No site devoted to discussing progressive rock music (among many other topics!) can ignore for long a true giant of the genre: YES. Dating from the late ‘60s, Yes was one of the first prog groups to achieve mainstream success. More than fifty years later, they are still active, so Spirit of Cecilia has decided to divide our discussion of them into three parts. This post will focus on their music beginning with their 1969 eponymously titled debut album through 1973’s live album Yessongs. Let’s join Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer, Arts Editor Tad Wert, and all around brilliant writer/musician Kevin McCormick as they attempt to analyze the music of one of the most influential and productive groups in rock history.
Brad: My earliest prog memory is of Yes. I’m the youngest of three boys (with my oldest brother being eight years older and my older brother being five years older), and I was exposed to all kinds of music at a very young age. In our house, we had classical, jazz, big band, musicals, and every variety of rock and pop. Sometime around 1973 or 1974 (the memory is somewhat fuzzy on the details–I was only five or six), I discovered the three-disk set of Yessongs. I was stunned–especially by the artwork which I studied like a talisman. Later, when I was older, I appreciated the music. But, at first, it was Roger Dean’s paintings that grabbed me fiercely. I count Yessongs as my first real prog love. And, love it was. It wouldn’t be until Kansas’s Leftoverature and ELO’s Out of the Blue that I found albums to rival Yessongs in terms of artistic beauty.
Yes is certainly my earliest progressive rock love, and, from them, thanks to my brothers, I began to listen to Kansas, Jethro Tull, and Genesis.
While Yes has now experienced a massive history–indeed, is there a rock band that can quite match it in terms of malleability and lovegevity?–it’s the period of the Yes Album through Going for the One that seems nearly flawless. To think about the albums of that period–The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales, Relayer, and Going for the One–is to be overwhelmed! Such innovation and harmonic glory, all wrapped into a neat package.
When I was younger, Fragile was my favorite of the Yes albums. But, ever since starting college, Close to the Edge has been my favorite. Indeed, not just my favorite Yes album, but a favorite album. If forced to rank it, it would compete (not necessarily defeat) Moving Pictures, The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Selling England by the Pound. If it’s fallen out of the top five for me, it’s only because Big Big Train released The Underfall Yard in 2009.
Kevin: Looking back at the early stages of Yes, it’s important to remember the context of the music of that time: it was all over the map. There was a collision of styles brought together by much of the experimentation and cultural upheaval of the 1960’s. Prior to this most musicians and audiences stayed in their respective corners.
We’re midway through the decade – thanks for joining us on our journey through the musical highlights of the 2010s!
In terms of music distribution, compact disc sales continued their steep decline. In 2000, 943 million CDs were sold. By 2015, that number had dropped to a little over 100 million. iTunes (and mp3s in general) was fading fast as Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music attracted listeners to their streaming platforms. What these trends mean for artists remains to be seen. As it gets harder to earn income from recorded music, will that discourage new artists from getting started?
On the other hand – stepping back and taking a longer view of history – perhaps we’ll look at the 20th century as an aberration in terms of the financial rewards many recording artists were able to garner. For most of recorded history, musicians and composers have had to struggle to survive, and even the the most gifted relied on wealthy patrons.
Fortunately for us in the 21st century, there is no shortage of great artists producing fine music, and 2015 was a good example. So here are the highlights of that year, in alphabetical order.
Casey Crescenzo has released five of his planned six acts. Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise is my favorite so far. As usual, there is everything but the kitchen sink here. “A Night On The Town” is the key track as it swings like a Gershwin composition before an exhilarating rock motif takes over.
Another year, and not one, but two Gazpacho releases. Molok is another dark concept album about the ancient demon utilizing modern technology for his nefarious purposes (I think). The fact that Molok has some of the prettiest music Gazpacho has ever made makes the concept go down easy. Night Of The Demon is a live set where the band really cooks. It’s a perfect introduction to them, if you’re curious.
Another year, and not one, but two Glass Hammer releases. The Breaking Of The World is another peak for them (how do they keep doing that?) with essential songs “Mythopoiea”, “North Wind”, and “Nothing, Everything”. Double Live is a terrific no-frills live performance. Susie Bogdanowicz and Carl Groves are excellent singing classics like “The Knight Of The North” and “If The Stars”, while the band rocks tighter than a tick.
A new band from Reading, England, I Am The Manic Whale sprang fully formed from the brain of Michael Whiteman (the band name is an anagram of his). This is an impressive debut with songs celebrating subjects ranging from 10,000 year clocks to the joys of parenting messy toddlers. “Princess Strange” is an inspiring take on cyberbullying. A true delight to listen to, and worthy of a large audience.
Veteran proggers Karnataka enlisted new singer Hayley Griffiths for Secrets Of Angels, and she really lit a fire under them. Opening track “Road To Cairo” has a killer middle eastern riff that is as satisfying as Led Zep’s “Kashmir”. The title track is also excellent.
The keyboardist and composer from Sound Of Contact struck out on his own and produced this wonderful Floydian sci-fi epic. Put it on, and imagine you are back in 1977, hearing a fantastic new prog masterpiece.
John Mitchell’s (Arena, Frost*, It Bites) first album in a trilogy about an astronaut lost in space. One of the best albums of the decade, Lonely Robot features John’s excellent vocals and stellar guitar work. Every song is memorable, but “Oubliette” and “Are We Copies?” are standouts.
The first album from The Neal Morse Band is one of the best of the decade. First, it is NOT a Morse solo record – this is a band effort with all members contributing to the songwriting. Second, Neal found a young multi-instrumentalist in Eric Gillette who is simply phenomenal and spurs everyone to new heights. “Alive Again” may just be the finest epic Neal has been involved in.
This was my favorite album of 2015, and I still listen to it fairly often. Riverside pulled together their metal and hard rock roots with Mariusz Duda’s gentler Lunatic Soul excursions, and came up with a winning mix. Add in some nods to ’80s new wave, and this is a very fine record.
A document of Rush’s 40th anniversary tour, where they played songs from every phase of their long career. The stage set began filled to the brim with props and effects, and they gradually shed them as they worked their way back to the first shows they played in a high school auditorium.
Subsignal’s The Beacons Of Somewhere was a highlight of 2015. Straight-ahead prog rock with awesome melodies. “Everything Is Lost” is an excellent song, as is the multi-part title track. Every time I listen to this marvelous album, I hear new details that delight.
Tesseract toned down the more extreme metal aspects of their music for Polaris, and that made a huge difference. Daniel Tompkins has always been a terrific vocalist, but on this album he really shines. “Dystopia” soars, and “Tourniquet” is a gorgeous cacophony of sound. “Phoenix” makes me want to drive 100 mph. A great album that earned Tesseract a well-deserved wider audience.
Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase caused the biggest stir in progworld in 2015. It was his breakthrough album, catapulting him into the mainstream, and deservedly so. That said, the subject is so emotionally harrowing (the true story of a young woman who died alone in her apartment, and wasn’t discovered for three years) that I have a hard time enjoying it.
A box set that contains recordings of seven concerts from 1972. Yes was touring in support of Close To The Edge, and this is a fascinating document of a young and hungry band at the peak of their powers. Yes, the setlist stays constant, but it is fun to hear how their performances evolved over a short period of time, and how they dealt with onstage setbacks, like a local FM radio station taking over their PA system!
Once again, I easily could have doubled the length of this post. I left off excellent albums by Bruce Soord, Downes Braide Association, Echlyn, Izz, and Perfect Beings, among others. Let us know what your Best of 2015 list is in the comments!
We are well into our retrospective of the decade now, and in this post we will take a look at 2014. It was another fine year for music as some artists made their debut, and some seasoned veterans continued winning streaks. Once again, my selections are presented in alphabetical order.
Dave Bainbridge is a phenomenal guitarist who led the Celtic-prog band Iona in the ’90s. Celestial Fire is a massive album featuring several guest vocalists, including Damien Wilson (Threshold, Headspace, et al.). Bainbridge’s style is inventive and fluid, reminiscent of Alan Holdsworth, and Celestial Fire provides ample proof that he is one of the finest guitarists working today.
Elbow has consistently produced excellent albums, and 2014’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything is one of their best. Singer Guy Garvey is blessed with a terrific voice, as well as a knack for literate lyrics. He broke up with his girlfriend while writing the songs for this album, and his emotional turmoil resulted in a beautiful work.
Second Nature proved that Flying Colors were a real group with a bright future. All the members of this prog “supergroup” meshed perfectly, and they came up with one the most enjoyable listens of the year. The positive chemistry between them is obvious from the opening song, “Open Up Your Eyes” through the closing epic, “Cosmic Symphony”.
Gazpacho released one of the darkest albums of 2014 with Demon. It purported to chronicle the tribulations of a demon hunter. The packaging and artwork is extraordinary – it looks like an old notebook filled with cryptic messages and arcane drawings. The music is excellent as well, creating an ominous sense of foreboding. Don’t listen to this one alone!
From darkness to light. Glass Hammer’s Ode To Echo is one of their finest albums from their long career. Vocalist Jon Davison transitioned out and Carl Groves took over with the welcome return of Suzie Bagdanowicz. Groves brings an interesting lyrical perspective to songs like “Garden Of Hedon” and “Ozymandias”. Song for song, I think Ode To Echo is one of Glass Hammer’s finest efforts, combining their pop sensibilities (“The Poropoise Song”) with their prog chops (“Misantrog”).
You have to give thanks for bands like IQ, who have proudly waved the prog flag since 1981. The Road Of Bones is a 2-disc set that is uniformly excellent. While the tone of the album is quite dark, the strong musicianship and songs make The Road Of Bones a very enjoyable experience.
Poland’s newpaperflyhunting made a splash in 2014 with Iceberg Soul. Postpunk minimalism, angular guitars, spacey vocals, and progressive themes all combine to make a very unique sound. You can buy their entire discography at bandcamp for less than $5! Give them a try if haven’t heard them.
The cover of North Atlantic Oscillation’s third album features a steampunkish compass/timepiece thingamajig, which is an apt visual for their music. Harmonies hearkening back to classic Beach Boys, crunching grungy guitars, massive bass lines, and delicate keyboard flourishes evoke rock’s distant past and indicate a promising way forward. Everything NAO has released is top-notch and utterly unique.
Based in Los Angeles and led by guitarist Johannes Luley, Perfect Beings debuted in 2014 with this delightful album. Sounding at times like long lost sons of the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Perfect Beings are unabashedly progressive while keeping their feet firmly planted in melodic rock. One of the best debuts of the decade.
Everything clicked on The Pineapple Thief’s tenth album, Magnolia. It contains a diversity of styles while remaining a cohesive work. It’s more well-produced pop than out-there prog, and that can be a good thing. “Alone At Sea” and “The One You Left To Die” are highlights.
The final album from one of the true giants of rock. It consists of outtakes and jams from when Richard Wright was still alive with some David Gilmour vocals added on top. Pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel, compared to their earlier work.
A tremendous album by the long-absent prog supergroup Transatlantic. Kaleidoscope sounds like they never left, even though their last album, The Whirlwind was released in 1999. Kaleidoscope contains all the elements that make Transatlantic so special – ballads, huge epics, and outstanding musicianship. Opener “Into The Blue” is a fantastic song, as well as the closing title cut.
Coming off Ultravox’s triumphant Brill!ant, Midge Ure released the gentler Fragile in 2014. A true solo effort, Ure played, sang and produced everything. “Star Crossed” is one of the best songs he has ever written.
John Wesley is Steven Wilson’s go-to man when he needs a guitarist for his touring band. he is also a talented singer and songwriter in his own right, as Disconnect amply illustrates. Alex Lifeson even drops by to contribute a nifty guitar solo. Best track: “Mary Will”.
We finish our look back to 2014 with a somewhat controversial album: Yes’ Heaven and Earth. Jon Davison left Glass Hammer to handle vocals for Yes, and he assisted with the songwriting on this record. Fans’ reactions to it were mixed. Personally, I think it is a fine record. It doesn’t come close to their ’70s classics, but that is an unrealistic expectation. When taken as a pleasant musical offering, it is a solid effort.
So that completes our survey of the 2014 musical landscape. We are halfway through the decade! As always, let us know your favorites from this year in the comments. Thanks for reading!
In our continuing series of posts celebrating the music of the 2010’s, here is Chapter 2: 2011.
2011 was a relatively quiet year music- and prog-wise. I’ve chosen to highlight ten albums that have survived the test of time, and one or two might surprise. Once again, they are listed in alphabetical order.
A Steven Wilson side project with Aviv Geffen, Welcome To My DNA is their third release. This was a very nice, radio-friendly collection of songs (with one terrible misstep: Geffen’s “Go To Hell”). With the benefit of hindsight, one can see the influence this project had on Wilson’s excellent To The Bone years later.
Casey Crescenzo took a break from his six-act arc of albums (still in progress, BTW) to record this nine EP collection of songs inspired by the color spectrum. It begins with black, and works through the rainbow to end at white. It sounds insufferably pretentious, but it works. Dear Hunter manages to master every conceivable style of rock, from hard-core industrial (black) to pleasant folk (yellow). If you missed this set, check it out. It is an amazing achievement.
Duran Duran were always far more than ’80s pinup boys. Simon LeBon is a fine lyricist, and their melodies stand the test of time. All You Need Is Now is a surprisingly strong album, where they come close to the peaks they reached in their heyday, after spending years wandering in the wilderness.
The second Glass Hammer album to feature vocalist Jon Davison, and it builds on the strengths of 2010’s If. Every track is a winner, with “To Someone” a particular highlight. Once again, the cover art is a hoot.
Neal Morse continued chronicling his conversion to Christianity, focusing this time on a miraculous healing of his infant daughter. As expected with Morse, the music is excellent as endlessly satisfying melodies pour forth. The bonus disc contains three of his finest compositions: “Absolute Beginners”, “Supernatural”, and the 26-minute epic “Seeds Of Gold”.
Radiohead releases are few and far between, so when King Of Limbs showed up in 2011, it caused a stir. The first five tracks are dominated by relentless rhythm – maybe they’d been listening a lot to Philip Glass and Steve Reich? Anyway, it isn’t until “Codex” that a real melody shows up. “Give Up The Ghost” and “Separator” close things out on a relatively gentle note.
A DVD/CD set that documented Rush’s performance in Cleveland. Rush has released a lot of concert videos, and this is one of their best. They weren’t touring in support of a specific album, so they cover songs from every phase of their long career, and even preview a couple from the not-yet-released Clockwork Angels.
When I first heard this group, I was very excited. They managed to meld Devo-like rhythms to XTC-worthy tunes while creating a sound all their own. This was the strongest debut album of 2011, and is still a joy to listen to.
Steven Wilson’s second solo album, and it put to rest any hopes of Porcupine Tree working together again. This was an ambitious two-disc set that ran a gamut of styles. Wilson is an inspired composer of seductive melodies (“Deform To Form A Star”), and he isn’t afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve, i.e. late-’60s Beach Boys or King Crimson. Like a lot of double albums, it might have been stronger as a single disc.
Just when you think you’ll never hear anything new worth hearing from Yes, they surprise you with a strong album like Fly From Here. This one featured vocalist Benoit David, from the Canadian group Mystery, and it included Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes from Drama days. One of their best late-career efforts.
And that wraps up our musical look back to 2011. Not the most productive year with regard to prog, but just wait until 2012 – the floodgates are about to open!
For any one who has followed progressive rock over the past twenty-plus years, the name Tim Morse means something. Something very good. Something very special. Not only is Morse the author of one of the very best books ever published about Yes—Yes Stories: Yes In Their Own Words—but he’s a serious and truly gifted musician in his own right.
His latest cd, Tim Morse III, is nothing but a delight and a pleasure. Morse is, to put it at its most basic, classy. He has taste. A lot of it.
True to prog, he can jump from style to style as well, all with elegance and ease. Tim Morse III has hints of Yes, Big Big Train, Lifesigns, Genesis, Glass Hammer, Steely Dan, Dave Brubeck, and others. When he needs a keyboard jam, there’s a keyboard jam. When he needs a guitar to soar, the guitar soars. While his vocal range isn’t huge, it’s quite solid, and he knows how to use his voice to its best. Heck, he even gives us cow bell on track six, the wonderfully nostalgic “My Ally.”
Most importantly, though, it’s clear that Morse loves what he does. There’s an infectious optimism to his music that is absent in so much recent prog music. Without naming names, too many musicians have gone down the path of cynicism, outrage, and naval gazing. In short, they have become obsessed with their own worries and fears, calling their bloviatings about politics, art. It’s not, and it’s a sad moment in prog history.
Even when Morse is dark—such as on the second track, “Labyrinth,” or on the fifth track, “The Mary Celeste”—he doesn’t leave the listener there. We see the darkness, maybe even experience it, and, then, we move on. The themes of this album are not some unrelenting and unremitting tenebrous existence but but a life of joy, forgiveness, love, and redemption.
Frankly, having spent way too much time over the last six months watching the news cycle and the social media circus that devolves from it, I’m finding Tim Morse III a breath of alpine air, clear, cool, and wholesome.
Actually, to be even more blunt, Morse’s music makes me want to be a better father, a better professor, and a better writer.