This EP from Welsh trio The Decoy is chaotic. It’s also quite brilliant. Restless from the outset, this band bring metallic edginess, new wavish quirks, post-hardcore sounds, alongside a dose of noise rock, touches of light reggae and jangly guitar rock together in a way that should appeal to the more open minded prog fan, or the math rock devotee. What they lack in obvious hooks they more than make up for with sheer balls. The results are not going to be for everyone, but we should assume that’s exactly how The Decoy like it.
Category Archives: prog
MARILLION – Sounds That Can’t Be Made
In 2001, Marillion released ‘Anoraknophobia’, a contemporary sounding album which contained some of their finest work up to that point. It was enough for some of the band’s more enthusiastic fans to make enormous statements like “if they’d changed their name when Fish left, they’d be as big as U2 by now!” While such enthusiasm is admirable, this just would never be the case: U2 have had a multi-million pound promotional machine greasing their gears for years – one that has ultimately allowed Bono to straddle the globe like a giant self-righteous colossus. Despite best efforts and a hugely, hugely devoted team behind them, these five gifted musicians from Aylesbury just can’t afford that kind of huge promotion.
After ‘Anoraknophobia’, Marillion released some equally fine music on 2003’s ‘Marbles’, though parts of that album were less easy to digest. From then on, however, the band’s output – although more prolific than it had been in the past – was less impressive. 2007’s ‘Somewhere Else’ was pretty grim and 2008’s bloated double set ‘Happiness Is The Road’ contained some great moments but may have fared better if slimmed down to a single volume. An album of acoustic-based re-workings – ‘Less Is More’, issued in 2009 – was only of any real interest to hardcore fans. A few years earlier, such a release may have actually been a fan-club freebie.
Considering the hit and miss approach of the last few discs, there was a lot riding on 2012’s ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’, especially for the more critical fan. …And with eight songs, clocking in at almost 75 minutes, they’ve certainly given their fans (critical or otherwise) something to get their teeth into.
Not doing things by halves, this time out Marillion open their seventeenth studio record with a seventeen minute epic – and ‘Gaza’ is epic in every sense. Spanning what would have been the whole of side one in the olden days, Marillion take the listener on a journey of many moods, as Steve Hogarth (aka h) delivers a hugely emotional and thoughtful lyric regarding the plight of children in war-torn Gaza. [Within hours of the track appearing on the internet, people in a YouTube shoutbox argued whether the piece was pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. It’s not either. The child’s viewpoint does not take sides; the child simply wants an end to the grown-ups fighting.]
Following a slow fade in, a keyboard riff with an eastern quality appears, quicky joined by the sounds of bells and a choppy guitar, over which the vocal is strong. h shifts between his reguar tones and a gentle falsetto; the latter is less enjoyable but suits the pop/rock, keyboard-led part of the tune well. Just after the two minute mark, Marillion challenge their listeners with a surprisingly heavy riff. It’s not of the hard rock kind which fuelled the ‘Most Toys’ embarrassment, but something genuinely heavy. The kind of riff which sounds like it belongs on a Tool record or a post ‘In Absentia’ Porcupine Tree release, it’s fleeting at first, but on its second appearance it really shakes things up. The resulting lead guitar parts add extra elements of discordance further highlighting the sense of turmoil and despair within the song’s narrative driven lyric, where “hell can erupt in a moment” and the child protagonist’s father “died feeding the birds”.
Ambient instrumental sections allow keyboardist Mark Kelly and guitarist Steve Rothery ample opportunity to noodle, but these quietest moments never detract from the sheer power of the track as a whole. If you’ve not been absolutely absorbed thus far, Marillion save the best section for the number’s inevitable climax. “Grieving mothers on both sides of sides of the wire” paints a vivid image, before the two Steves join together on a short piece of music which has all the fire of Marillion’s past, something further highlighted by a wondrous, soaring guitar solo.
“We will kick the ball. We will skip the rope. We will play outside. Be careful.”
“We all want peace, that’s for sure…but peace won’t come from standing on our necks.”
While ‘Gaza’ is very long, like a mini movie for the ears, it doesn’t necessarily feel long. It pushes the boundaries of their musical capabilities to new level. After such a huge opening statement, the rest of ‘Sounds…’ potentially runs the risk of falling short. It is fair to say, though, ‘Gaza’ is not really like anything else on ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’, so it’s perhaps best approached as a standalone track, as opposed to being part of a broader collection of songs. Aside from the section near the end featuring a particularly trademark sounding Rothery solo, it is, In fact, quite unlike anything else in Marillion’s recorded history to date.
‘Power’ has a warm, almost trip-hop vibe from the rhythm section, as Ian Mosley’s drums offer a laidback groove and Trewavas’s bassline takes most of the lead. With a similar atmosphere to parts of ‘Anoraknophobia’, it will come as no surprise that the bones of the song date back to those days, but this is more than mere padding. As the chorus kicks in, Rothery’s guitar rings out with a sense of real presence and h’s lead vocal shifts from its previous understated tones to a full cry. Although already enjoyable, it’s with the last couple of minutes ‘Power’ really comes into its own: h continues to use his voice in a powerful way (so distinct, but you either love it or hate it), stretching emotion from the last few lines, while underneath, Rothery adds sweeping guitar lines. Keeping with the more accessible, some gorgeous eighties keyboards form the heart of ‘Pour My Love’, a hugely commercial ballad. With Pete Trewavas’s bass very high in the mix throughout, his solid playing makes the perfect foil for keyboard lines. There’s something about this tune’s pop edge which recalls parts of 1991’s ‘Holidays In Eden’ – ‘Dry Land’ in particular – especially so, once the guitar solo hits. Much like most of ‘Holidays In Eden’, this is a tune likely to divide fan opinion with it’s very lightweight feel, but for those who still love that album (and it remains a Real Gone favourite), ‘Pour My Love’ is destined top become a favourite. [Interestingly, its lyrics are co-written with John Helmer who last worked with the band in 1999, so perhaps, like ‘Power’, the roots of this tune are a little older?]
The second of the album’s extended pieces, ‘Montreal’ begins with a restrained and thoughtful tone, as h’s voice cries out over some simple electric piano. Just as you’re expecting it to kick in, it becomes even more restrained as instrumental synths wash over the listener. Across fifteen minutes, ‘Montreal’ ambles along quietly, occasionally rising up for some mid-paced rock moments, under which Ian Mosley’s drum style is unmistakable and Rothery turns out a couple of rather lovely solos. Lyrically, it appears to be autobiographical for the band: a tale of airports, hotel rooms and “a trip with the minimum of fuss” and “being greeted as guests of honour” in the Canadian city. While it does not present the real surprises – nor the musical challenges – of ‘Gaza’, there’s some good material within. Although, perhaps, the weakest of this album’s three extended numbers, it’s a song which uncovers something new with each listen.
‘Lucky Man’ turns up the guitars and turns down the atmospheres. Pete’s bass is nice and warming and SR get the chance to deliver something a little tougher – though nowhere near as threatening as the loudest parts of ‘Gaza’ – but beyond that, there’s not so much going on. It is a solid enough number – and has something resembling a chorus – but Marillion are not necessarily playing to their strengths here. Had it appeared earlier on ‘Somewhere Else’, for example, it could have been that album’s standout; here, though, it’s totally outshone by Marillion’s grander ideas…and let’s face it, a couple of those ideas are grander than ever. Driven by heavy keyboards, the intro to the mid-paced title track fares much better in the rockier field (rockier here, of course, being relative). Across seven minutes, Mr Hogarth turns out a rather unshakable vocal performance, one of his best on this album, he’s not tempted to use to much falsetto. Meanwhile, the rest of the band tackle a tune which slowly moves from mid paced punch to cinematic pomp, complete with an 80s prog keyboard solo. Initially, it’s not as good as some of the material on ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’, but the closing section featuring a forceful vocal and huge guitar solo falls not to far short of being classic Marillion… ‘Invisible Ink’ is minimalist at first, with h singing quietly over an equally quiet piano arrangement. Just as you think the band are about to settle for something which sounds like a distant cousin to ‘Now She’ll Never Know’ (from 1998’s ‘Radiation’) the song breaks into something more fully formed. There’s something in h’s voice that’s a little jarring on occasion, but it doesn’t spoil the other good qualities on show throughout the number’s rockiest moments: namely a rock solid bassline and drum part, plus a rather punchy lead guitar. Despite these enjoyable elements, if ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ has a track destined to be skipped, ‘Invisible Ink’ is the one.
The closing number – ‘The Sky Above The Rain’ – another ten minute piece – begins with soft vocal, piano and synth sounds approximating strings. h’s voice sounds quite fragile during this first part of the song, as befitting for a tune so light, but it’s no match for the musical arrangement, which is particularly striking in its restraint. Of particular note is Rothery’s guitar playing once again, as he offers soft jazzy notes, never tempted to break into anything more aggressive. From the four minute mark, rocky elements start to creep in and the tune gathers momentum, eventually building to a crescendo. During the inevitable climax, there’s very little long term fans won’t have heard from Marillion previously – and it’s probably not as masterful as ‘Neverland’ (from 2003’s ‘Marbles’) – but after several plays it feels like an appropriate end to a very well crafted album.
Throughout the late 90s/early 2000s, Marillion (and a fair number of their fans) were always keen to argue against being tagged as a “prog band”. With bands such as Porcupine Tree, Opeth and The Pineapple Thief attracting very positive press around the time of this album’s release, “prog” should not be a stigma. Since Marillion’s 2012 release is rock based and includes three pieces of music clocking in at over ten minutes – whether they choose to embrace the tag or not – it is very much a “prog rock” album. Regardless of how you’d like to pigeonhole it though, most of ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ is fantastic – easily Marillion’s best work since ‘Anoraknophobia’. They should be proud…and you can bet they are.
STEVEN WILSON – Grace For Drowning
Over the years following the release of Porcupine Tree’s ‘In Absentia’, the band moved away from progressive rock and psyche pop/ambient works and settled on a more progressive metal direction. Although this was not always met so favourably by some of the band’s older fans, it bought a number of new listeners to the fold. Founder Steven Wilson’s second solo release ‘Grace For Drowning’, rather understandably, sounds a lot like post-millennium Porcupine Tree in lots of places, but brings a welcome sense of experimentation back to the fore in others. The album is comprised of two suites of music (‘Deform to Form a Star’ and ‘Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye’), which at first, you might suspect were of very contrasting moods. However, despite lots of different styles appearing throughout the 80+ minutes, the two suites aren’t always as distinctly different as the structure of the album suggests.
The album begins with the title cut, which works solely as an intro piece. A piano motif (played by Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess) and a choir of vocals blend together, to create a very atmospheric start to an epic journey. It may sound like an obvious reference point, but it’s nearly impossible to hear this without thinking of David Gilmour’s vocal sounds and the gentle laid-back sounds of his 2006 solo release ‘On An Island’. And with that, it’s into the real meat of the album’s first half.
‘Sectarian’ begins with slightly atonal acoustic chords and slightly disjointed lead guitar. It’s a little unsettling, but manages to sound stable thanks to a great, live sounding drum part. When the band hit their stride, it continues to sound a little unusual in places since, at first, the guitars don’t actually reinforce their presence. Instead, a fuzz bass provides any aggression on show – until the arrival of a mellotron and soprano sax played in a jazz-rock style. The best moments come soon after when a lead bass line vies for attention against a very 1970s electric piano. With lots of prog bands seemingly moving towards a prog-metal stance, it’s great to know that supposedly unfashionable 1970s style prog is still alive and well in some quarters. Granted, the more aggressive passages are still a little too metal-fuelled for a complete authentic sound, but Wilson delves into prog rock’s past far deeper than most of his contemporaries would even dare – and for that, he must be applauded! This is a tune which straddles the ever fine line between tuneful jazziness and ugliness and, as such, is incredibly striking.
‘Deform to Form a Star’ takes things down several notches. Wilson and his piano take the reins and take in 70s influenced music of a different nature. The magic really happens when the rest of the band join the arrangement; the mellotrons lend a sense of retro (un)cool and the bass is terrifically understated. In terms of lead guitar work this is a standout too, playing host to a jazzy yet tuneful lead break. Throughout the piece, the use of harmony vocals – possibly multi-tracked in the studio as opposed to being created organically – provides great listening pleasure. During the closing section, a wordless vocal sounds equally good against a playful bassline, solid keys and drums. In terms of a band sounding great without showing off, this track gets ‘Grace For Drowning’s gold star award.
With some great music already laid down, the album then takes its first dip. ‘No Part of Me’ is somewhat of a musical curveball, featuring a slightly intrusive beat pitched against a busy keyboard loop and occasional stabbed piano chords. Wilson’s vocal appears front and centre – much smoother than the arrangement initially implies. The music, meanwhile, begins to take a fuller form, with the introduction of strings. The ticking of the programmed rhythm continues to feel a little intrusive and then a Warr guitar riff crushes everything (unsurprisingly played by the instrument’s biggest champion, King Crimson’s Trey Gunn). Couple that riff with an Eastern sounding solo and you have something which sounds not unlike a messy Porcupine Tree reject. It’s not hugely objectionable by any means, but you’ll have heard Wilson venture into similar musical territory on other occasions. ‘Postcard’ follows, and is a complete contrast; it’s not any better – in fact, it just isn’t that good, period. It works almost solely around a circular sounding piano line, over which Wilson’s voice sounds incredibly thin and whiny. This alone wouldn’t matter, since its general mood seems more intimate than most Porcupine Tree recordings, but the lyrics appear somewhat self-pitying. The combination of disinterring tune and whining, on the whole, make ‘Postcard’ a more than dreary experience, which sorely lacks the epic beauty of something like PT’s ‘Lazarus’, for example. Luckily, nearing the track’s end, things improve briefly. The drums kick in, augmented by synths and another choir of vocals. For a couple of minutes, grandiosity points to a light at the end of the tunnel…but it doesn’t last. Before long, the track returns to its original mission statement and Wilson is at the piano again, under the misapprehension his semi-confessional approach carries the same weight as an early Elton John or Billy Joel recording. More often than not, this is a number designed with the skip button in mind.
The high spot of the first disc (if not the whole album), ‘Remainder The Black Dog’ is a work of absolute genius. Wilson (with a heavy treated vocal) lends a soft vocal to a proggy arrangement which in addition to another circular piano riff, includes a warm bass, some fantastic drumming and a hint of jazz. The jazzy hints escalate, as the track swells to include soprano saxophones (played by jazz man Theo Travis) and electronic treatments in a way which really highlights Wilson’s fondness of 70s jazz-fusion/prog bands Soft Machine and Hatfield and the North. These elements could provide some of the most interesting music Wilson has committed to tape for years. It’s not quite so cut and dried though, since he just can’t resist introducing the kind of metallic riffing which has provided the heart of so many PT recordings leading up this point. Rather more interestingly, however, the harder riffs are not actually the work of Wilson himself, but of guest guitarist Steve Hackett, reprising a sound similar to his own ‘Mechanical Bride’. Luckily, any prog-metal tendencies are balanced out by some absolutely stunning basswork and the inclusion of a few huge, but still jazz-tinted piano chords. Throughout the tail end of the number, things decend into jazz-rock noodling, but never in a way which feels pointless. If you’re fond of Wilson’s earliest work, you’ll certainly find some joy amongst the wandering basses, flutes and keys.
The second disc is noticeably weaker all round, as if Wilson frontloaded ‘Grace For Drowning’ with his best ideas. However, it would be an outright lie to suggest this second disc is without flashes of true greatness… One of the album’s most laid back offerings, ‘Belle Du Jour’ brings a mood which would befit a film score. For three minutes, Wilson immerses us in a world of soft neo-classical guitars, swirling keys and bell-like tinkling. Stylistically, it hovers somewhere between a Vangelis piece (albeit one played by a real band) and Mike Oldfield without the bucketload of pretension. As part of the whole album it could be considered filler, but as the introduction to the second act (for the want of a word), it’s quite charming. ‘Track One’, at first, gives the false impression that it’s about to be just as mellow, with more fingerpicked acoustic guitars and gentle keys, but before long a darkness settles, with booming drums, waves of semi-aggressive keys and a general impending doom. The threatening vibes eventually subside and the acoustic work makes a return – this second time joined by lead guitar work which echoes Pink Floyd, though played without as much finesse. As the yin to ‘Belle Du Jour’s yang, ‘Track One’ is enormously cinematic too, but there’s a strong sense of it being three unfinished musical strands glued together.
Clocking in at over twenty three minutes ‘Raider II’ sees Wilson taking his audience on a grandiose musical voyage which takes in elements of ambient music, progressive rock, metal and jazz rock. After a long intro, over which Wilson’s vocals have been subjected to studio tinkering, the riffs chug and crash, while a choir of neo-operatic voices add to the all round menace. Wilson’s vocals appear fairly non-descript in comparison, even with some kind of demon vocal muscling in. In absolute contrast to the heaviness, at about four minutes in, a jazz-rock flute attempts to make its presence felt – and eventually wins out. The three minutes which follow present what is possibly the best chunk of this overblown epic. There’s a hint of Caravan here – thanks to that flute – as well as traces of Wilson’s other beloved jazz-rock/prog favourites. In some ways, this section ought to have been longer, since once the guitars return, it’s all but forgotten. More metal riffing and choirs (oddly reminiscent of those from the ‘Baccinale’ section of Vangelis’s ‘Heaven & Hell: First Movement’) repeat their earlier patterns (which possibly could be considered padding) before the arrival of a second jazz-rock freakout – this time with more room for the bass. At the twelve minute mark, Wilson should have thought about wrapping things up, since several minutes of ambient drones and plunky keyboards follow (definitely padding). For the closing section, things take a more obvious prog rock stance. Nic France’s drums have a great sound, but looking beyond that, there’s nothing too remarkable here – it resembles various bits and pieces already recorded for Porcupine Tree albums. While Wilson undoubtedly will consider this one of ‘Grace For Drowning’s greatest musical achievements, there’s only about eight minutes worth of music to be culled from within.
‘Index’ has a cold musical backdrop with militaristic drum rolls, a Massive Attack ‘Teardrop’-esque heartbeat and an unemotional keyboard sound. Over this, Wilson adds an equally unemotional vocal. It’s dull and mechanical and also hints at filler material. ‘Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye’ brings things to a mellow end, with Wilson accompanied by a ringing guitar and old fashioned Hammond organ swirls. The warming bass and old fashioned keyboards have charm, but Wilson was never the greatest vocalist in the world – and this is no exception – so it falls a little flat in places. It’s funny, although Wilson probably intended this to sound heartfelt and atmospheric, it’s not so interesting…and certainly doesn’t sustain interest for eight minutes.
Since Porcupine Tree’s sound has embraced too many progressive metal elements since their big breakthrough, the more out there prog/jazz-prog moments of this ambitious release are very, very welcome indeed. Since Wilson pulls so many influences into the project, ‘Grace For Drowning’ can prove quite tough listening in places (especially if attempted in one sitting). It’s a great album, but it may have been much better still had Wilson trimmed ‘Raider II’ and lost ‘Part of Me’ and ‘Index’ altogether. A lengthy single album – trimmed of the flabbier moments – would have worked better than releasing something with obvious filler, only just warranting a 2CD release.
Minor complaints aside, though, the good material is fabulous – some of the greatest material Wilson has released. Who knows, maybe years down the line, even the filler will prove itself essential to the overall package? One day, this could be seen as Wilson’s masterpiece. After all, even the second half of ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ has more than its share of flaws…
ANDREW DANSO – f i n d
Andrew Danso is an independent musician who dabbles with ambient and progressive soundscapes. ‘f i n d’ is his second solo release (third overall, including an album credited to Tera), and is more experimental than his previous works. Those interested in prog rock or ambient music will find much to enjoy with ‘f i n d’, although perhaps those likely to enjoy it the most are those who enjoy a solid fusion of the two subgenres.
Beginning with an almost world music meets ambient style, ‘Go Again’ has a main thrust which derives from a percussive beat. This isn’t especially interesting on its own, but when combined with Alan Danso’s relatively simple but bendy bassline, it has plenty of appeal. Over this musical loop, Andrew Danso’s lead vocal sounds a little wistful. There’s something about this number which lends itself to The Pineapple Thief; and although this would likely be considered filler material for those guys, it provides a decent opener into Andrew Danso’s 2011 work, setting the general mood effectively.
‘Ear To Earth’ opts for something even more new age, as electronic loops mesh with the sounds of rainfall and the occasional interruption of a city traffic and sirens. Danso puts his own mark on the piece by way of some seemingly unrelated guitar notes, which drift in and out as they please. While his playing never forms the structure of an actual tune, his jazzy tones are marvellous. Realising that a similar follow up could potentially allow things to sag, Danso follows this with something in an absolute contrast. The ringing chords which begin ‘Walk Walk Sunshine’ – a more standard pop/rock number – are similar to The Police’s ‘Everything She Does Is Magic’ (pure coincidence, surely); after a brief intro, Danso’s guest musicians get more to do here than anywhere else. The whole band launch into what is essentially a fairly ordinary rock tune, over which the vocals are slightly distorted. The alternative rock grooves stick out half a mile here among the ambient stuff, but you have to give Danso credit for mixing it up just a little.
‘Electronic ABC’ is perhaps the releases most promising number. It begins with Morse-style rhythmic clicking, augmented by a bottom end pulse. As the layers build and Danso’s guitar work sits over the top, it all becomes more than reminiscent of early Porcupine Tree. Rather more specifically, it sounds like a movement from that band’s epic ‘Voyage 34’. Promising, yes, but it had so much more potential than it actually achieves… A big downside is its length. By the time the pieces fit together and Danso really starts to get a groove going, it’s almost over; ambient pieces in this vein certainly benefit from extended grooves, and it would have been so easy for this track to fall in line. ‘Boy, Man, 11’ is one of ‘f i n d’s longer pieces, and as with most of the release, it’s primary concern is that of atmosphere as opposed to a being a obvious song of any kind. Danso’s guitar weaves patterns full of echo and the vocals are hushed. It’s mellow, somewhat trippy mood puts it in a similar frame to Devin Townsend’s ‘Ghost’, though perhaps reimagined by The Pinapple Thief’s Bruce Soord. It manages to sustain its four minutes well, by introducing various drum loops, though these never reach any kind of climax.
Bringing back a few of the jazzy tones from ‘Ear To Earth’ and mashing them with a constant jangle, ‘Rain, Go’ is another of the releases most upbeat numbers. Drummer Ben Simpson plays a solid backbeat, while Danso’s vocal has been heavily filtered. Once again, the influence from early Porcupine Tree is unavoidable, but here the mood is very much one inspired by Steven Wilson’s ‘On The Sunday of Life’ bedroom experiments, as opposed to the rather more lavish tones of ‘Voyage 34’ or ‘Up The Downstair’. Like ‘Walk Walk Sunshine’, ‘Liar MD’ is a little out of place with the overall sound of the disc with its louder guitars, but whereas ‘Sunshine’ has a hint of something song based, ‘Liar MD’ never really gets off the ground… Although the multi-layered vocals provide some interest, even these aren’t among the album’s better selection of voices. Much more effective is the way a selection of multi-layered voices gets used on the title track. Wordless vocals are set against each other to create something not too far removed from a chant, while the guitar harmonics create an ambient drone. Listening to it, Danso has obviously been inspired by Devin Townsend here, and generally that’s a good thing.
When Danso’s arrangements strike the right balance between progressive sounds and atmosphere, the disc is very enjoyable. There are times when those atmospheres get hampered by meandering (as with ‘Pour’, a two minute guitar loop and some rain sounds) but given the particular musical niche, that’s to be expected. Granted, lots of Danso’s musical soundscapes are indebted to Porcupine Tree and The Pineapple Thief in some way, but that’s not to say ‘f i n d’ is any the weaker for it – quite the opposite. When used effectively, homage can work very well indeed.
YES – Fly From Here
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”.