By Martin Popoff
Through the 40-plus-year history of Yes, we’ve seen all manner of wrinkles and folds, all the messiness that comes with a sprawling, living organism, all the ins and outs of personal relationships that come with a band so complex one couldn’t imagine them as anything other than some sort of brain trust or collective.
That tradition continues on the band’s 20th studio album, “Fly From Here.” As the band’s first new music in 10 years, the album carries the distinction of capping the longest run of the band’s career between records.
This languid sojourn likely wouldn’t have happened if lead vocalist, chief lyricist and spiritual godhead of the band Jon Anderson had not been struck with severe respiratory failure in 2008. Despite recovering, Anderson is not back in the band. Montrealer Benoit David, known for his work with his band Mystery and the Yes tribute act Close To The Edge, took on the lead vocal role.
“Fly From Here” is also very much about the meeting of additional creative cells besides David — namely the core of the band, Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White, in confluence with more-than-producer Trevor Horn, his engineer Tim Weidner and Horn’s chosen keyboardist and past co-Yes member, Geoff Downes. It’s all sort of a reprise of the gleaming “90125” era, crossed with “Drama” (a rare Anderson miss, with Horn singing), in the accounting-firm spirit of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe and the crowded “Union” album. Ergo, here goes “Fly From Here,” set on a tripod of the old English eccentrics, the techies and a Canadian who sings like Trevor Horn.
“There wasn’t really a meeting, really,” says drummer Alan White on the decision to hire David. “We just passed this video around to each other and said, ‘Well, we should give this guy a try, put his voice with us and see if he’s that guy who fits in with what Yes is.’ And we met and played for a while and just all talked, and basically said, ‘Yeah, let’s just do it; let’s see how it develops.’
“Jon got really sick, and when he got better, he didn’t really want to work,” continues White. “When he came back, he didn’t really want to do any of the arduous touring that we’ve been used to. So we had these tours lined up, and then this situation turns up, and Jon needed a while to get himself well and is now doing his solo show. I don’t think he wants to do any kind of grinding kind of three-in-a-row, flying-every day touring – that kind of stuff which I just finished doing (laughs).”
The band had to make that move, because the band had been stagnant for about four years, adds stun-bassist Chris Squire.
“We were about to go on tour with Jon in 2008, and then he took a turn for the worse with his respiratory problem. And so at that point, really, we had to decide that if we were going to carry on with Yes as a live, working unit, we would have to bring somebody else in.”
So is the break due to Anderson not wanting to tour?
“Well, that’s the point. It was a bit of a toss-up, really. I mean, we could have held on longer for him, but it seemed like we weren’t really moving forward, especially not doing any new music, and not doing anything to keep the Yes machine moving forward — you know, the ifs, ands or buts about whether he wanted to stay on, but not tour … who knows?” Squire said. “I can’t say what his physical ability would have been. But it’s worked out the way it has worked out.”
It’s worked out splendidly, judging by the reception for “Fly From Here,” half of which is comprised of the massive 25-minute title track presented in six movements.
“Fly From Here” actually has its origins in a shorter piece of the same name from back in the 1980s, a Trevor Horn concoction, that, although played live, never found its way onto “Drama” or subsequent hit records like “90125” or “Big Generator.”
“Well, the whole thing didn’t originate from there,” explains Squire. “I think that was just a connection from when I asked Trevor Horn to produce the album. The connection that we first had was that we did have this unfinished business, that we never had done a proper studio version of the original six-minute song, ‘Fly From Here.’ So that’s how we started off, weaving that together, and then as we went on, we didn’t just want to emulate a better version of what we had done in 1980. We wanted to turn it into a much larger, Yes, long-form, piece of music, and that’s when we decided to have ‘Fly From Here’ brought into existence as a suite. Some of the material, I think, hails back to those days, that Trevor and Geoff had been working on, but other parts are just brand-new stuff that we had come up with in the studio. So it was a mix.”
The album revisits Yes’ roots.
“I guess we’re venturing back into what we did quite a while ago, which is have an album that is somewhat of a concept,” White said. “It’s a suite, basically — we haven’t had a piece of music that’s 23 minutes, or thereabouts, for quite a long time. I think the production is great on it. I like Trevor’s way of dealing with production, because he just seems to know how he wants things to sound. He gets a lot of clarity, especially coming from my point of view, which is the drums and the rhythm section. And that’s really important. Tim Weidner, the engineer, works very closely with Trevor, and he has a lot of great ideas, as well. He’s done lots of albums with Trevor, and they pool their thoughts together. But there are no real big tricks to anything. It’s just having an ear for what it should sound like for a band like Yes in 2011.”
Although Anderson is not around lyrically, “Fly From Here” retains the band’s deep, enigmatic sensibilities, with most of the lyrics coming from Horn’s mind, with some input from Squire and David.
“Quite a lot of it was a concept done by Trevor Horn,” clarifies White, “but in addition to that, not so much Steve, but Chris, actually, got more involved with Trevor in the writing of the main track. And, of course, there’s Geoff Downes on keyboards, so we have some really, really great chords. And then Steve had a solo guitar piece that he wanted to present, and then he also had one song, and Chris had one song, and then we all wrote a thing called ‘Into The Storm’ together, so it’s a mixture, really. Benoit … he’s not writing lyrics so much, but he was contributing — his voice sounds really good on the album. His voice is very, very similar to Jon Anderson, but not exactly like Jon. Some people say if you close your eyes, you can see Jon.”
The topic of Benoit seems to be a bit of a head-scratcher, much like situations encountered by others in rock history. Why would disciplined, ambitious guys like Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons hire Ace Frehley and Peter Criss? Why would a high-stakes band like Deep Purple go with a David Coverdale or a Tommy Bolin, each with glaring shortcomings? Why would Iron Maiden go with Blaze? And why would Yes go with Benoit?
“Originally, when he got in the band, he said he’d never written a thing in his life,” Squire admitted. “He said he didn’t know how to. So I’ve been encouraging.”
So in addition to hiring the first guy the band heard, the new singer doesn’t write. Irony, anyone?
“Well, yeah,” Squire laughs. “Yeah … we really wanted him to be able to perform the kind of vocal arrangements of Jon Anderson — let’s be specific. But funny thing is, on the new album, like, a lot of people have said, Benoit actually sounds a bit more like Trevor Horn than he does Jon Anderson. But to give him his own credit, I think he did very well on this album, and you know, I think he sounds like Benoit David.”
Squire is quick to note Anderson’s literary legacy in the band and the Yes “world view” in general.
“Of course, Jon Anderson was responsible for a lot of those lyrics, and you know, I’m not going to say that a lot of them didn’t mean very much, because Jon’s philosophy was more about how things sounded, and so it was more the sound of the vocal that he was trying to always write for, as opposed to the actual logical sense of the lyric,” Squire said. “And so, for years, of course, I was singing harmonies with sentences that didn’t mean a thing, really, but sounded good (laughs). But sure, obviously, Yes’ philosophy, by the name alone, was always to have a positive influence. We weren’t as concerned with the dark side of rock ’n’ roll as a lot of artists are. And a lot of people like that about us. And, so, yeah, Yes always had that philosophy — hope and a brighter future.”
“A lot of the older material of the band, over the years, was driven, in that sense, by Jon,” concurs White. “It was his exploration of spiritualism and surreal situations, and using his voice like an instrument more than anything, with the whole mixture, where he let the audience translate what it meant. So it could conjure up a lot of different things. So, Yes kind of had that mystique about it, from the early days. The message of the band is simply that we keep on going and try to create music that no one else is playing. I mean, you can always tell on the radio when a Yes song comes on.”
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