With their dazzling instrumental chops, lengthy songs, and lush harmonies, London’s Yes perhaps defined 1970s progressive rock better than any other band. At their peak, Jon Anderson’s high pitched vocals delivered unintelligible pseudo-religious lyrics, while Chris Squire’s rumbling bass and harmony vocals anchored the band. Rick Wakeman supplied classical flourishes on the keyboards, while Steve Howe’s agile guitar playing, and Bill Bruford’s jazz-influenced drumming were also important features of their sound. If you can get past any aversion to progressive rock, there’s plenty of solid pop craftsmanship on Yes albums – they’re lushly produced and filled with hooks.
I’ve only covered the group’s albums between 1971-1983 – the period from 1971-1977 is generally held to be their most fertile period, and apart from 1973’s meandering Tales from Topographic Oceans, all of their albums in this time period range from very good to outstanding. Their albums from 1978-1983 are more uncertain, with the group trying to keep up with contemporary trends. I’ve never heard their later work, but some of their work from the 1990s and early 2000s has its share of fans, and apparently their albums from this time are closer to their prog-rock roots.
Yes had a constantly changing lineup even during the time period covered on this page, with bass player Chris Squire the only constant. I’ve included a summary of the band changes below. The first five in the list are the best known lineup, who played on 1971’s Fragile and 1972’s Close to the Edge.
Yes Members, 1971-1983
Jon Anderson: vocals, 1971-1978, 1983
Chris Squire: bass, backing vocals, 1971-1983
Steve Howe: guitars, backing vocals, 1971-1980
Bill Bruford: drums, 1971-1972
Rick Wakeman: keyboards, 1972-1974, 1977-1978
Alan White: drums, 1973-1983
Tony Kaye: keyboards, 1971, 1983
Patrick Moraz: keyboards, 1974
Geoff Downes: keyboards, 1980
Trevor Horn: vocals, 1980
Trevor Rabin: guitars and vocals, 1983
Yes Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Close To The Edge
Overlooked Gem: Relayer
Yes, Time And A Word
I’ve never heard the band’s first two albums, which feature Squire, Bruford, and Anderson. I understand they’re more psychedelic pop than progressive rock.
The Yes Album
If Yes had broken up immediately after The Yes Album I’d appreciate it more, but in the context of Fragile and Close To The Edge it documents a group still on a steep learning curve and still missing some key elements. The Yes Album still feels like a 1960s pop record – albeit featuring a band with a lot of instrumental firepower, and one that drags its songs out at length.
The Yes Album is also Steve Howe’s first album with the band, and he’s immediately amazing, from his live solo showpiece ‘The Clap’ to his solo on standout piece ‘Starship Trooper’. Jon Anderson’s ethereal voice is suited to impressionist fantasies, and the opening phrase “sister bluebird” finds Yes staking out their familiar lyrical concerns. The harmony driven ‘Your Move’ section of ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ is gorgeous, even if the rest of the song drags. The other two epics – ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’ and ‘Perpetual Change’ – both feel overly long, as though Yes are simply stretching pop songs to epic lengths, and don’t have quite enough ideas to make them soar.
While The Yes Album is an entertaining record, it captures Yes in a state of flux; one foot grounded in the 1960s and the other foot stretching into space.
Yes launched full tilt into progressive rock with 1971’s Fragile, rush-released to pay for new member Rick Wakeman’s arsenal of keyboard instruments. To pad out the album, each member was required to contribute a solo piece, with mixed results; I like Bruford’s short freak-out ‘Five Per Cent For Nothing’ and Squire’s bass symphony ‘The Fish’ is entertaining, but overall these solo pieces break up the flow.
The remainder of Fragile is often awe inspiring; ‘Roundabout’, ‘South Side Of The Sky’ and ‘Heart Of The Sunrise’ are three excellent epics, each capturing the band in different moods. ‘Roundabout’ is bouncy, ‘South Side Of The Sky’, about a doomed polar expedition, has a harder edge, while ‘Heart Of The Sunrise’ has vulnerability with Anderson’s plea that he feels “lost in the city.”
Fragile is a very strong record, but the disjointed nature of the solo tracks is enough to keep it out of the top tier of Yes albums.
Close To The Edge
Close To The Edge was the second and final album recorded by the best known Yes lineup, with Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Bill Bruford, and Rick Wakeman. With only three tracks and quasi-religious incomprehensible lyrics, Close To The Edge sounds like a bad idea on paper, but with a huge arsenal of instrumental talent and heavenly harmonies at their disposal, it seems that Yes were capable of making anything work in 1972; Close To The Edge was Yes’ second album for the year, and it’s amazing.
Unlike other side-long pieces, the title track is only one song, rather than a series of related songs stuck together. The structure is more like a classical piece with different themes floating in and out, building through an amazingly proficient organ solo from Wakeman into a wonderful climax. The whole piece is often overwhelmingly evocative and memorable, especially the “I get up, I get down” section, and Jon Anderson’s clear and ethereal vocals are perfectly suited to the material. The second side begins with ‘And You And I’, which is the least hard-hitting song on Close To The Edge, but still fantastic, with a more subtle acoustic flavour, which emphasises the group’s harmonies. The album toughens up again with the riff-driven ‘Siberian Khatru’, with the fabulous chanted climax. The introduction is one of my favourites, as the group transform Howe’s sublime but conventional opening blues riff into a distinctively Yes piece, while I also enjoy Wakeman’s brief harpsichord solo. Other commentators have labelled Close To The Edge as a rock symphony, which is an accurate description.
While the three pieces are distinct, they are linked by Anderson’s streams of vague religious imagery, and they all end in a triumphantly hopeful climax. Nominally Close To The Edge is my favourite album ever; there’s hardly a dull moment in this ambitious progressive suite.
Tales From Topographic Oceans
Often cited as embodying the worst excesses of progressive rock, Tales From Topographic Oceans was Yes’ conceptual double album. Based entirely on a lengthy footnote on page 83 of an obscure religious text, Tales From Topographic Oceans shows Yes stretching their ideas too thin over four side-long tracks. The songs are less arresting; there are less obvious dynamics, and the sections drift into each other.
The obvious highlight is opener ‘The Revealing Science of God’. It’s not as action packed as other side-longs such as ‘Close To The Edge’ or ‘The Gates Of Delirium’, but it still justifies its twenty minute length well enough with a nice melody. ‘The Remembering’ has more nice melodic ideas, and the “relayer” section is arguably the most hook-laden aspect of the entire album. The only place Tales From Topographic Oceans does become something of a chore is ‘The Ancients’ which takes the band into atonal territory for an entire fifteen minutes.
I’ve seen Tales From Topographic Oceans described as the ultimate love it or hate it album, but that’s hardly accurate; it’s certainly not the place to begin an exploration into Yes, but if you’re already a fan it’s perfectly enjoyable, if a little sedate.
After comparing Tales to a padded bra, Wakeman quit Yes to pursue his solo career. He was replaced by Patrick Moraz, who helps push Yes into a more abrasive jazz-fusion direction. Anderson eschews his usual friendly spiritual-babble for an entire album side with the epic ‘Gates of Delirium’, based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s a more difficult listen than usual for Yes, as melody isn’t always the focus and it’s a dense mix, but it’s one of their most rewarding albums.
It’s also one of their most coherent, following the Close To The Edgetemplate of an excellent side long opener followed by two ten minute songs. ‘The Gates of Delirium’ is less of a symphony than ‘Close to the Edge’ or anything from Tales; rather than cycling through and returning to different melodies throughout its course, it sticks to a basic song structure before a lengthy duel between White’s percussion and Moraz’s keyboards, then climaxes in the beautiful ballad ‘Soon’. This lack of repetition makes it less immediate than their other twenty minutes epics, but it’s worth the effort; the uncharacteristic sustained fury of the band during the vocal section, the simple and uplifting melody that lifts out of the battle scene, and the beauty of the final conclusion. The other two songs aren’t quite on the same level, but they’re entertaining and among Yes’ best. ‘Sound Chaser’ is sonic insanity, constantly slowing and speeding up, while managing to be surprisingly catchy. The often criticised “Cha cha cha cha” sections are eccentric, but fit in perfectly. ‘To Be Over’ is the delicate ballad, this time with more of an eastern flavour than Yes had displayed previously.
It’s dense, chaotic, and not the best place to start, but Relayer is easily one of Yes’ strongest and most creative albums.
Going For The One
After releasing seven studio albums between 1969 and 1974, Yes took a three year hiatus from recording as a group while they toured the world and all released solo albums. During the intervening years progressive rock had become less significant, usurped by punk and new wave. In step with the times Going For The One is punchier and more concise, easily their most accessible album since Fragile with a grand total of five songs. Yes recorded the album in Montreux, Switzerland, the homeland of Patrick Moraz. Moraz, however, was fired from Yes early in the sessions, the rest of the group claiming that success went to his head, while Moraz was unhappy that his ideas for the group were not being taken on board. Rick Wakeman was asked to rejoin in his place, and his church organ and piano help Yes to evoke a warmer and more organic feel. The other substantial personnel change on this album is the absence of producer Eddie Offord, who often acted as the group’s sixth member, helping to piece the group’s compositions into coherent form; the closing ‘Awaken’ in particular would have benefited from his ability to edit the group’s work.
The religious lyrics are carried over from Close To The Edge and Tales, but rather than the largely eastern imagery that dominated those records, the lyrics of ‘Wonderous Stories’ and ‘Awaken’ seem to have more of an origin in Christianity, an impression heightened by Anderson’s harp, Wakeman’s Church organ (apparently recorded via telephone) and choirs in the latter. The fast moving opening title track features Howe’s stinging country licks, while the contemplative second track ‘Turn Of The Century’ is a gorgeous acoustic meander through more esoteric territory, arguably the album’s standout song. ‘Parallels’ and ‘Wondrous Stories’ are more concise pop songs, the former opening with a huge church organ riff and a strident Squire bass line, and the latter with a gentle acoustic story of religious pilgrimage. The closing epic ‘Awaken’ does have the most powerful moments of the album; especially the circle of fifths on the “Master of Images” section and the explosive organ solo immediately afterwards, although its impact is lessened by a few dull spots and it would be more effective if it was a few minutes shorter.
Going For The One does feels lightweight next to Yes’s very best albums, but it’s still quintessentially Yes and its five compositions cover a lot of ground stylistically.
While there were no personnel changes for Yes after Going For The One, Tormato features a markedly different sound. Rick Wakeman ditched his mellotrons and instead utilises high pitched synthesiser parts, while Chris Squire uses effects pedals on his bass. Along with an astonishingly high track count (eight songs!), it feels like Yes are updating to fit in with new wave, but in hindsight Tormato is the most dated and least dignified of their seventies releases.
Compounding the problem, it’s also their hokiest bunch of lyrics from the period, with songs like ‘Arriving UFO’ and ‘Circus of Heaven’. It’s a difficult album to warm to, but it’s not without its share of strong tunes. The highlight is Squire’s love song ‘Onward’ – as with everything on the album, it’s a little cheesy – but it’s pretty and heartfelt. Elsewhere, ‘Don’t Kill The Whale’ is also lacking in dignity, but Steve Howe’s leads are especially enjoyable, while ‘Release Release’ is a strong melody even if the crowd noises are off-putting.
Tormato certainly has a lot of issues, but there’s just enough of the classic Yes to make it worth checking out for dedicated fans.
Tormato was generally viewed as disappointing, and Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson left in its aftermath. Improbably, they were replaced by new wave synth duo The Buggles, who had recently enjoyed fame with the hit ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, shifting Yes further into contemporary new wave territory. Keyboardist Geoff Downes does a fine job; his low key virtuosity is a key component of the album’s compromise between prog and new wave. Trevor Horn also does a good job of filling in for Anderson; his singing is close enough to Anderson’s to ensure a relatively seamless transition.
There is enough of substance on Drama to suggest that the union of Yes and Buggles was a good idea, but it’s disappointing overall. ‘Tempus Fugit’ is the only song that captures Yes anywhere near their prime, with an exciting riff augmented by Downes’ keyboard swirls and a dynamic arrangement. ‘Does It Really Happen’ is the other highlight, based around a funky Chris Squire bass riff, giving Yes more of a pop sheen without ever becoming too uncomfortable. The longer epics drag a little – the metal riffing in ‘Machine Messiah’ doesn’t play to the strengths of Yes, while the “I am a camera” lyrics of ‘Into The Lens’ are distracting.
It’s far from a complete disaster, but Drama is a weird culvert in the Yes discography that you don’t need to explore unless you’re an obsessive or you find it cheap.
Steve Howe, Trevor Horn, and Geoff Downes all left Yes after Drama, with Howe and Downes forming the progressive rock super-group Asia. After an attempt to team up with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, Chris Squire and Alan White recruited 19 year old South African Trevor Rabin to form a new band Cinema. Eventually, both Tony Kaye (last in the group in 1971) and Jon Anderson signed up, and the new album was an official Yes product, named after its catalogue number. To make matters even more complicated, Trevor Horn signed back up as a producer.
Rabin is the driving force on 90125; he wrote most of the material, and was the lead vocalist until Anderson was bought in at the eleventh hour. The big hit was opening track ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’; its blaring riff isn’t very reminiscent of seventies Yes, but the track is infectiously catchy and sets the pattern for the remainder of the album. There are still traces of progressive rock remaining; sitar features in ‘It Can Happen’, while ‘Hearts’ has an epic chorus that takes a long time to arrive. Other highlights include the a capella introduction and vocal layering in the chorus of ‘Leave It’; with Anderson, Rabin, Squire, and White all strong singers, this version of Yes was even stronger vocally than the classic lineup.
90125 doesn’t bear much resemblance to 1970’s prog Yes – it’s simply an enjoyable pop album.
Ten Favourite Yes Songs
Close To The Edge
The Gates of Delirium
Heart of the Sunrise
South Side of the Sky