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You can say a lot of nasty things about progressive rock, and many people have -- most frequently, that the genre emphasizes musical chops over soulful expression. But in the case of Yes, the British band's often overbearing pretentiousness resulted in moments of rare grace and beauty, a bizarre and fleeting -- if totally unrealistic -- coupling of classical textures with rock & roll pathos. Curiously enough, Yes' 1969 debut is a relatively down-to-earth affair -- and a not very inspired one at that. The quintet's reworking of the Beatles' "Every Little Thing" illustrates its knack for mysterioso, angelic harmonies, led by singer Jon Anderson. But the band's original compositions are sketchy at best. The psychedelic Time and a Word offers little improvement, perhaps because of the dubious decision to attach an entire symphony orchestra to the already cluttered arrangements. It was the addition of Steve Howe's guitar pyrotechnics that finally allowed Yes to find their true identity. The Yes Album is a gigantic leap forward, with extended workouts such as the ethereal "Starship Trooper" emphasizing the band members' individual virtues. In Bill Bruford, Yes had a hip, jazzy drummer; in Chris Squire, a bassist willing to dominate the mix with his elephantine lines; and in Tony Kaye, an organist who used his Hammond sparingly, for funkier effect. Kaye was unceremoniously dismissed so that virtuoso Rick Wakeman could join in, perfecting the definitive Yes sound. Fragile is quintessential classic rock. "Roundabout" is an undeniable prog-pop singalong, but the album's happiest moments are subtle, brief passages such as the bucolic instrumental segment of "South Side of the Sky" and the gleefully baroque line that Wakeman repeats hypnotically during the climax of " Heart of the Sunrise." At that moment, the band threw caution to the wind and indulged its appetite for excess without a hint of guilt. Close to the Edge is not really a rock record, but rather a symphony that happens to be performed by a rock band. The decidedly trippy 20-minute-long title track is occasionally shrill and breathtakingly intense, whereas "Siberian Khatru," with its staccato attack and tribal vocalizing, remains, to this day, strangely hip. A bewildered Bruford quit the group, reasoning that Yes could never reach such heights again. He was replaced by Alan White, a more economical drummer. Depending on your point of view, Tales from Topographic Oceans is either prog rock's absolute nadir or its dreamy masterpiece. Sure enough, this overblown double LP set finds true redemption only when seen as an exercise in mood. Relayer is probably Yes' best opus, a manic jam session that places the group's instrumental dexterity at the service of a ferocious combination of free jazz and heavy metal. After an extended hiatus that yielded the inevitable, sub-par solo excursions, the band returned with Going for the One, a flashy record whose shorter, punchier tunes displayed an instinctive reaction to the emerging punk movement. The layers of church organ on "Awaken" were decidedly epic, but Yes had run out of steam. So misguided and pedestrian was 1978's Tormato that both Anderson and Wakeman jumped ship after its release. It seemed as if Yes could simply not carry on without Anderson's celestial vocalizing. But carry on it did, enlisting future superstar producer Trevor Horn and his Buggles cohort Geoff Downes to bring a touch of poppy new wave to the proceedings. With its tongue-in-cheek riffs and hummable melodies, Drama is the band's most underrated album. Touring with Horn as lead singer proved to be a disaster, however, and Yes called it quits. Horn would return as producer for a 1983 lineup that included South African guitarist Trevor Rabin and Anderson back in the fold for a surreal twist of fate: Yes as an American-sounding arena-rock outfit, complete with a smash single ("Owner of a Lonely Heart") and best-selling album (90125). The band spent the next decade trying to duplicate its success -- as if winning the lotto twice was a feasible option. Since 1996, Anderson and a revolving cast of former and new members have attempted a return to the classically influenced Yes sound of yesteryear. Truth be said, there are bits and pieces of the old magic to be found in the underwhelming The Ladder and the orchestrally enhanced Magnification. For the most part, however, Yes has left its maddening grandeur behind. Of the band's two box sets, Yesyears includes most of the essential classics. In a Word spends way too many discs on the latter-day fluff. The triple disc Ultimate Yes juxtaposes some of the band's finest music with a forgettable disc of unplugged numbers. (ERNESTO LECHNER)
Yes Song List
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