As the first new studio album from Yes in a decade, ‘Fly From Here’ was an album eagerly awaited by many Yes fans. A new chapter in the ongoing Yes saga, the album is the first in thirty years not to feature long-serving vocalist Jon Anderson – the last and only Yes album not to feature him previously being 1980’s ‘Drama’.
Filling the vocalist’s position is Canadian Benoit David, a man whose previous credits include singing in a Yes tribute band. In choosing David, Yes have trodden a very dangerous path; as Judas Priest proved previously, replacing a well loved and long-serving vocalist with someone from a tribute band isn’t always the best way to go. However, listening to David’s performances on ‘Fly From Here’, he’s clearly a gifted performer – and perhaps most importantly, not just an Anderson clone. While, naturally, his vocal style has some similarity, it has almost as much in common with Trevor Horn’s ‘Drama’ performances at times, as well as bringing some of his own style.
In addition to being the first album since ‘Drama’ not to feature Anderson, there are other very strong comparisons to that sorely under-rated disc: ‘Fly From Here’ welcomes ‘Drama’-era members Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn back into the fold. Downes last played keyboards with Yes on the ‘Drama’ album and tour, a role he steps into once again here, while Horn is involved in a production capacity. A different vocalist and the presence of the Buggles chaps may have provided enough reason to make comparisons with ‘Drama’, but there’s another strong connection here – more of which later…
The album is presented in two halves, one being taken up by the epic title track and the other comprised of five distinctly separate numbers. The title track isn’t a total slog across it’s almost twenty five minutes, though, since track breaks have been provided; a couple of its sections could easily be approached as standalone numbers.
That title cut begins with an overture where Geoff Downes’s staccato piano work is punctuated by a heavy guitar chord, perhaps Yes’s most aggressive since ‘Machine Messiah’ back in 1980. The full band then joins: Alan White’s drumming provides an almost military air and Downes’s keyboards are a little pompous. All the while, Chris Squire’s bass work is presented in a dominant role, almost as if to remind the listener that no matter how many Yes-men come and go, whatever happens, it’s his band. After almost two minutes, we move into the main part of the suite.
The next part, ‘We Can Fly’ is, historically, very interesting. The bones of the song come from ‘We Can Fly From Here’, which was the first thing Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes wrote during their brief Yes tenure back in 1980. It was demoed and left on the shelf, and subsequently revisited on the ‘Drama’ tour. After Horn and Downes left Yes and reconvened Buggles, they attempted to finish the song a second time, expanding it to a two part suite, only then to then abandon it once again. Three decades later, it finds a new and final home. While the core of the track is very recognisable as being that number played live back in 1980, it’s bigger, more assured. The biggest change comes with regard to the early version’s fast, rather spiky sections. These have been slowed down and smoothed out, making them far better suited to a a space within Yes epic. Even though it’s not as edgy as before, Squire’s bassline remains the driving force. Downes’s keyboards add moments of prog parpiness which are not always especially refined, while Steve Howe’s guitar lines are wandery and not always the most tuneful, but still, they’re far better suited than his guitar parts present on the 1980 live take. Benoit David, meanwhile, is left fronting things and he does a very good job, it has to be said. On the quieter moments, his voice isn’t too dissimilar to that of Horn, so it’s easy to see why Yes chose this particular line up and moment in time to resurrect a thirty year old piece of music.
Part three, ‘Sad Night at The Airfield’, offers something a little less pompy. It begins with David’s vocal set against acoustic backing courstesy of Howe. David sounds like his own man here, not necessarily an Anderson/Horn impersonator, which works very much in his favour. As the track moves into its main musical theme, there’s something almost cinematic at play. The vocals are up front, with David backed by Howe and Squire in harmony, while Downes provides a solid blanket of sound. It’s not especially proggy, but doesn’t quite fall into the AOR bracket either. By the time the track builds to a climax, with Howe delivering a couple of short but perfectly formed solos – full of vibrato – it’s obvious that this line-up of Yes has plenty going for it. Part three, ‘Madman at the Screens’, moves from sweeping atmospheres, bringing a staccato arrangement with plenty of interplay between bass and keys. Once again, the slightly sharper elements make it almost impossible not to make direct comparisons with ‘Drama’. Song wise, it’s a little lacking after the first two parts of this musical suite, but there are features within the overall performance which are commendable, not least of all the vocal harmonies.
At this point – approximately twenty minutes in – Yes run out of steam. The next section, ‘Bumpy Ride’ is a short (mostly instrumental) piece which isn’t anywhere near as interesting as they probably think it is. Squire’s basslines provide the main thrust and while it may sound quirky on the surface, closer inspection shows it to be little more than a 4/4 arrangement, alternating with something which sounds like 4/4 with the odd beat missing (possibly 7/8?). Once the loop has played through a couple of times, things drop out for a quick vocal line and then it’s back to the beginning again. This is followed by a reprise of ‘Fly From Here’, just to remind the listener that this is a suite and should be enjoyed that way, despite parts of it being written three decades apart. As always with Yes songs which would have once taken up an entire side of plastic, this would have benefitted from a little trim here and there – mostly near the end – but it’s good moments are among Yes’s best in a long while.
The shorter pieces of music are a mixed bag. ‘Solitaire’, as its title suggests, is a Steve Howe solo piece. In the spirit of 1970’s ‘Clap’ and 1971’s lovely ‘Mood For a Day’, it captures Howe’s playing in a very reflective style; this rather jaunty little tune finds his fingers dancing on the fretboard with a lightness of touch that’s only really rivalled by Steve Hackett. Throwing in a few harmonics at the end, it encompasses everything that’s always been great about the acoustic side of Howe’s work. ‘The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be’ is an AOR workout which is quite pleasant and features some good harmonies, but beyond those harmonies, it’s rather ordinary and slightly one-paced. Also, given the smoothness of the vocals and Downes’s gentle keyboard work, Howe’s electric lead appears slightly jarring in a couple of places; he opts for his signature tones and, as such, his easily recognisable jazzy noodlings seem a bit out of place, particularly during the closing moments.
The poppy ‘Hour of Need’ showcases the more commercial side of Yes. Although only three minutes long, it is still host to many great features. Howe’s guitar lines shimmer, while the harmony filled vocals provide an upbeat quality. David’s high lead presents the only time here he feels it necessary to become a Jon Anderson impersonator, but due to the great feeling all round, the number doesn’t suffer for that. The only weak link is Downes’s overtly old school keyboard sound, which could have graced any number of 70s and 80s prog recordings. Luckily, he uses it sparingly. His keyboard work also sounds a little iffy on parts of ‘Into The Storm’, where it sounds very eighties; almost like a demo sketch at times, as if he’s thought “that’ll do until I can think of something better”. It’s another number which makes great use of three part harmonies and the rhythms are tight throughout, but its busy nature can become a little wearing after about the halfway mark. On the plus side, Steve Howe’s preferred guitar style – hovering between disjointed jazzy notes and vibrato lead – really works on this number and he’s given the last couple of minutes to fill; a job he does more than admirably.
The moody ‘Life On a Film Set’ presents the second piece which pre-dates the recording sessions for ‘Fly From Here’. In this case, the song is adapted from an old Buggles demo entitled ‘Riding a Tide’. As with ‘We Can Fly’, this is a vast improvement on the earlier attempt, even though the main structure remains the same. In this case, replacing a drum machine track with Alan White’s kit makes a world of difference. David’s vocal is faithful to Trevor Horn’s original demo take and Howe’s Spanish influenced guitar lines throughout the second half really bring an old musical idea to life. Musically, this number fits nicely alongside ‘Sad Night at The Airfield’; cinematic melancholy is definitely Yes’s trump card this time around.
Although there a couple of occasions where things lapse into over-indulgence, ‘Fly From Here’ manages to be a surprisingly accessible album, even when tackled in one sitting. In terms of quality, it’s certainly the band’s most consistent (and interesting) work since 1994’s ‘Talk’. For long-time fans, ‘Fly From Here’ provides closure on a much earlier chapter of this long-running band’s history, while simultaneously opening a new one…making it more than “just another Yes album”.