Thursday, 29 December 2011

Prog's critics' choices

Yes fandom remains riven by the issue of BenoƮt David replacing Jon Anderson. The same debate sits like a black hole, dragging other discussions off course. So I find it interesting to step back sometimes and see how the prog music community more generally views the band's and the musicians' output.

The last issue of 2011 of Classic Rock Presents... Prog includes their annual Critics' Choice selection of the 20 best albums of the last 12 months, as voted on by the magazines' contributors. The winner is Opeth's Heritage but Yes's Fly from Here comes in 5th, with Steve Hackett's Beyond the Shrouded Horizon (with Chris Squire guesting and a couple of tracks co-credited to Steve Howe) coming 7th. Blackfield's Welcome to My DNA, with one track produced by Trevor Horn, is 11th. Steven Wilson's Grace for Drowning, with Tony Levin appearing, was the #2 album.

Rick Wakeman writes for the magazine, which has championed the planned Anderson/Wakeman/Rabin collaboration. However, nothing by Anderson or Wakeman makes their overall top 20. But the 21 contributors' individual top 20s are also listed, and we see appearances there by Anderson/Wakeman's The Living Tree and Jon Anderson's Survival & Other Stories, as well as the Jakszyk/Fripp/Collins album A Scarcity of Miracles (with Levin), Levin Torn White, John Wetton's Raised in Captivity (with Billy Sherwood, Tony Kaye and Geoff Downes) and Mars Hollow's The World in Front of Me (produced by Sherwood).

The King Crimson reissue series, obviously including multiple albums with Bill Bruford, was in the top 10 reissues list, while "Union Live" was in the top 10 DVDs.

The issue also includes glowing reviews of Steve Howe's Time and Yes's recent London show, and a more ambivalent review of In the Present - Live from Lyon.

Steve Howe's Time

It's been a joyfully busy time for Yes-related releases. Highlights include the aggressive Levin Torn White, Chris Squire appearing on Steve Hackett's Beyond the Shrouded Horizon, and Jon's epic of a digital single, "Open". The latest release is Time, Steve Howe's new solo album, now out in Europe, although a domestic release in the States only comes in 2012.

Time doesn't have multiple Yesmen on board, there are no epics, no big-name prog collaborators, even the cover is rather bland. Yet this may be some of the most beautiful music Steve Howe has ever recorded.

While Hackett's Beyond the Shrouded Horizon is a vibrant mish-mash of different styles (and includes some tracks co-crediting Howe as composer, presumably Hackett recycling GTR ideas), Howe has a tradition of very focused projects. In some ways, Time follows on from Natural Timbre, but while Natural Timbre was about acoustic playing, Time sees Howe working with a small orchestral ensemble. Rock and orchestra isn't a new thing. Yes did it on Magnification, Jon Anderson uses a string ensemble on "Open", and Howe fans will remember "Beginnings" on the album of the same name.

But this isn't a rock + orchestra album. Howe is much more integrated into a classical sound. Yet nor is this a classical guitar album. Howe kicks off the album with an interpretation of Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (Aria)" (a mid-20th century piece combining a Bach-esque approach to Brazilian music) that he plays on steel guitar. Within the album's focus, there is variation. Sometimes the guitar is to the fore, but then there's a piece like "Orange" with Howe's banjo as the base and the orchestral instruments rotating the lead, while Joyce's "Purification" has some jazzier playing by Howe.

While Howe does play classical or acoustic guitar on about half the album, what shines through is a certain Steve-Howe-ness to all the playing. Credit must absolutely also go to Paul K. Joyce for the arrangements and how he complements Howe's guitar work. Joyce also plays keyboards, occasionally inserting an almost Wendy-Carlos-esque sound choice.

Joyce is best known for writing "Can We Fix It?", the theme song to Bob the Builder (which reached #1 in the UK and Australia in 2000). However, he has also done more orchestral music. There's a moment in "The Explorer" where the brass plays with the guitar -- spine-chilling. It's this attention to detail and a melodic and harmonic richness that makes Time stand out. There's an autumnal feel to much of the music, but different emotions are expressed, like with the jaunty "Orange".

Possibly the best Yes-related release of the year. Details, liner notes and samples all available at .