned to mush in less capable hands, stays separated, clean and precise without ever growing cold in producer Eddy Offord’s mix. Offord’s production spotlights the individual virtuosity of the players and their remarkable interplay without ever sacrificing the beauty of the melodies or losing the feel of a song.
While Jon Anderson’s lyrics have always smacked of free-associative cosmic gibberish, his piping, overgrown choirboy voice can be appreciated for its pure tonality. Pundits tend to overemphasize the importance of lyrics because the words are often the easiest aspect of a song to latch onto, but unless the lyrics are particularly acute, poignant or inane, to paraphrase Robert Christgau, most songs have lyrics because they don’t want to be instrumentals.
So, while I have no idea what “Yours Is No Disgrace” is actually about, it sounds damn good. Howe particularly shines. “Starship Trooper” carries on in a similar, but more expansive, less frantic mode, and provided the name for a movie 20 years later. Howe less bedazzles here than impresses with the tastefulness of his chord deconstructions, finger-picked acoustic interludes, and the grandeur of the song’s long three-chord coda (subtitled “Wurm”).
The brilliant, pristine medley “Your Move/All Good People” is probably the band’s high-water mark. A bright shining melody, keening harmonies, briskly strummed acoustic guitar and pipe accompaniment, and advice that actually makes sense (“Don’t surround yourself with yourself” – too bad Elvis didn’t listen) add up to pure listening pleasure. The second half of the medley returns to lyrical opacity (“I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day”), but it’s a rousing good ride nonetheless.
The next album, Fragile, replaced Kaye with Rick Wakeman on keyboards and took further steps into symphonic structure and sci-fi imagery, including the first of many trippy Roger Dean album covers. The 10-and-a-half minute “Heart of the Sunrise” boasts dramatic simultaneous band work-ups, much fine playing, and Anderson’s ever-pleasing voice. “Long Distance Runaround” has a charming fugue-like intro, and “The Fish” is almost funky, in Yes’s hyper-Anglo, angular manner.
Fragile also has “Roundabout,” a churning maelstrom of instrumental and vocal prowess that would be worthy of Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report at their most frantic if it weren’t for the pop perfection of the tune. But otherwise, less-distinctive melodies and fraying cohesion drop Fragile a step below The Yes Album.
On Close To the Edge from ’72, the band’s grand(iose) ambitions were equaled by its execution and the quality of its material for the last time. All of Side 1 is taken up with the four-part title track with references to “seasoned witches,” “colonies of the sky,” returning periodically to the anticipatory image of “close to the edge.” What lies beyond the edge is unclear – something about the healing of the human race by benevolent space beings.
However, somehow it all holds together with energetic instrumental passages – this time focusing on Rick Wakeman’s dancing fingers on a variety of keyboards – interspersed with dreamy soft moments, culminating in Anderson’s fervent yin/yang observation, “I get up, I get down,” followed by the sound of a rain forest full of birds taking flight. In all, a sonic triumph for Offord, including the innovative use of multitracked a cappella choral stabs, which Roy Thomas Baker and Queen would become famous for a few years later. Side 2 is dominated by the stunning beauty of “And You And I,” where all of the band’s strengths coalesce into another 4-course meal, this one satisfying on all levels.