Yes cranked out a great freshman album. In hindsight, it doesn’t sound much like the music that made the band rich and famous, but it possessed much of the technical, instrument-focused spirit that runs through their entire discography. Alas, as with so many bands, they fluffed the follow-up.
Time and a Word isn’t a bad album, but it definitely feels like a truly odd man out in Yes’ repertoire. I get what happened, and why it happened, but it doesn’t make the results any easier to stomach. Basically, this is the point where Yes — and really, by that I mean lead singer and lead writer Jon Anderson — began to long for a grander, more elaborate sound. But the band that created Yes wasn’t really geared for that. They were suited to create a lean, almost psychedelic audioscape built around Peter Banks’ sharp guitar playing. Anderson’s solution: Take an orchestra and bolt it on.
It’s a mess. Well, not entirely a mess. It makes for a rousing opening to the album with the band’s cover of Richie Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed,” to which they inexplicably grafted the strings from the overture to a Western. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
The combination of ’70s rock and big country strings gives “No Opportunity” a brisk, uptempo feel unlike anything on Yes. It’s catchy, but not quite poppish. It pushes the vocal harmonies forward — but at the same time, it pushes Banks down in the mix. And therein lies the album’s weakness.
In a lot of ways, Banks was the star player on Yes. His jazz-influenced style drove the album, transforming it into something more than standard rock. Despite his disciplined playing, he kept things feeling loose and improvisational. Time and a Word loses that fluidity, shackled as it is to the requirements of an outside orchestra. Banks sounds like a grounded bird, playing accompaniment for phoned-in melodies. It’s like musical green screen. The Star Wars prequel trilogy as rock.
The album works best when it’s dealing with lean arrangements such as “Then” — tunes with sparing use of strings, that could work just as well without them. Both “Then” and “Sweet Dreams”…
… stand out for drawing much of their power from the atmosphere created by the combination of Chris Squire’s bass and Tony Kaye’s electric organ. These two pieces, along with “Astral Traveler,” are frequently included in compilations of Yes’ early years — but it’s rarely the studio renditions that end up being presented but rather live, orchestra-free performances from BBC sessions.
For its part, “Astral Traveler” pretty much skips the orchestration altogether, allowing Banks’ guitar a moment to shine.
And yet Banks’ contributions to the piece aren’t the heroes, here; it’s again Squire and Kaye that come to the fore. The interplay of their keys and bass is intricate, mirroring the band’s vocal harmonies, and the structure of the song hints at the directions the band would be taking in the future — including the way it kind of dismisses Banks. By the end of the sessions for this album, he was out of the band altogether; the UK cover (above) was deemed too saucy for American music shops, so the U.S. cover consisted of a band portrait. By the time they cobbled it together, Banks was already out of the band.
It’s a shame that Yes couldn’t reconcile the direction they aspired to travel with the considerable skills Banks brought to the group. But that’s rock band growing pains for you, I suppose. Someone always gets a bum deal.