July 2011 brought about the release of Fly From Here, the 20th studio album by veteran prog rockers Yes, and their first since 2001′s Magnification. Despite this gap in new material, however, Yes was far from inactive, touring with an orchestra in 2002 and welcoming virtuoso keyboardist Rick Wakeman back into the fold for the 2004 tour. The band was making plans to tour in 2008 with Wakeman’s son Oliver on keyboards when disaster struck–vocalist Jon Anderson was hospitalized with respiratory failure, and was unable to handle the rigors of touring. Of course, lineup changes have been a constant throughout the band’s history (they have never recorded more than two studio albums in a row with the same personnel), but Anderson is considered by many to be the face of the band as the lead singer, primary lyricist and the originator of the ideas behind such landmark prog albums as Close to the Edge and Relayer, and had only been absent from 1980′s Drama. Faced with either cancelling or moving back the tour, or soldiering on, the band did the only logical thing and replaced Anderson with a singer bassist Chris Squire saw on Youtube. The singer, Benoit David, had fronted Quebec tribute band Close to the Edge for quite a few years, and filled in for Anderson fairly capably on the tour, which was ironically cut short when Squire (who as the only founding member still in the band controls the use of the band name) fell sick.
After Squire’s recovery he, David, Oliver Wakeman, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White returned to touring and also entered the studio to begin work on the album. Reactions from fans was decidedly mixed–some was willing to give this new lineup a shot, others were fine with David filling in for a tour but weren’t crazy about the idea of him fronting the band long-term, and a vocal segment of fans (including Rick Wakeman) who felt that Yes wasn’t Yes without Jon Anderson (wonder which band they attribute Drama to, heh heh). The shakeup was far from over, however. The band decided that for the album’s epic length suite, they would record “We Can Fly From Here,” a song which was played on the Drama tour but had never been recorded by the band in the studio, so they brought in the singer from that era, Trevor Horn, to produce. The former Buggle (of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame) had also produced the band’s 1983 blockbuster 90125, so he seemed a natural fit, but further fragmentation was caused when the band replaced Oliver Wakeman with Drama and Buggles keyboardist Geoff Downes, who had also played with Steve Howe in Asia. The upshot was that poor Oliver suddenly found himself out of a job, although some of his work remains on the album, and he is credited with co-writing “Into the Storm.” The addition of Horn and Downes caused excitement among some corners of the Yes fan community, including yours truly, who were hoping for a worthy followup to Drama. Another portion was dreading the album for exactly the same reasons.
Thankfully, the band did a great job on this album. From the opening strains of “Overture” to the final notes of “Into the Storm,” it’s clear that the group put a lot of effort into making these songs sound exactly right, and giving the fans an album that added to the band’s already extremely impressive legacy. Throughout the album the band plays tightly and skillfully, and while they certainly take quite a few solos, none of them seem overly self-indulgent; and to be honest if you find this kind of thing annoying Yes probably isn’t the band for you. Chris Squire’s basslines are as strong as ever, and Steve Howe shows why he is considered a virtuoso with his varied playing throughout the album. Geoff Downes’ synth tones aren’t intrusive or annoying at all, and although he is not as brilliant a player as Rick Wakeman or Patrick Moraz, he more than gets the job done here. Oliver Wakeman’s main contribution to the playing is a very nice solo on “Hour of Need,” which sounds like vintage Yes. The only member who slightly disappoints is drummer Alan White, who just keeps time here and nothing more. It’s not that he’s bad–far from it–but he shows little of the creativity in drumming that marks his best work. Benoit David, then, was an extremely pleasant surprise. While his falsetto is a pretty damn good imitation of Anderson’s natural range–nowhere near as good as the real thing, but it gets the job done; but the best news is that his natural range is pretty close to none other than Trevor Horn, which adds a nice aura of familiarity to the proceedings. Obviously, it would be ideal if Jon were able to rejoin the band in the future, but if his health problems or lingering resentment over the way he was replaced keep that from happening, I would be perfectly happy with Benoit continuing as vocalist from here on out.
Understandably, a large portion of discussion of the album must go towards the six-song, 24-minute “Fly From Here” suite, which if released as a single track would actually be the longest in the band’s history, which is no small feat. Due to its origins as a song for a new wave keyboard duo, the suite is significantly poppier than the songs that make up Tales from Topographic Oceans, which has disappointed some prog fans, but is a good move for just about everyone else. As someone who likes and respects Tales, but doesn’t even remotely love it, I am perfectly OK with this. The main portion of the suite are made up of three separate Buggles songs, “We Can Fly From Here,” “Sad Night at the Airfield,” and “Madman At the Screens” (two of which were released on the 2010 reissue of their final album, 1981′s Adventures in Modern Recording, which I have not heard), but are conceptually linked here through repetition the “We Can Fly From Here” theme. I don’t know if this set of songs was selected for recording with Benoit David’s vocal similarity to Horn in mind, or if it was just a lucky coincidence, but he sounds great here. While most of the suite is an adaption of Buggles tunes, the “Bumpy Ride” section is a cool little guitar section by Steve Howe, that adds to the suite’s prog credentials. Overall, the suite is no “Close to the Edge” or “Gates of Delirium,” but I’m definitely satisfied.
The second half of the album (the album seems divided like a vinyl record) is pretty good as well. The Squire-sung “The Man You’ve Always Wanted Me To Be” is a very straightforward pop love song and might make some Yes fans cringe (it was written for an aborted solo album), but it does have a good melody and I like Chris’ singing on the track, so it can stick around. “Life on a Film Set,” another Buggles composition, is a highlight, with Benoit at his most Horn-like and some terrific playing. I have no idea what the fuck the “riding a tiger” lyric is supposed to mean, but it’s not like Yes lyrics are known for making a whole lot of sense and, hey, it’s better than “I Am a Camera.” “Hour of Need,” then, suffers from having Howe-written lyrics that are rather vague and generic in their “people are suffering, we need to help them” attitude, but it does have great Anderson-like vocals from David and some surprisingly effective Howe backing vocals, as well as that previously mentioned Wakeman solo, and “Solitaire” is Steve’s acoustic piece, and while it may not be as amazing as “Clap” or “Mood from a Day,” it’s always a joy to hear Steve playing acoustic. It might be slightly overlong, but I like it.
The highlight, though, is the closer, a driving, rocking, group written number entitled “Into the Storm.” Everything about the track, from the intro where everybody gets a chance to strut their stuff, to Benoit’s heavenly singing in the “armies of angels” section, to Howe’s awesome solo leading into the “We can fly” reprise in the coda, everything about the track works, and it is a highlight in the post-Going for the One Yes discography. In conclusion, Yes has overcome all the turnover in their lineup to create an album that may not stand up against Fragile or Close to the Edge, but is still a late career highlight, and if all over-60s rockers created albums like this, I believe the term dino rock would not have such a negative connotation. I am excited to see where this particular version of Yes goes…and can only wonder at what changes might come before the next album.