JON ANDERSON – Survival & Other Stories

The creation of ‘Survival & Other Stories – Jon Anderson’s fourteenth studio album (not including his twenty discs of ‘Lost Tapes’) – had an interesting birth.  Anderson invited people to send in pieces of music to his website, from which he would pick the best moments.  While this process is fairly unusual, it’s not completely new; Tommy Lee used exactly the same creative process for his 2010 Methods of Mayhem release.  Luckily, on the whole, Anderson’s album turned out far better than Tommy Lee’s somewhat messy affair.

Anderson’s solo works traditionally have a poppier quality than the overblown progressive epics he has recorded with Yes, and for the most part this album (Anderson’s first offering since leaving the prog-rock giants at the end of the 00’s) is no exception.  However, the opening number, ‘New New World’ however, is surprisingly rocky.  While the core of the music features a string loop and Anderson’s liking of keyboard based pop, a huge Jason Bonham style drum part adds plenty of weight.  The noodling electric guitars hint at something Yes’s Steve Howe may have played, while the rhythms are hard and driving.  This great rock number is a greatly surprising way to open an Anderson solo record, but it is very welcome.  If you’re expecting the rest of the disc to follow suit though, you’ll probably be disappointed.  The following couple of songs ‘Understanding Truth’ and ‘Unbroken Spirit’ are light and airy, with Anderson’s ethereal vocals (still strong, though not as pure as they once had been) guiding the way.  On ‘Unbroken Spirit’, particularly, he sounds very assured set against the acoustic guitars and eighties keyboards.  It’s not challenging, but as far as adult new-age pop is concerned, it’s decent enough.  Mixing a world-music drum line, hard piano and fantastic harmony vocals, the punchy ‘Love of the Life’ brings positivity and a sunny vibe.  While Anderson’s vocal is strong, the musical arrangement wins out, especially once that drum part melds with a busy bassline.

The atmospheric ‘Incoming’ presents the first of a pair of less instant numbers.  While it’s not especially direct, it’s also this album’s essential track.  The piano is soft, with its main base is structured around two chords, over which Anderson sings about discovery and love.  As you may expect, this builds gradually, eventually erupting in a cinematic climax, where the strings are epic and the drums are booming.  It takes a long while to get there though…but it’s pace and structure is so good it never feels like it labours a point; it’s near eight minute duration feels like it’s passed by in half the time.  ‘Cloudz’ has similarly new-age qualities, as Anderson’s distinctive voice sings out “the earth was singing for the love, the love of life” over a simply gorgeous piano line.  While, in the main, it’s a real piano at work as opposed to synths (though a few subtle synths creep in to flesh out the sound here and there), this is the kind of work you could imagine Jon working on with Vangelis, should the pair ever reunite.  Like ‘Incoming’, the atmosphere really carries the listener and the long duration never drags.

During ‘Big Buddha Song’ Anderson’s vocals sound very organic against a mid-paced drum clank and accompanying backing voices.  The lead guitar has an effective ringing quality; as such, these unfussy elements allow Anderson to take centre stage with his vocal.  Sadly, as its title suggests, those not into religion and spirituality may find the lyrical content a huge turn-off… On the plus side, it includes a backing vocal section which quotes the Yes vocal loop ‘We Have Heaven’ in a pointed, unsubtle reference to Anderson’s “other” career. ‘Effortlessly’ and ‘Love and Understunding’ return to the acoustic stylings of ‘Unbroken Spirit’, a musical medium which seems to find the solo Anderson most at ease.  The former is soft and intricate, while the latter is a rousing pop number, full of harmonies.  The message of “all is God and love and understanding” may seem a little unsubtle, but pitched against the upbeat music, Anderson sounds like he’s having a great time.

‘Survival & other Stories’ contains some nice pop/rock tunes and a fair amount of lyrical content leaning towards Anderson’s hippie ideals and spiritual beliefs.  Some of Anderson’s previous solo outings have leant a little too far in the pop direction, but this time around, he strikes just the right balance between pop, rock and new age qualities with many of the album’s songs retaining memorable hooks. Whilst to many people Anderson will always be the voice associated with Yes and their overtly complex arrangements, here, he proves his gift for writing solid, simple songs. Although it’s got plenty of spiritual mumbo-jumbo and couple of the best numbers are atmospheric rather than hook-laden, ‘Survival & Other Stories’ never feels too self-indulgent.

July 2011