Symphonic Yes

4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Art rock automatically lends itself to orchestration. The Moody Blues first recorded with an orchestra in 1967 creating "Days of Future Past," which yielded their timeless signature tune, "Knights in White Satin." When the group hit a creative lull in the late 90s, they went back out on the road playing with local symphonies, re-imaging and reshaping their hits.

Continuing with the theory that playing with an orchestra can work.... Procol Harum had one of their biggest hits in 1972 with "Conquistador," which was taken from the album "Live With the Edmonton Orchestra." Sometimes incorporating an orchestra doesn't work... Emerson, Lake and Palmer's music was already bloated enough when they added a 70-piece orchestra to their act. Feeding, housing and transporting the lot nearly bankrupted the three millionaires.

If there was ever a group whose music was made for the orchestral treatment, it's Yes. The group experimented with an orchestra as early as 1969, recording their second album "Time and a Word" (released in 1970) with students from The Royal College of Music. Thirty years later, and with a much fatter catalogue behind them, they explore the idea again with "Symphonic Yes," a 14-cut, 2-CD orchestral extravaganza recorded in 2001 that proves rock and classical music can indeed inhabit the same space.

The question is does the orchestra embellish the songs enough to warrant the added payroll? The European Festival Orchestra turns the group's mystical ballads into poetic landscapes, so "Yes," adding 60 or so musicians to the band's epic compositions can help!

"Symphonic Live" begins with the swirling, sprawling "Overture," an excerpt from "I Give Love" (from the group's then current effort, "Magnification") that's played by the orchestra. Unlike the Moody Blues, who used pieces from their songs to create their orchestral overture, Yes' sign in piece is entirely original, and just as affecting.

As Yes steps from the shadows, you can hear the chirping crickets, burping frogs and shimmering synths that signify the start of "Close to the Edge." Most bands warm up with "Louie Louie;" Yes primes the engine with a twenty minute classic. The horns punctuate parts of the song that previously glided by, and having a more simpatico (and simply better) drummer in Alan White, rather than Bill Bruford's off-tempo belting, gives the arrangement life. Vocalist Jon Anderson is wired into the energized tempo, singing as well as he did when the band recorded the original version of the song in 1972. The hypnotic "I Get Up, I Get Down" section of the song still hypnotizes, as Anderson, Squire and Howe show that thirty plus years later they can still harmonize and sing counterpoint. Keyboard player for hire Tom Brislin is no Patrick Moraz or Rick Wakeman, but he effectively hits his fills when called upon.

A stylish string-washed intro that sounds as if it could have been part of "Gone With the Wind's" soundtrack is tacked onto the beginning of "Long Distance Runaround." It's too theatrical thematically and doesn't fit, despite its remarkable musicianship. This is one of the few instances where the orchestra and the band fight for space. But when the main body of the song hits Squire rips into his bass, flying up and down his instrument's neck, and Howe rings out stinging notes on guitar that prove this buoyant workout from "Fragile" still can go the distance.