Saturday, 12 December 2020

Arc of Life make it real

We first heard about Arc of Life back in summer 2019, but details were sparse and it was just in December 2020 that we discovered the full line-up: Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison, Jay Schellen, Jimmy Haun and Dave Kerzner. So, three members of the current live Yes band, someone who played on a Yes album, and a prominent figure in the modern prog scene who recently did a Yes tribute album.

To a degree, the news acted as an excuse for the usual arguments in present day Yes fandom to be recycled, but there was a good amount of interest in the new band. People couldn't help but talk about Arc of Life as a possible precursor of a next generation Yes, as with Simon Barrow’s piece.

Then the debut single, "You Make It Real", came out.

I've rarely seen the enthusiasm for a project drain away so fast. Sounding (and looking) like a forgotten pop song from 1990, even many of those who were looking forward to the new band seemed taken aback. iTunes samples for the full album suggest something more 'proggy', perhaps akin to CIRCA:, so I don't want to judge the album by the single. But someone chose to lead with that song.

There are two (separable but intertwined) issues here. The style of the song, and whether it's a good song within that style. The latter is subjective, so I want to start with the former: the style and its fit with the marketing of the new band.

When Yes-adjacent musicians go out and say they are deliberately making an album in a '70s prog style – as with Rick Wakeman's The Red Planet, CIRCA:'s own Valley of the Windmill, or Kansas's The Absence of Presence – it tends to go down well with the fans. Deviate from that style (as perhaps with Steve Howe's Love Is) and you get a muted reaction.

I'm not saying musicians should stay in their lane for fear of fan rejection. Levin Torn White is getting a re-release on vinyl and there's an album that surprised people with its style very successfully. Nor do I have anything against pop: I love pop (Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia would be my pick of the year). The point I want to make is about marketing. Arc of Life must have realised that people will see them through the prism of Yes. They have definitely been marketed that way by Frontiers: Yes are explicitly mentioned 7 times in the video's blurb, including saying "that YES would be a clear point of influence". Promo talks of a "progressive rock philosophy, to craft creative, challenging, and ear-pleasing music that pushes boundaries" and a "grandiose and epic approach to music". So, if people are going to see you in those terms, if you are presented in those terms, wouldn't it make sense to pick a lead single that plays to that angle? Or, if nothing on the album does, to make sure the marketing feeds the message that this is a project in which the band members are doing something different from what you might expect. 

Kerzner online has pushed back on expectations of something Yes-like. He said on Facebook: "It's Billy and Jon's new tunes with a new line up. [...] I arrived late in the game after the songs were already written. If someone came to me and said "Dave what would you do IF you were wanting to make a sort of next-generation Yes album" that would be different. That was never mentioned whatsoever. These are just my pals from the latest Yes line up who asked me to join their side project band". Musicians should follow their muses: if Erato whispered in Sherwood and Davison's ears the words to "You Make It Real", I'm not saying they shouldn't record such a song. But maybe don't release that as your lead single while your label declares that "YES is clearly the main point of comparison".

Just before the release of the debut Arc of Life single, we had the single for the new Downes Braide Association album, "Love Among the Ruins". Here is a Yes member with a successful side project with a different sound to Yes. DBA offer something much closer to mainstream pop than Yes normally do, and do so successfully. But then Chris Braide is a massively successful songwriter/producer in modern pop music. I ran a quick Twitter poll of "Love Among the Ruins" versus "You Make It Real": DBA are ahead 11:2. We're into subjective territory here. Any song, some people will like it, some won't. I'm not a fan of "You Make It Real", although most of the iTunes samples for the album sound more interesting.

So, what were you expecting from Arc of Life? What did you think of "You Make It Real"? Are you looking forward to the album, Arc of Life, or indeed to the new DBA release, Halcyon Hymns?

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Poll: What was the best Yes-related album of the first half of 2020?

I hope everyone is having an OK pandemic. Perhaps buying some new music soothed your soul? I asked you all what was the best new Yes-related album of Jan-Jun 2020. 82 of you answered:

1. Rick Wakeman, The Red Planet: 37 votes (45%)

2. various artists: A Tribute to Keith Emerson & Greg Lake (w/ Sherwood, Downes, Davison, Moraz): 20 votes (24%)

3. David Cross & Peter Banks: Crossover (w/ Downes, Sherwood, Kaye, O Wakeman): 18 votes (22%)

4. Trevor Rabin: Can't Look Away - Deluxe: 4 votes (5%)

5= John Holden: Rise & Fall (w/ Sherwood, O Wakeman): 1 vote (1%)

5= The Warriors: The Lost Demos (w/ Anderson): 1 vote (1%)

There was 1 vote for 'other', but the album wasn't specified. There were no votes for Lawrence: After Arabia - Original Movie Soundtrack (w/ Wakeman R), Clannad's In a Lifetime (w/ Horn), Light Freedom Revival's True Love Dreamwishes (w/ Wakeman O), the "Yendor" audiobook (w/ Wakeman O), or Trevor Rabin's Lost Soundtracks Vol 1 – Jack Frost or Lost Soundtracks Vol 2 – Film Music.

The winner was not a surprise. The Red Planet has been getting rave reviews and is a significant release for Wakeman (senior). Most of the Yes-related albums in the first half of this year were finished before the pandemic began, but The Red Planet was finished after lockdown started and had a delayed release because of the difficulties. We'll see whether there's a crop of albums made entirely during lockdown over the next few months.

A commendable second place for another Cleopatra Records tribute album. That's better than most of these albums do. I think ELP's music adapts well to this format, as with the great Encores, Legends and Paradox: A Tribute to ELP, because it's music with lots of room for solos and personal touches to come through. Third was Crossover, my choice and probably the last significant Peter Banks release there'll ever be. In all, albums featuring Billy Sherwood collectively got 39 votes, two above The Red Planet.

My polling widget is now giving me results on a regional breakdown. US voters preferred A Tribute to Keith Emerson & Greg Lake, then Crossover, before The Red Planet, although maybe that's partly about copies of The Red Planet taking long to get over to the US? UK voters chose The Red Planet, only putting A Tribute to Keith Emerson & Greg Lake third equal. German votes also went for The Red Planet, while French voters picked Can't Look Away! There were also votes from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Japan and New Zealand.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Poll: What was the best Yes-related album of the second half of 2019?

After an inexcusably long process - we started before most people had heard of a coronavirus! - we finally have the answer to what you thought was the best Yes-related album of the second half of 2019. Out of 75 votes, you said...

1. Downes Braide Association: Live in England, 28 votes (37%)
2. Steve Howe Trio: New Frontier (w/ writing by Bruford), 25 votes (33%)
3. Refugee: Refugee [re-release] (w/ Moraz), 12 votes (16%)
4. Rodney Matthews and Jeff Scheetz with Oliver Wakeman: Trinity (w/ Wakeman R), 6 votes (8%)
5. In Continuum: Acceleration Theory Part Two: Annihilation (w/ Davison, writing by Anderson), 4 votes (5%)
6. Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders: Get the Money (w/ Davison), 0 votes (0%)

So, a close result in the end, but victory for the Downes Braide Association's first live album, just ahead of my choice, the Steve Howe Trio album. The winners for the first half of the year were Jon Anderson's 1000 Hands: Chapter One and Trevor Horn's Reimagines the Eighties, so combined I think that shows 2019 was a great year for Yes-related releases with representation from most of the band's best known members.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Poll: What was the best Yes-related album of the second half of 2019? Round 3 + list of finalists

Our last round of the overly long vote for the best Yes-related album of the second half of 2019 had a very clear winner. 35 votes and 30 of them went to the Steve Howe Trio's New Frontier. In Continuum's Acceleration Theory Part Two: Annihilation squeaks through as runner-up on two votes, while three of the Rick Wakeman live series get a vote each: Live at Daphne Du Maurier Festival UK 17th January 2001, Live at the City Hall Sheffield, UK November 21st 1981, and Live in Guildhall Preston, UK November 16th 1981.

That means no votes for Wakeman's Live at Sankei Hall, Osaka, Japan 30th June 2014, Live at International Forum Hall, Tokyo, Japan 1st July 2014, or Live Solo Performance, Tokyo, Japan. Also on zero votes were Deckchair Poets' Always Piste at Christmas (with Downes) or You're in My Heart from Rod Stewart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (with Horn). The last of those, ironically, was by far the best-selling of any Yes-related album in 2019. It was the tenth best-selling of any album in the UK in 2019, as well being top ten in Ireland and Australia, and top 40 in Germany, Hungary, Portugal and New Zealand.

That means that our grand final will be between:

Refugee: Refugee [2019 re-release] (w/ Moraz)
Downes Braide Association: Live in England
Steve Howe Trio: New Frontier (w/ Bruford writing)
Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders: Get the Money (w/ Davison)
Rodney Matthews and Jeff Scheetz with Oliver Wakeman: Trinity (w/ Wakeman R)
In Continuum: Acceleration Theory Part Two: Annihilation (w/ Davison, writing by Anderson)

There were 28 contestants: 12 Rick Wakeman solo releases from the archives (0 in the final), 3 re-releases with previously unreleased archival material (1 in the final), and 13 new albums (5 in the final). Nothing with Horn (out of 3 releases), Banks (1 release) or Sherwood (1 release) has made it through. There were 12 Wakeman solo releases and 2 appearances, of which just one guest appearace got through, whereas 2 out of 3 Davison performances are included, as are the only O Wakeman and Bruford appearances. Anderson has 1 out of 3 release through to the final. Downes and Moraz are 1 out of 2.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Poll: What was the best Yes-related album of the second half of 2019? Round 2

As per my last post, a large number of late 2019 releases has necessitated a three-part poll to decide the best one. Here's the Round 2 result from 29 votes:

1. Downes Braide Association: Live in England 76% (22 votes)
2. Rodney Matthews and Jeff Scheetz with Oliver Wakeman: Trinity (w/ Wakeman R & O) 10% (3 votes)
3= various artists: A Prog Rock Christmas (w/ Sherwood, Davison, Moraz, Downes) 7% (2 votes)
3= Rick Wakeman: Christmas Portraits 7% (2 votes)

There were no votes for any of the archival Wakeman releases in this poll (Live at Cropedy Festival Oxfordshire UK 2010 with the English Rock Ensemble, Live on Air, Live in Osaka Japan 21st January 1975, Live in Boston Music Hall, MA, USA October 5th 1974, Live in Vienna Austria 1976 with Vienna Ensemble).

So a very clear win for Live in England, with Trinity just scraping through to take the runner-up slot.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Poll: What was the best Yes-related album of the second half of 2019? Round 1

There were a lot of Yes-related releases in the second half of 2019, partly because of a slew of Rick Wakeman archival releases, but there were still 15 releases involving everyone other than Rick. Thus, I've split our customary poll into three rounds and a final.

Round 1 had 33 votes and went like this:

1. Refugee: Refugee [2019 re-release] (w/ Moraz): 33% (11 votes)
2. Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders: Get the Money (w/ Davison): 27% (9 votes)
3. Dollar: Ultimate Dollar 1 (w/ Horn) 24% (8 votes)
4. Jon Anderson: The Opus series: 12% (4 votes)
5. David Hasselhoff: Open Your Eyes (w/ Moraz): 3% (1 vote)

There were no votes for Renato Zero's huge-selling Zero il Folle (w/ Horn), Zorbonauts' Tall Tails (w/ Downes), Wally's Martyrs and Cowboys (The Atlantic Recordings 1974-1975) (w/ Wakeman in a production role) or the soundtrack album One Little Finger (Ability in Disability) (w/ Banks).

Refugee (which was eligible because this release includes some previously unreleased live material from the archives) and Get the Money go forward to the final.

Monday, 13 January 2020

The Yes year: looking back to 2019 and forward to 2020

If there's been a race between Yes featuring Anderson Rabin Wakeman and the Yes with Howe, White and Downes to release a new album -- and it's certainly been a marathon rather than a sprint -- then the unexpected winner this year was the Oliver Wakeman/BenoƮt David line-up. From a Page came out of the blue to positive reviews. A delightful surprise and my highlight of the Yes year.

While From a Page made the biggest splash in Yes fan circles, we should remember that the albums that sell well are often not the ones Yes fans pay attention to. From a Page did do well in sales, particularly given its limited release. It made #23 in the UK Rock chart, but selling better was Rick Wakeman's Christmas Portraits, which made #82 in the main UK top 100. Better than both of those were two Trevor Horn productions (he performs on both too). Renato Zero's Zero il Folle made #1 in Italy and was the 31st best-selling album of the year in the country. But the biggest Yes-related release of the year was You're in My Heart by Rod Stewart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which went #1 in the UK and Ireland, and made the top 40 in Australia, Germany, New Zealand and Portugal too. It was the 10th best-selling album of the year in the UK.

I can't decide my personal favourite album of the year, but I can tell you my favourite Yes-related song. That's “Scavengers” from the first In Continuum album. A great riff, great tune, provocative lyrics and fantastic drumming by Marco Minnemann. Davison guests providing some beautiful backing vocals.

Looking ahead, there is much excitement, and more than a little trepidation, about Yes playing all of Relayer in 2020. There are also indications that the band will record a new album, although there have been similar indications for some years and we're still waiting. ARW were inactive in 2019. While Wakeman talked of touring resuming in 2020, and maybe a new album, that talk has ended and the band appears to be on hold, at best. Finished, at worst.

From a Page brought attention to Wakeman junior's work. If you've enjoyed his work, 2020 begins well as he appears on two albums out shortly: John Holden's sophomore release Rise and Fall; and the David Cross & Peter Banks album Crossover. I've heard previews of both and they're both good. The latter is (sadly) the last album of new material by Peter Banks from his estate, based on an improv session in 2010 by former King Crimson violinist David Cross and Pete on guitar, augmented subsequently by a multitude of Yes (O Wakeman, Sherwood, Kaye, Downes, Schellen, Raine-Reusch) and King Crimson (Mastelotto, Stacey) names.