- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004


Ultimate Yes: The 35th Anniversary Collection

Rhino Records

At this moment of rock music’s great game of action-reaction, Yes has picked the worst possible time for a 35th anniversary.

The flavor of the day is garage classicism, a la the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Kills. Not only have synthesizers become passe in these circles; even the elemental bass guitar has become optional.

Yet here is one of progressive rock’s vanguard bands — certainly the longest-lived of the genre — introducing a new generation to the glories of exclusionary art-pop and eight-minute odysseys that borrow more from Wolfgang Mozart than from Howlin’ Wolf.

Geragos, Cochran, Bailey and Dershowitz — whoops, wrong dream team. Make that singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White, who are gathering steam for a busy 2004. Plans call for a concert tour, multiple TV appearances and the just-released “Ultimate Yes” collection, which houses on three discs the band’s best-known songs plus a few novelties such as the brand-new “Show Me” and Mr. Squire’s solo-bass adaptation of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”

Yes was spawned among a very ambitious pack of late-‘60s British bands such as Pink Floyd and Cream. They were musicians’ musicians, and they weren’t shy about showing off. With 1971’s “The Yes Album,” after two albums of uncertain exploration, the band found a broad audience for its complex, highly embellished music.

Unlike the decidedly American progressives of Steely Dan, who nurtured their inner folk and funk for at least a few years, the virtuosos of Yes wanted to have it all, every which way.

They wanted to grab the baton of experimentalism from the imploded Beatles, show off instrumental prowess matching that of bands like Cream, fashion vocal harmonies worthy of the Byrds and write lyrics as cosmically literate as Isaac Asimov’s fiction. Yes and its ilk looked down their noses at simple three-chord rock. That was for amateurs and hacks.

That same proud sensibility — you could call it snobbery — has always informed elements of the jazz world, but for several years in the ‘70s, it infiltrated pop and rock. After Yes came King Crimson (which took on Yes drummer Bill Bruford), Genesis and the Alan Parsons Project — until the punks stormed the Bastille and guillotined the high-falutin’ regime.

With the benefit of hindsight, Yes still seems, well, a tad too far-flung. Pretentious, if you must. And yet, it’s impossible not to at least appreciate the thoughtful craft of songs such as “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround.”

On “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Going for the One,” Yes proved it could rock when it put its mind to it. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say when it didn’t put its mind to it.

After years of personnel comings and goings and commercial ups and downs, the band pulled off a surprising comeback with 1983’s Trevor Horn-produced “90125.” This is where Yes gave Styx a run for its money. (Yes, folks, it was the ‘80s.)

Included here are the riff-based hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (the guitarist is Trevor Rabin, not Mr. Howe), “Leave It” and “It Can Happen” — all of which received extensive radio airplay. Yes’ follow-up four years later, “Big Generator,” yielded the hit “Rhythm of Love.” A remixed version of the title track — which tried and failed to repeat the magic of “Owner” — emerges on this collection.

What’s disappointing about late-period Yes is that the band, for once, seemed slightly embarrassed about its playing abilities and yet couldn’t resist indulging them. It was the worst of both worlds.

There are detectable kernels of inspiration on, for example, “The Calling,” from 1994’s “Talk,” but they’re buried beneath curdled layers of overproduction and dazzling guitar arpeggios that have nothing to do with the song’s essential groove. There are overdubs upon overdubs built into tracks already busy with ego and bombast.

That’s why “Ultimate’s” third disc is more satisfying than most such bonuses. Acoustic versions of “Roundabout,” “South Side of the Sky” and “Australia” let Yes show off its chops just fine — without the soaring temptations of electronic amplification.

As players, the members of Yes were peerless. Songwise, the band may not have been the best of its breed — for our money, Pink Floyd takes that prize — but Yes was far more accessible than King Crimson or early Genesis ever were.

Will “Ultimate Yes” win any new fans? Probably not. The problem is, you can’t fit a symphony in a garage.

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