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Yes - Fragile CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.44 | 3334 ratings

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5 stars No matter the genre, there's something awe-inspiring about listening to a band at the peak of their craft.

In my view 'The Yes Album' represented a new pinnacle in rock. 'Fragile's mountain is equally lofty: its rarefied summit unattainable by mortals, who can only gaze upwards in wonder from the lower slopes. As I crane my neck and stare, I can only marvel at what YES accomplished.

The album is constructed similarly to its predecessor, in my view. Much is made of the group's self-indulgence, in that they intersperse the album with short pieces showcasing each member's talents, but I do think this argument is overstated. You'd never come across a more self-indulgent musician than RICK WAKEMAN - EMERSON, perhaps, I don't know why possession of a keyboard makes people think they're Chopin - but he limits himself to less than two minutes. BRUFORD gets half a minute. And the other three pieces are entirely worthy of their place on this record. Like 'The Yes Album' four extended pieces form the corners of the record: in this case, 'Roundabout', 'South Side of the Sky', 'Long Distance Runaround/The Fish' and 'Heart of the Sunrise', appearing in more or less the same places as do the four extended compositions on the preceding album. The shorter pieces are woven around those four enormous slabs of music, providing variety, rest and relief - allowing us to come down from the summit for the occasional brief respite.

'Roundabout' is prog rock's signature tune. Against all commercial reason a shortened version of this epic made it on to the charts. I've never heard the single edit, nor do I have any desire to. Like 'Yours is no Disgrace' from their previous album, this is musical perfection. The compositional balance is stunning, with an intro dramatic in its simplicity. HOWE's harmonics and acoustic guitar are so clean, so sharp, one is immediately aware of being somewhere new. Then in comes the fabled rhythm section, SQUIRE's bass grinding and tearing at your intestines, that overdriven Rickenbacker growling, stepping up and down the amazing tonal range he uses. While HOWE is a fabulous guitar player, YES's glory days were dominated by SQUIRE and his bass filled the gap usually occupied by guitar heroes or keyboard whizzes. BRUFORD indulges in his masterful trickery, constantly withholding the expected beat, the very epitome of syncopation, and ANDERSON provides the vocal impetus and harmonies (with SQUIRE) that were the foundation of the band. There's simply no weakness here. Riffs and melodies are snatched from the gods and sprinkled throughout the song, called into being on a whim, retired and then brought back again exactly at the right moment, ensuring that the eight minutes passes far too soon. The intro is reprised, WAKEMAN flashes a keyboard solo at us and the song comes to a climax with harmonised vocals lifting us even higher. Even the nonsensical imagery is perfect: mountains, lakes, ten true summers; the band is painting on a canvas the size of the world. This music captured my heart when I first heard it, and I remain totally in thrall to it.

A short interlude follows. Give thanks, my friends, that we didn't end up with one of Henry VIII's wives here. Far from self-indulgence, the band is applying serious restraint. WAKEMAN's Brahms folly is followed by ANDERSON's 'We Have Heaven', a track I consider a real highlight. Remember that SQUIRE and ANDERSON originally got together to explore vocal harmonies, and on this track - a sophisticated 'round', where layer after layer of vocals are added to a simple tune - the band demonstrates their playfulness. I can't praise this vignette highly enough, and finish by pointing out that, again, it is restrained almost to the point of sparseness in its length.

The second monolith of the album is up next, heralded by the blowing of a cold wind, signalling a return to the lofty, snow-covered peaks of musical achievement. This track sees HOWE at his most aggressive, his guitar snarling like a mountain lion over the top of a solid rhythm section. SQUIRE holds back here, allowing HOWE to come to the fore. The track is rather simple by YES standards, two sections of verse/chorus separated by a quieter middle section in which WAKEMAN stretches his musical legs and plays some very impressive classical piano at us. Clever choice, that: those cold ivories complement the chilly feeling generated by this track's vocals, sound effects and lyrics.

BRUFORD opens the second side by dashing through the only truly dispensable track on the album, barely allowing us time to shuffle in our seats before the band roars into the third extended workout. Perhaps I'm pushing things here to label 'Long Distance Runaround/The Fish' as one track, but as both works are dominated by SQUIRE's astonishing bass and are joined by a deliberate segue, that's how I see them. One does not get played without the other. Again, the track is reminiscent of the two part 'I've Seen All Good People' from 'The Yes Album'. Listen to that bass work. Delight in the downward slides, enjoy the bass rumble, see how it all fits together. Marvel at a rhythm section the like of which you'll not hear again. Enjoy how they bring back the intro two-thirds of the way through. Then appreciate the segue as SQUIRE lets loose with 'The Fish', his harmonics augmented by the addition of layer after layer of bass sounds: one of the few examples of using a backing instrument to make a stunning song. Indulgence? Never. This is brilliance.

STEVE HOWE gets to reprise 'The Clap' by playing his acoustic 'Mood for a Day', another respite, but a thoroughly enjoyable guitar adventure, with a melody of real beauty.

And finally the true peak of the album. 'Heart of the Sunrise' wins me over even before I hear it: what an evocative title! And the extended intro is a classic of the genre, with the fast motif leading into a slower piece where BRUFORD and SQUIRE show us just what syncopation is all about, a drum and bass duel that builds and builds. Note how SQUIRE selects when to use a lower note than in the previous run, watch him change it up on a seemingly random basis, be enthralled as BRUFORD holds back the beat, teasing you, building up tension; let the mellotron soak into you as the pressure increases, then HOWE's eagle guitar turns up late and soars over everything, until the music bursts back into the opening theme.

I'm sorry, there aren't the words to describe the depth and breadth of what these musicians achieve here.

Finally a sense of calm is brought to proceedings and ANDERSON's gentle vocals begin the song proper. Gentle vocals, and you know you're being set up: these lyrics will reappear at the song's end at full strength. Between now and then we wander off into lands where odd time signatures are the norm, where power is countered by fragility, and ANDERSON asks his plaintive, nonsensical questions. As with 'Roundabout', the band introduces and reprises a variety of themes, giving one the sense at first listen of hearing an old friend, yet providing delight on the hundredth meeting. Compositionally brilliant, these arrangements are immensely satisfying. And so the album reaches its highest peak as the music slows fractionally - a technique used at the end of 'Supper's Ready' - and ANDERSON belts out the opening lyrics amid a truly majestic backdrop. 'How can the wind with so many around me/I feel lost in the city!'

Suddenly it's over, and like every climber who has reached the summit of the world's highest mountain, the only way is down. But, staggeringly, it's not. In 1972 this band scale an even higher mountain. But that album in no way reduces the heights this one attains.

russellk | 5/5 |


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