Tuesday 7 November 2023

Immersive world premiere of The Yes Album

To promote the new super deluxe edition of The Yes Album, a small audience - whoever saw the social media announcement and answered quickest! - were treated to the world premiere of the immersive mix at L-Acoustics in Highgate, London (very close to where I went to school). There was a 6pm and an 8pm "performance" and I was lucky enough to get into the 6pm.

The venue is a lovely demonstration studio for L-Acoustics, who do speakers for venues and high end clients. They had earlier done one of the listening events for Steven Wilson's The Harmony Codex here. They welcomed us with a nice selection of complimentary beverages. The listening room is equipped with 18 speakers in the walls, 12 in the ceiling and (playing the same channel) 24 subwoofers. There was seating for, I estimate, a bit over 30. Also present were some people from Yes management and YesWorld, Jerry Ewing and others from Prog magazine, and a special guest in the form of Bill Bruford. Steven Wilson had been meant to be there, but a last minute problem kept him away. (We saw Nick Beggs on the way out, there for the 8pm slot.)

We were plunged into darkness for the playthrough of the album, start to finish. Afterwards, Wilson had been to interview Bruford, but instead the lady from L-Acoustics chaired and Bruford took questions from the audience.

Bruford was delightful. He talked about enjoying listening to the album, but he wasn't certain whether that was the music, or the memory of its creation, or the memory of its performance. He talked about recording the album, but stressed how long ago it was and that his memories were vague in places.

He talked of recording on 16 tracks, of which Howe got seven, when he only got three! He talked of still being very new to the recording process, and of how the recording seemed to take so long, although he wasn't certain whether his memory of the time taken was of this album, or the one after, or the one after. They were aware that the recording was costing significant money. He described how the first two albums had flopped, so The Yes Album was both a new start and a last chance. Thus the presentation of The Yes Album, as if it were a debut. He said he had to record the drum parts first, as was the drummer's situation then, not knowing, having to guess, what would be recorded on top of that drum part later.

I asked a question about the very simple drum part on "Your Move", compared to what he plays on the rest of the album. He said he couldn't remember the decision making behind that, but he was glad he had chosen to do that as it left space for Colin Goldring's (four) recorder parts. He said they had initially tried a Mellotron and how in another band, they probably would have left it there, but Jon Anderson  was always pushing and so instead they got a real person. 

Bruford also talked of Keith Emerson recording downstairs, so there is a bit of Emerson's Moog used on one song. (I think he said it was on "Perpetual Change".) He talked about Kaye not speaking up and fighting his corner as Wakeman later would, and so his role in the music was more in the background.

In terms of promoting the new release, with its Atmos and 5.1 mixes, I don't know how useful an event like this is. Unless you have a room with 54 speakers in it, I presume the album is not going to sound the same at home! It definitely sounded fantastic for us. If we can presume that you get a reasonable approximation with a home set-up, then, yes, I can recommend the immersive mix. The instruments, the different tracks, are super clear. What the immersive mix brings is separation. That meant I was hearing details I had never heard before.

At the same time, the separation can also make the music sound less connected. For example, in "Yours is No Disgrace", Kaye's organ was to the side, which felt wrong to my ears, like it wasn't part of the music in the same way. Bruford commented similarly. He felt the drums sounded distanced from the rest of the performance, whereas he prefers a live jazz recording where you can hear the drums tight in with the other instruments.

As Bruford also commented, the mix would sometimes shoot the different guitar parts around the room. In places, I felt that gave an "impossible" effect. It makes you conscious that this can't be a live performance, because Howe can't be in two places at once. But one can always quibble over mixing choices. Overall, it's amazing how good a recording from 1970 can sound and I applaud Wilson's work. If you don't have a surround sound set-up, I'm not certain the boxset has enough new to justify the price tag, but there is a cheaper digital version that will be available.

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