The only thing more complex than the music Yes performs is the intricate tapestry of people who create it. The band has suffered from revolving-door syndrome nearly from the start; the only member who has appeared on every single Yes album has been bassist Chris Squire. As a result, Squire controls the name. He also has a reputation for being a tremendous prima donna and extremely difficult to work with, which could possibly account for some of the constant artist churn.
The band’s tradition of interchangeable parts began with its third album, curiously called The Yes Album. It’s not quite an eponymous title — the band’s first record bore that — but it’s close, and for all intents and purposes it signals the reinvention you’ll find here. The Yes Album carries forward certain creative threads and sonic elements of Yes and Time and a Word, but it’s really the launching point for the sound and style that has become synonymous with Yes.
The change has everything to do with the change in lineup that The Yes Album ushered in: Original Yes guitarist Peter Banks was out, replaced by Steve Howe. Despite being the prime mover for Yes, Banks’ departure was written all over Time and a Word. In fact, the U.S. album cover (a hastily snapped portrait of the band, which replaced the UK cover’s surreal photo collage centered around a nude female torso) featured Howe rather than Banks; by the time the record label got around to producing the U.S. sleeve, Banks was already out.
In a sense, it was all terribly unfair to Banks, an exceptionally talented musician whose jazz-style guitar work defined the first album’s sound. But Yes as an entity wanted to move into new territory, and Howe was the man to make the new sound possible. His skills are on clear display right from the start on the album’s opening cut, “Yours Is No Disgrace.”
“Disgrace” begins with a strong, staccato wall of sound reminiscent of the orchestration that kicked off Time and a Word’s lead track — but this time around, the grafted-on orchestra is nowhere to be found. Instead, this new Yes builds its huge, percussive rock sound organically, layering Howe’s guitar performances on top of one another… but as 1973’s Yessongs would demonstrate, not so reliant on studio multi-tracking that the band couldn’t create an absolutely convincing live rendition of the song as well. And immediately it becomes clear what Howe could offer that Banks couldn’t: Diversity. Texture. Breadth.
At about the four-minute mark of “Disgrace,” the band breaks into an extended instrumental bridge that showcases Howe’s chops. His layered performances shifts between fuzzy psychedelia to the soaring cry of a country-and-western-style steel guitar to crisp acoustic textures and ultimately to a damn fine imitation of Banks’ jazz guitar stylings before the lengthy bridge winds to an end and Jon Anderson’s lilting vocals return to the stage. Howe could do Banks almost as well as Banks himself, but he could so much more as well.
“Disgrace” reads like a statement of intent for Yes. This is what the band wanted to do with the clunky, uncertain Time and a Word, but freed of the constraints of sharp-edged guitar chords and orchestral overdubs, the band could venture into entirely new territory. The Yes Album contains a mere six tracks, two of which exceed nine minutes and a third that comes close. While the band dabbled in compositions that ran too long to be entirely radio-friendly with their first two albums, “Yours is No Disgrace” manages to combine everything good about the band’s previous work into an extended musical workout that never wears out its welcome despite circling back around to certain themes and passages and containing only a smattering of lyrics (and not particularly coherent ones at that). “Disgrace” builds and crescendos and pauses to breathe before piling on the wall of sound again, and the rich interplay of Howe’s guitar pieces creates constant variety from moment to moment. He throws together several different genres all at once, and rather than creating dissonance he instead produces a fascinating wall of sound to make Phil Spector proud: Overpowering and dirty one minute, restrained and crisp the next.
Should there be any doubt about Howe’s importance by the time “Disgrace” crescendos and fades away, the album’s second track — “Clap” — quickly dispels it. Consisting entirely of a live solo performance by Howe on acoustic guitar, its entire purpose seems to be to quell any doubts as to this interloper’s skills. Coming off as something of a one-man “Dueling Banjos,” “Clap” makes it clear that Howe was the real deal.
But at the same time, the second track — the extended sci-fi rock epic “Starship Trooper” — proves that Howe can step back to play an ensemble role as well. “Trooper” plays much more to Anderson’s vocals (sung solo here rather than in the unison with Howe and Squire heard in “Disgrace”) and even Tony Kaye’s keyboards; Howe largely supports the piece with rhythmic chords and the occasional steel guitar melody that creates much of the soaring atmosphere of “Trooper.” Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have his moments, like the passage a third of the way through the song in which everything but his quickly strummed western-style acoustic texture falls away during a unison vocal passage practically chanted by all three vocalists. Ultimately, though, “Starship Trooper” is about buildup and restraint, and the song ends with an eight-measure rhythm that slowly, slowly rises to a crescendo, with everyone steadily pouring more and more energy into the same few repeated notes until finally, finally, Howe’s guitar breaks from its rhythm and plays a gratifying two-channel duet until the song fades.
Sadly, the second side of the album gets off to a far less spectacular beginning, with the uncharacteristically sweet (and acoustic!) “Your Move” leading into the tiresome “All Good People.” A concert standard and the band’s first significant radio success, “All Good People” consists of the same phrase of music repeated tiresomely for several minutes, but without the restraint and rising energy that makes the final half of “Starship Troopers” such an incredible listen. “Troopers” ultimately culminates in a fantastic guitar passage that feels like a perfect payoff to the tension that preceded it, but the entirety of “All Good People” tries to be payoff and falls short. It’s not terrible by any means — its guitar breakdown toward the middle plays well live, and the simple lyrics are good audience participation fodder — but it lacks the substance of the two tunes that bookended the other side of the album.
“All Good People” is followed by the album’s biggest oddity, “A Venture,” a piece that feels like a holdover from the band’s earlier incarnation. Muted, centered largely around Kaye’s piano, and placing Howe in an almost entirely supporting role as rhythm guitarist, “A Venture” could easily have been a B-side from Time and a Word.
And finally, the album wraps with “Perpetual Change,” which feels almost vaguely like the new lineup’s take creating on the same rootsy atmosphere as “A Venture,” with unsurprisingly different results. Running nearly three times as long as “A Venture” and shifting between tempos and intensities, “Perpetual Change” starts loud and quickly downshifts before building back up to a more energetic tune. It also features Anderson singing in a call-and-response style with Howe and Squire, followed by a slow-tempo middle passage in which Howe’s bluesy guitar builds into a instrumental sequence that sees the band performing different melodies on different sides of the sound stage — stereo recording! so futuristic! — building up an interesting counterpoint theme that runs throughout the track.
Ultimately, though, despite the divided sound of “Perpetual Change,” the tune comes together in a harmonious whole. While it’s not one of Yes’ best-remembered tracks (you’ll almost never hear it on your favorite AOR station), it honestly does a perfect job of encapsulating the ethos of Yes at its best: Skilled musicians competing and conflicting with one another, but ultimately capable of coming together to create something wondrous. Ironically, the live version of “Perpetual Change” from Yessongs is badly derailed by a tedious drum solo by the exceptionally talented Bill Bruford. And that’s probably why Yes goes through so many members. In the end, the egos win.