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.
"The Gates of Delirium" has always been one of Yes' most controversial songs. You either like it or hate it, and there's certainly enough music to decide - twenty three minutes plus. I've come to appreciate this violent, snarling Norse-themed song of Armageddon because it was one of Patrick Moraz's few recordings with the band, even though the middle section was chaotic and coarse. With Patrick a distant memory, the orchestra steps in his place with thunderous brio. "Delirium" is supposed to sound like an ancient conflict, and with the strings stabbing and lancing against Howe's sharp riffs, Squire's neck-wringing bass and Brislin's nightmarish "Lord of the Rings" runs, the song retains its tension. The coda, "Soon" is as breathtaking as the rest of is violent, with Howe's darting slide, Anderson strumming prophetically on acoustic and the orchestra providing a soaring, heavenly background, highlighted by the harpist's angelic plucking.
One of Steve Howe's conditions for staying with Yes was getting his own solo spot. His acoustic guitar solo that ends the first CD is a grab bag of Victorian, classical and folk music, much like his composition "Mood for a Day," which appeared on the "Fragile" album. It's appropriate that he gives the appreciative audience a taste of "Mood" in his medley of Indy 500-paced playing.
The second CD contains the bulk of what you might expect to hear at a Yes concert. "Starship Trooper" retains Howe's glistening leads, with the added attraction of White's forceful time keeping. Yes seldom deviates from the script - you can't "jam" on an intricate piece because the players are likely to get lost - but the band amuses their muses by taking a few liberties with Squire fattening his bass lines and Howe funking up his playing.
The title track from "Magnification" is another ready made symphonic treat. It's one of the few instances where the orchestra is a lead component rather than a backing element. Squire's bass is more prominent in "And You and I," than in the original studio cut, and Howe donates one of his solo sections so the orchestra can soften and sweeten the package, which they do admirably.
"Ritual" (a/k/a "Nu Sommes Du Soliel") is the CD's masterpiece, twenty eight, yes, twenty eight minutes! It's worth every intricate second. Yes has always aspired to write performance pieces along the lines of the great classical composers, which often last as long as half an hour. Trust me, I worked for an orchestra and some of the compositions they played were so long I felt I needed a shift change. Not so with "Ritual." Like many of Yes' marathon masterpieces, "Ritual" is broken up into movements. There's a quiet intro followed by a section that charges through the speakers like a thoroughbred, plus several Howe-led rapier solos, Squire backed keyboard moments and a somber ending. "Ritual" is notable for its percussion army manned by White, Brislin, Anderson and Squire (more on that later). Squire's fleet-fingered bass solo gets the crowd whistling and clapping. When a sedate Yes audience roars with approval, you know something monumental is happening.
Anything that follows "Ritual" takes a chance at being anti-climatic, but Yes tears into three of their best known songs, "I've Seen All Good People," "Owner of a Lonely Heart," and "Roundabout," with the orchestra freshening the arrangements. "I've Seen All Good People" remains a stomping crowd pleaser, although Anderson sounds a little out of breath at the end. Given Howe's hatred of Yes during the Trevor Rabin on guitar period (after all, he wasn't there), its surprising the group could coax him into playing "Owner of a Lonely Heart." "Owner" retains the 80's shock sound effects (which sound pre-recorded), but the beat is a little more relaxed making it sound less gimmicky, and Howe gets to add one of his rapid-fire signature solos at the end. Take that, Trevor. "Roundabout" is Brislin and Howe's showpiece, and the former infuses his Hammond with high energy acrobatics.
One of my few carps is the sound of White's drums. They tend to run flat. In my opinion, White is ten times the percussionist original drummer Bill Bruford was. It's too bad his kit sometimes muffles his muscle.
Timing is everything. When Yes planned to tour this year without Jon Anderson in celebration of 40 years in the biz, ardent fans were appalled. The band got away with touring without Anderson once before, promoting the surprisingly cogent, high quality "Drama" album, replacing Anderson with former Buggles singer Trevor Horn. This time around they planned to put Benoit David, a veritable karaoke singer behind the mike. Benoit was plucked from the Yes tribute band "Close to the Edge." The rock gods must have been annoyed, because Chris Squire was suddenly sidelined indefinitely with leg problems. (Must be from all of those years of pivoting and pirouetting on stage.) The celebration has been delayed, making the release of "Symphonic Yes" all the more important for fans. "Symphonic Yes" is likely to be the closest fans will get to hearing the band live until late this summer.
Symphonic Yes for the Eyes...
What's better than "Symphonic Yes" on CD? The DVD! With "Symphonic Yes" on DVD (4.5 out of 5 stars) you can not only hear a great concert, you'll see one as well. The two disc set contains the entire two-and-a-half hour show, plus "Dreamtime," a 30-minute documentary that's a tribute to the band's legacy and their fans; the bonus video for "Don't Go," and hidden bonus bits you can access during the numbers.
You'll get to see and appreciate what a ham Chris Squire is. Unlike the rest of the group, who are a bit staid on stage, Chris mugs for the audience, trades licks enthusiastically with White and Brislin, and becomes a blur of complex chords and sweeping leg kicks. (Watch those King Fu moves, Chris!) One of the many jaw-dropping moments on the DVD occurs during "Ritual" when the stage crew wheels out an assortment of percussion and the band members attack them with glee and precision. Hearing the percussion army on CD is impressive - seeing the members of the band playing in unison on instruments that foreign to them and succeeding so brilliantly is one of those once in a lifetime concert experiences.
You'll also get to see how Alan White, yes, a drummer, served as musical liaison between the band and orchestra. The dead giveaway is how everyone on stage hangs on White's kill shots for the intro to "Ritual." If you think playing epics is easy, watch White. The 60-year old looks and plays like a man half his age. If you played drums for 22 minutes straight - on one song alone - you'd probably look as good as Alan too, or wheeze and cease up like an Edsel.
Not all classical musicians are snobs. The members of The European Festival Orchestra seem to enjoy playing with the band and watching them perform. Keep your eye out for the flute and oboe players frequently captured on camera. Whenever these two young ladies aren't playing, they sway, smile, and clap to the music, just like the fans.
Much of the DVD centers on the recording of "Magnification" and the subsequent promotional tour. Alan White and Chris Squire come across as the most accessible members; Anderson is as cosmic and indecipherable as ever: "I'm amazed we're still going. I'm amazed that we have a career. I'm amazed we have so many fans. I'm amazed that I'm a true believer. I'm just amazed." Well, Jon, after a statement like that, I wouldn't be amazed if someone told me your recent forced convalescence didn't have something to do with your mind instead of your lungs.
Alan White (who also seems truly amazed at the band's long run) humbly discusses the complexity of the group's music, and Howe continues to be less than gracious about "previous guitarists." In a candid segment you'll get to see Howe at a sound check, meticulously tuning and practicing. White figures prominently in an interview with two fans. The couple explains that they owe their relationship to White. One sold the other a copy of White's hard-to-find solo album "Ramshackled." The two started e-mailing one another, met at a Yes concert and married soon after. Talk about music bringing people together.
Squire remains the group's most entertaining interview as he laughingly recalls Yes' first attempt to play with an orchestra: "Last time Yes played with an orchestra was 1969 for 'Time and a Word.' We used coat hangers to set up the mikes behind the orchestra." Check out Squire's comments during the end credits -- among other things he forgets the name of one of the band's songs! Yes have long been accused of being too high brow or unapproachable; Squire and White's comments demonstrate they're just like you and me.
It's been 40 years since the last Yes album with an orchestra, but it's been well worth the wait. Hopefully we won't have to wait 40 more years for the next one, but I'm willing to bet Alan White will still be behind the drums and Chris Squire will be pirouetting on stage in his wheelchair.