I have been fortunate to hear a friend’s review copy of Yes’s new album, Fly from Here. Do you want the short version of this review? Purr purr purr.
“Armies of angels are starting to fall”
What to expect? It’s been ten years since the last studio album from Yes, Magnification. Ten years before that was Union, ten years before Union was Drama, ten years before Drama was Time and a Word. If Yes changed so much over those previous intervals, what can we expect now with Fly from Here?
Fly from Here is also only the second time that Yes has released an album without Jon Anderson, arguably the central songwriter in the band’s history as well as a most distinctive vocalist. The decision to continue without Anderson in 2008 was hugely controversial and online spaces still rage with the debate.
On tour with Asia in May, Steve Howe and Geoff Downes said Fly from Here was like a cross between Close to the Edge and 90125. Close to the Edge, perhaps Yes’s greatest album, possibly even the greatest progressive rock album of all. 90125, the band’s most commercially successful release and a whole new sound. A cross between them? Talk about shooting high. Well, I don’t think Fly from Here is remotely like a cross between Close to the Edge and 90125.
I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. In an interview in the first quarter of this year, Howe said, “I don’t think [the album]’s very predictable. I think people are going to go, “Ouch! Ooh!,” in surprise.” Steve Howe is right.
In a good way.
“As stupid now as were at first”
It will sound like Drama, that’s what a lot of people have said, and the band encouraged those comparisons. It doesn’t, mostly. There are points of comparison. “Into the Storm” has something of the same quality. Parts of the title track too. But I think Fly from Here is closer to the album the band would have made after Drama had they stayed together. We’ve got “We Can Fly from Here”, which we know was intended for that project. We’ve got a second Buggles demo: “Life on a Film Set” is “Riding a Tide”, a c. 1981 demo, one of the bonus tracks on the 2010 re-release of The Buggles' Adventures in Modern Recording. But “Fly from Here” and “Life on a Film Set” don’t sound like Drama; they sound like a development from Drama.
With Jon Anderson gone and Trevor Horn brought in, some critics have prejudicially disparaged Fly from Here as a Trevor Horn album with Yes as a backing band. There are moments that perhaps point in that direction. A Horn/Downes vision of Yes predominates on a song like “Life on a Film Set”. This works fine for me. When Adventures in Modern Recording was re-released and everybody focused on the two-part demo of “We Can Fly from Here”, I remember raving about “Riding a Tide” and saying it sounded very Yessy, so it’s no surprise I like it here too.
“Fly from Here” has become a 23-minute epic, but the way it’s constructed isn’t like “Gates of Delirium” or “The Revealing Science of God”. There’s an explicit “Overture”, not something Yes has done before. It reminds me, to make an odd comparison, of the Trevor Horn-produced album Tenement Symphony by Marc Almond. To go through the epic in detail, after the overture is “Part I We Can Fly”: this is pretty much the song as we know it. “Part II Sad Night at the Airfield” is based on the demo “Part 2” on Adventures in Modern Recording, although it has been developed and extended. “Part III Madman at the Screens” is a variation on the secondary theme introduced in the latter half of “Part II”. “Part IV Bumpy Ride” introduces a new theme, but also re-visits an additional theme introduced latterly in “Part III”. Then “Part V We Can Fly Reprise” is, as the title says, a reprise of the “We Can Fly” main theme as the big finale. The Overture and Parts I and II could stand as separate pieces: indeed, they could have been on the album separated by other tracks, as Horn did with the two parts of the “We Can Fly from Here” demo on Adventures in Modern Recording. Parts III, IV and V then run together more and are less free-standing.
“From some other part of me”
But there’s another side to this album (terminology that seems appropriate for the first Yes album to be released on LP in some while). This is not the third Buggles album. On songs like “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be”, “Hour of Need” and “Into the Storm”, and even within the title epic (e.g., “Part IV Bumpy Ride”), there’s a sound, a quality, that is all about Chris Squire, Steve Howe and, indeed, Benoît David.
But not always quite how you expect.
By the way, to respond to some online speculation based on the song titles. No, “Hour of Need” has nothing to do with the piece of the same name on Steve Howe's Spectrum, as far as I can tell. But, yes, “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be” is something of a ballad.
“Somewhere a fire is breaking out”
Chris Hosford, a.k.a. Frumious B, a well-known online fan, suggested Fly from Here would be all instrumental fireworks, like on Drama, but without the core songwriting ability Anderson brought. It’s not. It’s almost the opposite of that. There are some great songs here, and the band have often held back on the fireworks.
Given Howe has complained about how his guitar parts were withheld or removed from albums like Magnification, Union and ABWH, I too thought Fly from Here would be like Drama or The Yes Album, drenched in Howe’s guitar playing. But it’s not. He’s there, he’s distinctive, he has solos, but the music is left alone when needed, by all the instrumentalists. There’s space and sparseness when needed. Howe uses a lot of acoustic and steel guitar; he almost does bluegrass on “Hour of Need”. There’s less cheesegrater.
“Remember what has been achieved”
The Yes cheesegrater is an analogy the band invented. Consider Drama as an example: it’s the idea of how these basic songs from The Buggles and Squire went through the cheesegrater and became Yessified. A process that’s also happened to many Jon Anderson songs on other albums. But Fly from Here does something more subtle. “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be”, “Life on a Film Set” and “Hour of Need” haven’t been through a grater. They represent a multiplicity of different visions for Yes, yet with a continuity of sound as well. This continuity isn't as crude as a cheesegrater. They have been infused in a water bath like a Heston Blumenthal pudding. They, I suggest, represent where Chris Squire and Steve Howe are as composers today and where the whole band are as performers.
While one song has been turned into an epic, you’ve then got “Hour of Need” that, contrary to its name, is the shortest piece on the album at 3:07 (although a longer version is included as a bonus track on the Japanese release). “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be” and “Life on a Film Set” are 5 minutes apiece. “Hour of Need” feels like a much longer piece: it’s got the ingredients, I've not heard the extended version, but it’s easy to imagine earlier incarnations of Yes stretching “Hour of Need” and these other songs to 7, 8, 12-minute pieces with filigrees and reprises, but on Fly from Here, they are compact jewels. Although I’d be happy for them to have gone on longer myself!
I’m guessing “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be” is going to be similar to Squackett. The song dates back to 2006/7 and writing sessions for a Chris Squire solo album. The album as such has been abandoned, with much of the material migrating to the Squackett project. That explains the contribution of Gerard Johnson, who was involved with these sessions, having previously been in The Syn with Squire, and before that a collaborator of Peter Banks'. Simon Sessler contributed to the lyrics.
“That’s when I start to be the man you’ve always seen in me”
There are more familiar Yesisms here too. There’s a jaunty angularity in “Into the Storm” and “Bumpy Ride” that remind me of Tormato. The use of contrasting vocal sections, again notable on “Into the Storm”, is very Yes, as Squire takes a prominent second vocalist role.
There are also comparisons possible with Asia with similarities to some of Howe’s compositions for the band like “Wish I’d Known All Along” or “Through My Veins”, although Howe opts for more Yessy lyrics on “Hour of Need” compared to the relationship angst of his Asia songs. Howe and Downes’ instrumental interplay here reminds me of recent Asia (e.g. “Wish I’d Known All Along” again). Downes came in last to this project, replacing Oliver Wakeman half way through the album sessions, but his stamp is on this album and there are so many places were you can’t imagine Oliver Wakeman’s style working. Albeit largely through recycled Buggles material, Downes is more prominent in the writing credits than Yes's keyboardists usually are. And this is some of Downes’ best work. So often just what the music needs, not more or less. Occasionally, there's a bit of a 1970s style, a bit Jeff Wayne or ELO, that style of keyboard playing.
Bits of Wakeman's work have been used in the final mix, but what is unclear. There's a short keyboard solo on “Hour of Need” which might be him. In fact, “Hour of Need” is probably the piece where it's easiest to imagine a Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman version.
“There’s no-one sleeping, no-one awake”
I’ve not discussed the lyrics yet. Some feared the band would try to ape Anderson’s lyrical style. They haven’t. The lyrics and indeed vocal melodies are very different to what Anderson would do. They are, in some ways, quite un-Yes-like, more so than even Drama’s, yet they still encapsulate some familiar themes of positivity and striving for betterment, pleas for a better world through personal action. I think Howe's lyrical influence one can hear in songs like “Birthright”, “Spirit of Survival” or chunks of Tales from Topographic Oceans comes through on “Hour of Need”. There’s a romantic and humanist element from Squire on “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be”. That humanist strand to Yes’s lyrics, which Stuart Chambers discussed at some length in his book “Yes: An Endless Dream”, comes through in “Into the Storm” as well. There’s also a narrative style that I presume comes from Horn in “Fly from Here”. There’s another influence though, references to angels and heaven, not in a religious way, but a mythopoeic one. And there’s some clever wordplay, some arresting lines, although there are also points where the lyrics are weaker, like the rhyming in “Hour of Need”.
“In the dark / While the obvious isn't clear”
A special note about “Life on a Film Set”, as I’ve used its line “Riding a tiger” to title this review. If Panthers are fans of Drama, I say we continue the big cat metaphor and fans of Fly from Here have to be tigers. But I’m also wondering about the abortive Greg Lake/Geoff Downes collaboration in 1988 called Ride the Tiger: did Downes name it after this song?
“Something not so superficial / Like something I can really do without”
Some also feared that David’s vocals would ape Anderson’s. David’s role in Yes before now has been to fill Anderson’s shoes and how he sings Anderson’s Yes songs is not how he sings in Mystery. Again, fear not. David is not imitating Anderson here at all. In places, he’s singing parts Horn first did and that influence comes through with the staccato fashion Horn sometimes has (see “Life on a Film Set”), but David sings these parts better than Horn. Mostly this is David singing as himself, as he does in Mystery. In fact, better than he does in Mystery, this is great work from David.
There’s also lots of harmony, and a fair amount of lead, vocals from Squire. This is used in contrasting sections effectively on pieces like “Into the Storm”. There was uncertainty about whether Horn might have any vocal role: he doesn’t take any leads, but I think I can hear him in the backing vocals, at least on “Fly from Here”.
There’s lots I haven’t mentioned. What about Alan White? This is not an album full of in-your-face drumming. There isn’t anything like the intro to “Changes”. But there’s plenty of nice drumming throughout and rhythmic ideas. “Solitaire”, Howe’s acoustic solo. It’s a nice acoustic solo, what you’d expect from Howe, fits on the album. The production... The production is, of course, impeccable. Everything is clear, multiple layers of music. What one would expect from Horn. I could say more about “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be”, how it’s almost almost Fleetwood Mac-ish.
“I want to be the one who’s always there beside you / But we both must face the dawn / Alone”
In detail, it’s not what I expected, it’s not hugely like this or that prior Yes album. Broadly, it’s uplifting, it’s positive, it’s memorable, it’s what Yes music should be. It’s got those dramatic, instrumental moments: “Fly from Here Part V: We Can Fly Reprise” and a moment in “Part III Madman at the Screens” kill me. And the same for some vocal sections, like the “Armies of angels...” section in “Into the Storm”.
It’s an album worth immersing oneself in. Much of it on first and second listen was odd, confusing and even off-putting. It took me a few listens, but all the pieces grab me now. I’ve been going around humming them. I love it.
“Lonely eyes watch as the moon shines down”
There is no Jon Anderson on this album. Even Drama has echoes from Anderson’s influence. There is nothing here that has anything to do with him. OK, there’s a vocal line in “Hour of Need” which maybe is a bit Anderson-ish, but that’s it. Yes music has been made of so many components and obviously nearly all Yes fans are going to be fans of what Jon brought to the table, so some are, I’m sure, going to find out how much they miss him with Fly from Here. But this is a new Yes. This is, despite the use of two 30-year old songs, an album about Yes in 2011. I don’t think you can love this album without accepting that.
To finish, let’s put this is some context. In my opinion, and I’m sure you’re all going to have your own opinions soon enough, but for me... OK, it’s not as good as the average Yes album in the 1971-1981 period, but then little is. But this is better than the average Yes album in the 1991-2001 period. (Of course, that’s a period with a couple of albums that really drag the average down!) I think it’s a better album than Anderson/Wakeman’s The Living Tree, Jon Anderson’s Survival and Other Stories, Asia’s Omega, CIRCA: 2007, Mystery’s One Among the Living, The Syn’s Big Sky, White’s White and John Wetton’s Raised in Captivity, and most of those are good albums. If this was a brand new band, with no history, I’d be looking forward to their next album.
So, now they’ve got back into the album habit, let’s hope their next album is soon and not another 10 year wait!
Full release details, album credits and links to samples are on the news page, as you’d expect.