When last we left the band Yes, they had just sacked talented guitarist Peter Banks and replaced him with the even more talented (not to mention versatile) Steve Howe. Ah, but their firing spree wasn’t over year. With Howe on board, the band hoped to expand its sound even more into becoming a five-piece orchestra, using standard rock instrumentation and a bit of studio multi-tracking to accomplish what they had to use an orchestra to awkwardly achieve on Time and a Word. The obvious place for improvement was at the keyboards; bassist Chris Squire already had the most melodic style in the industry, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more capable and nuanced drummer than Bill Bruford. But Tony Kaye’s keyboard work, though perfectly competent, relied heavily on piano and Hammond organ, with only occasional forays into the more adventurous world of synthesizers. And he liked it that way.
Alas that the band didn’t. For Fragile, the follow-up to the band’s “reboot” with The Yes Album, Kaye was nowhere to be heard. In his place, we had Rick Wakeman, a classically trained keyboardist whose virtuosity was matched only by his love of the flamboyant: His stage presence involved wearing a mirrored cape as he stood surrounded by a bank of keyboards: Hammonds and Moogs and Korgs and Mellotrons and an electric piano and even the occasional harpsichord.
Wakeman may have embodied prog rock excess in his stylings, but the man could play. This became evident early on in the album, though not right away. Instead, the band holds him in reserve: Fragile begins with future rock standard “Roundabout,” and after Howe’s gentle acoustic lead-in, the song builds into an unconventional rock song with the thick baseline driving the melody more than the Spanish guitar. Wakeman’s keys are nowhere to be heard for the first minute or so, eventually falling in as a sort of accent — a quick arpeggio of Hammond organ notes that fades in and just as quickly vanishes. It’s not until the chorus kicks in at about the 1:50 mark that Wakeman’s keys appear in earnest… and never really disappear. While he doesn’t take a lead line until late in the song, his supporting role sounds nothing like Kaye’s work did. Wakeman rarely goes for sustained chords or atmospheres; if he’s playing, he’s playing in earnest — and his ability to step back and go silent for stretches only serve to make his contributions all the more noticeable.
Wakeman also demonstrates an invaluable skill for the band: The ability to play two different lines at once. Where Howe’s rich guitar textures involve layered tracks from multiple sessions, Wakeman would frequently perform multiple parts simultaneously on two different keyboards in concert. But it’s not until the six-minute mark of “Roundabout” that you realize exactly why they brought Wakeman on board: His keyboard solo kicks in, and he dives into rapid swirls of notes, executing a brisk, high-speed finger workout that basically matches Howe’s guitar work for complexity and energy.
Finally, Yes has arrived.
That’s both good and bad. Fragile represents the culmination of everything the band has been striving for these past few albums, and the main tracks on the record — “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround,” and “Heart of the Sunrise” — became instant standards, tunes the band continues to perform live more than 30 years and a dozen albums later. Even the less-beloved “South Side of Sky” manages to weave a complex, constantly changing performance. On the other hand, Fragile also introduces us to the dark side of Yes, something that didn’t really make itself manifest on the previous albums: Overbearing pomposity and pretension.
After the strong start of “Roundabout,” we immediately fall into “Cans and Brahms,” 100 seconds of Rick Wakeman playing an awful-sounding rendition of Brahms’ 4th Symphony in E minor (3rd Movement) solo — and lest there be any doubt of the piece’s origins, the source material is right there in the title of the track. This is very important rock music, do you see! It is Art!
But hey, fair enough. Howe got his own solo on The Yes Album. I supped it’s only fair for Wakeman to have one, too… oh, and Anderson? And Squire? And Bruford? And Howe again.
The solos aren’t all terrible — Bruford’s “5 Per Cent for Nothing” is interesting, at least, in the way it takes a percussion track and forces everyone else in the band to perform drum bits on the other instruments. It’s also mercifully brief. Howe’s “Mood for a Day” is a pleasant Spanish guitar piece.
Still, of all the solo efforts, only Squire’s “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)” actually works as a Yes piece. It’s a fantastic segue from “Long Distance Runaround,” an intricately layered combination of multiple bass lines that surge and then ebb to give the other pieces space, ultimately reaching a vocal crescendo. It’s worth listening to a live performance of “The Fish” in which Squire tediously plays out each bass line individually over what feels like an absolute eternity just so you can pick out all the different parts that have been sandwiched together on the album.
The constant back and forth between group performances and solo joints makes for uneven listening at best, though in this modern age of digital audio players it’s a trivial task to strip “Cans and Brahms,” “We Have Heaven,” and “5 Per Cent for Nothing” from the album and restrict your listening to just the good stuff. And even if you suffer through the self-indulgent material, you’ll still go away from the album feeling good about life and music; it ends on one of the strongest notes imaginable, “Heart of the Sunrise.”
Alternating between hard-edged, bass-driven instrumental passages and lilting vocal sections, “Heart of the Sunrise” represents all that Yes aspired to be even more effectively than “Roundabout.” This is a truly collective work, short on flashy solos, with all five members of the band working together to create a superlative piece of music that rises, falls, builds again, explodes into action, crashes to a decisive halt… and that’s just the first quarter of the song. It’s also the only track on Fragile (well, besides “We Have Heaven”) in which Jon Anderson’s vocals feel like a lead instrument — when he sings on “Heart of the Sunrise,” the rest of the band plays with restraint so as not to overpower his delicate voice… except when he begins belting out the chorus (“Sharp — distance —how can the wind with so many around me?”), and the group builds to a crescendo together.
The song’s big instrumental break after Anderson’s first vocal passage is Yes at its best, with Howe and Wakeman taking the lead in alternating turns, and Squire and Bruford alternating playing along in unison and then counterpoint. The group performance subsides one last time for another verse, then rises together and ends with a final, decisive restatement of the main theme. It’s an 11-minute track built around a handful of musical motifs that never drags and never feels repetitive, exploring its themes in varied and interesting ways.
It’s a great finale to an album that’s about 90% brilliant by volume. While the 10% that’s cruft would grow considerably more prominent in future albums, for both good and ill Fragile is the album that Yes had been trying to make for several years.