Is It Yes, or No?

yes heavenIn this month of July 2014, Yes have released their 21st studio album. (Or is it their 20th? I’m not sure how to count Yes albums. Is ABWH considered Yes? Are the two Keys to Ascension albums considered one or two studio releases?)

The new album, Heaven and Earth, was greatly anticipated by fans. However, even before its official release dates (Japan – 16th, Europe – 18th, North America – 22nd) reviews completely panning the album were appearing on the Prog Archives web site and other music review sites. Some reviewers took a sympathetic view: “This is the kind of music Yes wants to write and play now”. Some took a mildly appreciative view: “It’s not really prog, more pop actually, but it’s not that bad”. But the majority took a hatchet to the album, slashing it for being too soft, too pop, and not enough prog or rock. The most amusing description was someone calling it an “intergalactic explosive turd”!

Among the complaints that bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White were not really doing much of interest on most of the album, equal disapproval was heaped upon new singer Jon Davison’s song-writing efforts, with some claiming it was asking for trouble to give him so much opportunity to write for a Yes album (“You’re cooking at home”) being that he had only been a member for 2 years and that it was his first album with the band. Hey, at least Benoit David, the previous vocalist for Yes, had not been asked to write anything for the band, just sing the songs. And in a fairly recent interview with Yes founding member and beloved vocalist (and the genius ideas man behind so much of Yes’ classic works), Jon Anderson said it wasn’t right to call the band Yes because what they were writing was not Yes music. Anderson had recently composed an epic song in four parts entitled “Open” which he wrote in the style of Yes’ traditional epic songs. This, in his heart, was what Yes music should be like.

So is the new album Yes? Well, how much in Yes’ back catalogue can be called Yes music? Let’s take a look back and see when Yes music wasn’t what some would have called it.

Case One – The Early Yes

Yes-8001In the early days, Yes were a covers band. But, according to founding guitarist, the late Peter Banks, “(the covered songs) were given the full Yes treatment” (Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch). Indeed, even when Yes began recording music for their first two albums they included a version of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” on their debut and Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story on a single b-side. They also added music from the theme to a TV program called The Big Country on a song on their second album, Time and a Word.

When Steve Howe joined Yes in 1970 the picture changed. Although Yes worked toward maintaining a democracy when it came to putting together a song, Jon Anderson and Steve Howe formed a tight relationship coming up with ideas and writing songs for the band. Some of their greatest creations, Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans resulted from their collaboration, and over the course of the next several albums, Yes were superstars of progressive rock.

Case Two – The Buggles Collaboration

Yes_DramaIn 1979, after the disappointing album, Tormato and some abandoned recording sessions, Jon Anderson left the band, along with star keyboard player, Rick Wakeman. What were the remaining members to do? There was some partly worked material from the Paris sessions, as they came to be known, but Squire, Howe, and White were looking for direction. They wanted a full five-piece band and with a rehearsal room booked said, “Well, whoever turns up is in the band!” (Close to the Edge: the Story of Yes).

Cue the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” and enter the Buggles, a band comprised of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, who were together responsible for the worldwide hit that would later kick off MTV’s first ever airing. Working under the same management as Yes, the two approached Yes with some music they had composed for the band, a song called “We Can Fly from Here”. Chris Squire was familiar with the Buggles and they were invited to join Yes. The new album – the first without Jon Anderson – was called Drama, and it included some material begun by Squire, Howe, and White. But the two new members put forward two songs and then, in true Yes tradition, each member contributed and song-writing credits for all songs were attributed to all five members. Many fans and critics were up in arms about the Buggles joining Yes and many were not pleased with these two “purveyors of ear-candy” becoming involved in writing Yes music. However, over time the album Drama has won much favour among fans.

Case Three – The Jimmy Page Connection and Trevor Rabin

yes xyzAnd then Yes fell apart. The band dissolved with Howe and Downes going off to form Asia, Horn becoming a producer, and Squire and White teaming up with Jimmy Page to form the short-lived band, XYZ (eX-Yes and Zeppelin). From their sessions came a song called “Mind Drive” and other music that was only recorded as a rough demo. Squire and White then teamed up with South African rocker, Trevor Rabin. Using a few ideas from the aborted XYZ and some of Rabin’s ideas, the three hired former Yes Hammond organ player, Tony Kaye and formed the band, Cinema. Cinema were never intended to become Yes, but once Jon Anderson expressed interest in singing on the album, it became clear that this was going to sound like Yes and so the band that was supposed to be Cinema became the Yes for the 80’s.

Many fans of the classic Yes of the seventies were outraged at this new arena rock band that called themselves Yes. Well, they were 80% Yes alumni with the two “pillars” of the band, Chris Squire and Jon Anderson. And the band recorded their biggest selling album ever with 90125 and its chart-topper “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (a Trevor Rabin-penned tune for Cinema). However, for many fans, 90125 was even more a gob of saliva on the name of Yes than what the Buggles collaboration had been.

Case Four – ABWH’s Second Album Becomes Yes

yes unionFans of classic Yes only had to wait a few more years. Anderson, discontent with the direction of the band in 1987, once again left, only this time he called up old members Howe, Wakeman, and drummer Bill Bruford and together they put together something less pop and more prog under the name of Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe (or ABWH for short). Law suits were filed from the side that still had legal right to call themselves Yes, in order to make sure that Anderson and Co. were not trying to re-start classic Yes while the 80’s Yes still existed. Things got nasty, but while Yes West (Rabin, Squire, Kaye, and White) were plotting their next move, ABWH were enjoying the results of their first album and recorded a live album to follow up.

Then a strange thing happened. While working on material for their second album, ABWH suddenly found themselves in Yes again. Record company execs had come up with the brilliant idea of combining the new ABWH songs on an album with some new songs by Rabin and Co. Collectively, the new material would be called Yes and the album would be promisingly called Union. And so an album was released for the second time under the proud Yes name bearing music that was originally not intended to be on a Yes album.

Case Five – More XYZ and Some Conspiracy

yes keysAfter a successful tour with eight Yes musicians, the Rabin-led Yes managed one more album that was said to be pretty much Trevor Rabin’s baby. Though Rabin had now been a member of Yes for ten years, many fans still saw him as an outsider and this notion was exacerbated after Howe and Wakeman had temporarily been back in Yes and were summarily told they were no longer needed once the Union tour wrapped up. Kaye and Rabin then left, and Anderson, Squire, and White called up Howe and Wakeman and one of the classic line-ups reconvened for a few live shows and some new studio material that included something dredged up from the XYZ days. “Mind Drive” was reworked and became one of the two new 18-minute plus Yes epics.

The release of the song and other new works was, however, withheld by the record company who held on to the double live/studio album, Keys to Ascension 2 wondering if Yes were going to tour it. Wakeman left again, and Yes not only recruited a new keyboard player, but they (Squire mostly, perhaps?) decided to use material that he and song-writer / guitarist Billy Sherwood had been writing for a collaboration album together under the name Conspiracy. Sherwood became a member of Yes, and Anderson and Howe were brought in at the last moment to add their thoughts. “The only contribution Jon and I were able to make,” says Howe in Close to the Edge: the Story of Yes, “was ‘From the Balcony’”. And so with Open Your Eyes, the third Yes album that was mostly not meant to be a Yes album was released. Fans hated it.

Case Six – The Return of Fly from Here and the Buggles

Yes Fly_from_HereYes released two albums after that which did contain music written for Yes, mostly (word has it another XYZ song showed up on Magnification). Then they did some touring and then everyone went off to do other things. Anderson became ill but Squire wanted Yes to start working on a new album. Wakeman refused to be in the band without Anderson and so… Drama-era Yes members Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes were called in with Horn writing and producing and Downes writing and playing keyboards. Their old song written for Yes but only ever played live, “We Can Fly from Here”, was turned into a 22-minute, multi-part song and was sung by Anderson replacement, Benoit David. Many fans didn’t like David singing instead of Anderson and many complained about the 30-year-old song being exhumed for a new Yes album.

So, as we can see, Yes music is not always written by the classic Yes members or for Yes albums. But over the decades of its bizarre history, Yes has sometimes gobbled up outside music in order to keep that giant, lumbering beast that is Yes plodding along. Having a new singer write most of the songs for the latest album is only the latest chapter in the history of Yes, though it is interesting to note that on Heaven and Earth the song writing credits are not attributed to all five members but only two or three members with Davison getting partial credit for seven of the eight tracks.

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The Epic Long Song – Part III: Epics on CD

The Long Songs List on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page is a remarkable list to peruse. It is in fact very telling about the evolution of the epic long song in popular music from its birth in the 1960’s to its present and perhaps somewhat exploited (as opposed to exalted) existence. Excluding the two songs that are over 100 minutes long, the list shows us that most popular artists who go for maximum endurance runs are keeping to the temporal confines of the compact disc. More than that, however, we can see what kinds of music creators are likely to attempt the CD-length track. Ambient/electronic or experimental/avant guard metal artists dominate the 29 songs listed between 70:00 and 79:59 minutes. This might not be surprising as these two types of music lend themselves toward long or entirely instrumental sections where single notes or chords may be held over several bars. To the contrary, progressive rock and progressive metal often go for speed and dexterity in order to show off technical prowess. Perhaps one of the slowest developing pieces I can name in rock music is Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and yet the entire song in all its part wraps up in just under 30 minutes.

Studying the time length of the various songs also tells us that the CD-long track only became attempted from the early 90’s. Presumably this is because many albums were still recorded in analogue and then transferred to digital until that time. Recording on computer did not become common place until the mid-90’s (Yes experienced some flak for having recorded “Talk” directly to computer as some people mistakenly believed that the album was made using a computer and not real instruments).

Transatlantic's Whirlwind - a long song or a series of segued short songs?

Transatlantic’s Whirlwind – a long song or a series of segued short songs?

One band name to stand out from the list for me is Transatlantic because they are a symphonic prog band. Their “Whirlwind” album is a meant to be a single song but broken into many parts and as I understand, the parts are separated into individual tracks, suggesting that this is not in fact a true CD-long song but many songs of a single theme segued under the banner of the “Whirlwind” title. The band’s response to this accusation was to record the entire “song” live and release it as a single track on their subsequent live album.

CD-long epics aside, we see that songs in the 60:00 to 60:59, 50:00 to 50:59, and 40:00 to 49:59 time range are few, numbering between roughly 20 and 30 for each time length group. Once we get down to vinyl album lengths – below 50:00 – we see the number of songs increasing appreciatively. Naturally, the 15:00 to 19:59 group is the largest, but it’s especially interesting to see how many songs are in the 20:00 to 29:59 group. There are so many songs partially because of the hefty contribution of the 1970’s and early 80’s, but it seems that a great many modern artists attempt songs of this group length. Perhaps there is a certain charm to writing and recording a 20 to 25-minute long song because that’s what the classic artists of yesteryear did. Or perhaps there is a certain comfort in writing a long song that doesn’t require the listener to devote more than half an hour to listening to the track. Or perhaps this time length is long enough to fit in several parts but manageable enough that it is not necessary to start looking for filler to meet a particular target length. In other words, it’s easier for the artists to say, “I’ve got an idea for a song in five parts that will be about 24 minutes long,” than for artists to say, “Let’s try to do a single track over 70 minutes long”.

Certainly, the advent of the CD and digital recording made it more possible and easier for artists to compose longer pieces. In the 1980’s, however, long songs were not in vogue and a scan of the list will show that few artists attempted anything too adventurous and bold. When progressive music regained respectably and allure in the 1990’s there was a quick resurgence of 20-something-minute epic. Porcupine Tree released the two-part “The Sky Moves Sideways” which reached 34:42 and then The Flower Kings almost hit 60 minutes with “Garden of Dreams” from the “Flower Power” double CD in 1999. Echolyn recorded “Mei” at 49:35 in 2002. But these few observations in progressive rock are just drops in the bucket when one considers the list on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page.

The Sky Moves Sideways by Porcupine Tree. The two parts together go over 34 minutes

The Sky Moves Sideways by Porcupine Tree. The two parts together go over 34 minutes

More importantly, the CD format now permits artists to record a song of any length, with a maximum length being just under 80:00. This means that there is no reason why a song has to include filler in order to reach the goal of filling up an entire side of a vinyl album. Songs can be as cohesive as the artists wish them to be. Whether the song reaches 22 minutes or 32 minutes is of little consequence in so far as the final product of “the song” is concerned. However, it is interesting to think of how back in the “old days” artists broke new ground by filling up an entire side of an album with a single song and then covered both sides with an entire cohesive song. Is there anyone out there who is ready to try the double-disc / single song epic? Or with streaming now a common way for many to listen to music, it is possible to record or perform a song of any length, bypassing the temporal limitations of the CD altogether.

A final word about epic long songs

In 1967, The Beat of the Earth released an album containing a single song split over the two sides of the album. It’s an obscure psychedelic album and for the most part a jam. Vanilla Fudge also released a long song, “Break Song” clocking in at 23:23. This too was mostly a jam. Many other bands have filled up sonic space with long jams based around a shorter song. In my opinion, this is the simplest form of creating an epic song and it doesn’t really show that the artists have compositional creativity. Surely, Deep Purple have carried on in the past for over 30 minutes, just filling up an album song of 5 minutes or so with an extended instrumental jam. Then there are long songs that actually constitute several individual songs that are part of a narrative or theme that are segued to make a single track. Rush’s “2112” could have been several short songs, and the band themselves acknowledge that in the past, their long songs were often shorter songs stitched together.

Nektar's narrative, Remember the Future: songs that make up parts of the story.

Nektar’s narrative, Remember the Future: songs that make up parts of the story.

Are Nektar’s “Remember the Future,” “Journey to the Centre of the Eye,” and “Recycle” multi-part single songs or several individual tracks of a narrative? My copies of “Journey…” and “Recycle” divide the parts into individual tracks while “Remember…” has no track breaks except between side one and side two. I think the best epics are songs that form a cohesive whole, where the changes in melody, tempo, time signature, key, and even style flow together almost naturally. If I listen to the song and it seems like several disparate parts were just thrown in for the purpose of creating a long song then I think the song fails on one point and it was not necessary to purposely make it so long. These days there is little reason to try to fill up a song just to meet a temporal target. If a song can comfortably wrap up in 12, 15, or 18 minutes then there is little more reason than boastfulness and pretentiousness to try to extend several minutes more. But who is to decide when a song is packed with filler? That’s a matter of personal opinion.

Some of my own personal favourite epic songs (over 18 minutes) are:

Close to the Edge by Yes

The Revealing Science of God – The Dance of Dawn by Yes

2112 by Rush (short-song-narrative though it may be)

The Great Nothing by Spock’s Beard

Supper’s Ready by Genesis (a patchwork of smaller parts)

Numbers by The Flower Kings

Suite: Little Lucid Moments by Motorpsycho

Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull

Echoes by Pink Floyd

Tarkus by Emerson Lake & Palmer