All Access Review: B-
The last few years or so have been some of the most dysfunctional in the long, storied history of progressive-rock institution and psychedelic chameleons Yes, and that’s saying something. Seemingly forever beset by internal strife, whether over creative differences, legal battles over the band’s name, personality conflicts, or even debilitating health problems, Yes’s instability has, at various times, threatened to tear the very hull of the band apart and cause it to sink down into the deep of a Technicolor, Roger Dean-imagined lake of lava on some distant, undiscovered planet. Through it all, bass wizard Chris Squire, the only remaining original member, has managed to guide Yes through the choppiest of waters and still keep the good ship seaworthy with an ever-evolving crew. He’s still at the helm and shows no signs of giving up the wheel.
Though he’s been in and out of the band more often than a hopeless addict shuffles through rehab, Jon Anderson, a founding member no less, is, without question, the one true voice of Yes. But, respiratory issues have, on occasion, caused him to excuse himself from a number of possible Yes tours as the loud cheering died down after the 35th anniversary excursion in 2004. And while Squire and the rest of Yes entertained the notion of recording new music, Anderson, perhaps still stinging from the disappointing commercial results of 2001’s orchestral Magnification, was intractable in his opposition to the idea, certainly skeptical that Yes still had it in them to chart new musical territory. Here’s where things get sticky. In 2008, Yes again was set to tour the world, this time for its 40th anniversary. However, the “Close to the Edge and Back” jaunt crashed before it left the launching pad, as Anderson was diagnosed with acute respiratory failure. On doctor’s orders, he opted to rest the pipes. Not willing to wait around for Anderson to recover, Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White – along with Oliver Wakeman, son of the veteran Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman – shanghaied a new singer, Benoit David. And wouldn’t you know it? David was Anderson’s vocal doppelganger.
Leaving Anderson behind to fume over this breach of loyalty – even though he’d left the band plenty of times before, including that well-publicized first split in 1980 – the rest of Yes embarked on what would become known as the “In the Present” North American tour, while Anderson twisted in the wind, not knowing if he was still a part of Yes or not. Interrupted by Squire’s leg surgery, “In the Present” was delayed, but in 2009, Yes went back out and on December 1 of that year, the reconstituted Yes played Lyon, France. In late 2011, Frontiers Records released a double-CD set that documented the beaming, if somewhat spotty, performance and paired it with a 55-minute DVD in a package titled In the Present – Live from Lyon. And it feels like the dawning of a new era for the band, with its mix of elder statesmen and hungry young lions.
Still, from sound of things on In the Present – Live at Lyon, this version of Yes has yet to reach its full potential. Despite some imaginative and diverse guitar soloing from Howe, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” drags its feet, the playing sluggish and sapped of Yes’s usual vitality, as is the hum-drum version of “I’ve Seen All Good People” that follows it on Disc 1. When it’s supposed to pick up steam and drive ahead, at that precise moment when the song shifts from a psychedelic-folk meditation on living unselfishly into a muscular, triumphant jam of spiritual uplift, it lazily, almost reluctantly, comes to its feet and tiredly walks to its destination.
Not everything on In the Present – Live in Lyon comes off seeming so distracted and disinterested. “Machine Messiah,” boasting Oliver’s beguiling keyboard runs and the twirling spirals of notes rising from Howe’s guitar that answer them, offers exuberance and haunting beauty, while “Heart of the Sunrise” dazzles with its complex musicianship and shape-shifting movements, as do the jazzy interludes of “Astral Traveler,” showcasing the head-spinning interplay of Howe and Wakeman and the controlled chaos of White’s drum solo.
Maddeningly inconsistent, the sometimes uninspired and masturbatory Disc 1 gives way to a more confident and wide-ranging Yes in the second CD. Lush and extravagant, “Siberian Kathru” is an epic flight over some of the more mountainous terrain Yes traverses, and the fan favorite “Southside of the Sky” explores the many moods of Yes, from dark, sloping sonic valleys to lofty peaks of emotion. “Tempus Fugit” is more expansive and radiant, a blast of light and balled-up energy that explodes all over the quietly reflective and romantic “Onward,” which features David’s most stirring vocals of these recordings.
Though it contains fewer hits from Yes’s catalog, Disc 2 surpasses Disc 1 in vim and vigor, with a rugged, captivatingly bright “Roundabout” leading the charge. Overall, the sound is clean and vibrant, and while David’s vocals aren’t quite as warm or as nuanced as Anderson’s, he handles the material with grace and power. Historically, a bone of contention between Anderson and others in Yes was how he always pushed for an increased dosage of pop sensibilities into the band’s otherwise classically influenced arrangements, where others argued for a heavier, more daring direction. Those tensions apparently have been resolved, and though Anderson’s up-in-the-air status with Yes remains controversial – Squire of late hasn’t ruled out future collaborations with Anderson, who’s been playing out as a solo artist in recent years – it appears they are capable of carrying on without him.
- Peter LindbladOfficial Trailer from Frontier Records