Thursday, March 11, 2010



Yes indeed, by late-1971 the world was certainly ready for these guys. The smoke had begun to clear from the cultural explosion of the 1960s and it was now time to move full speed ahead into the shiny new decade. And Yes was just the band to lead the charge. Having gradually evolved their sound with the first two Yes albums, they ultimately established the classic Yes template on their third album, The Yes Album. The formula went something like this: Extended, multi-section songs with mind-jarring twists and turns; played with the dexterous expertise of musicians like nimble-fingered guitarist Steve Howe, fingers flying all over the place; firmly anchored by Chris Squire’s Rickenbacker bass thump, offset by drummer Bill Bruford’s busy tapping; all cushioned by Tony Kaye’s thick Hammond organ and the ever-chirping high-pitched vocals of Jon Anderson. Yet, something still wasn’t quite right. The expansive new music being prepared for Fragile demanded a broader multi-colored sound palette, one that organist Kaye just wasn’t providing. So, out with Kaye and in with keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman, complete with organ, piano, synthesizer and mellotron among other sundry ivories to tickle. Now, for those who can’t quite stomach hearing lead-off track “Roundabout” played yet again on classic rock radio, put it into proper perspective. At the time, “Roundabout” was totally unique, a breath of fresh air featuring all that was good about Yes. The strong melody gallops along on the back of Squire’s rollicking bass riff, with Howe’s guitar piercing in and out while rookie member Wakeman let’s loose with a couple scorching organ solos – all decorated with those choir-boy vocals and harmonies. Played to death on FM radio? Sadly, yes. But still an amazing, timeless track when heard in the right frame of mind. Sprinkled throughout Fragile are little solo snippets featuring individual members doing their own thing. But it is the two other Yes epics that ensure this album's iconic status. “South Side of the Sky” is probably as heavy as Yes ever got, with its churning verses and soaring choruses interrupted by Wakeman’s stately grand piano interlude and those ethereal Yes harmonies, before chugging back into the ominous, ice-cold main riff. Then there is “Heart of the Sunrise,” the first true Yes epic, setting the stage for many epics to come. The massive King Crimson-ish opening guitar/bass line grabs your attention much like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat might. This shock gives way to the first of appearance of Wakeman’s ghostly and gorgeous mellotron on a Yes album, as the spooky string-section-from-another-planet floats and drifts for a brief yet beautiful pause in the intensity – before the crazy riff kicks back in and delivers your ears to Anderson’s angelic, gentle first verse:

“Love comes to you
And you follow
Lose one
On to the heart of the sunrise
Sharp, distance
How can the wind
With its arms all around me”

Not sure what it all means (a common reaction to Jon Anderson’s lyrics) but it sounds nice. The arrangement meanders from verses to chorus, before segueing through Wakeman’s quirky synthesizer and piano sections and the recurring head-banger of an opening riff, before a grand climax in which Anderson is literally singing his heart out. If the word “masterpiece” could be applied to anything in the entire Yes cannon, it should be tagged onto this near-perfect 11-minute slice of prog sweetness. And a fitting finale it is. Fragile was a huge artistic, commercial and critical success, an album at the right time (1971, though released here in early ’72) and in the right place (the USA, with an audience enthusiastically willing to jump on the prog bandwagon). According to some sources, Fragile spent an astonishing 46 weeks on the Billboard album charts, peaking at #4. The first Yes album to feature the fantasy artwork of Roger Dean (he would create the next five Yes album covers), Fragile got everything right and propelled the band into the upper stratosphere of early-‘70s rock stardom and stadium-sized gigs. But, much like the planet exploding into pieces on the back of the album cover, Yes would soon face a splintering of its own personnel – not to mention a rapidly changing musical landscape, with attitudes soon to become highly critical of anything remotely connected with Progressive Rock.

Essential Tracks: “Roundabout” “South Side of the Sky” “Long Distance Runaround” “Heart of the Sunrise”

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