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THE YES ALBUM

Yes

 

Symphonic Prog

4.28 | 1900 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'The Yes Album' - Yes (71/100)

Greatness has to start somewhere, and though Yes have long since earned a place in the pantheon of prog rock legend, there was in fact a time when Yes found themselves in troubled waters. Before "Roundabout", before Fragile or Relayer or any of the band's notable achievements, Yes were a psychedelic prog act with a pair of commercially unsuccessful albums. Yes and Time and a Word were solid records to be certain, but they weren't enough to keep Atlantic records happy. Thus was delivered an ultimatum; Yes would have to notch up their act and attract some attention, or the record label would be forced to drop them. As it so appears, diamonds aren't the only gems to be forged from pressure. There's no knowing whether The Yes Album would have come together the way it did had the band not had that weight of expectation on their shoulders, but it marks the first memorable and style-defining classic of their illustrious career. It has not aged as well as the masterpieces to come, but Yes' fusion of pop-infused cheer with prog rock sophistication set a strong foundation for the band's golden era.

Some will point the finger at Fragile or even "Close to the Edge", but I've always felt The Yes Album was the perfect point of entry for someone looking to see what Yes were all about. Although undeniably rooted within prog rock territory, The Yes Album is an incredibly accessible album. Even in their unabridged forms, "Starship Trooper" and "I've Seen All Good People" have the potential to instantly stick in a casual listener's mind. Yes would almost always have an optimistic tinge in their atmosphere, but The Yes Album is outright cheerful. The mid-paced softer track "A Venture" is a bit of a baroque, mysterious-sounding exception, but the majority of the album evokes vivid imagery of summer and bright-eyed wonder. "I've Seen All Good People" even echoes the chorus to "Give Peace A Chance" at a point! I would say that there is a resounding sense of hope here, but that would suggest the potential for a darker outcome. The Yes Album negates darkness entirely with its atmosphere. Sure, the lyrics at times might be interpreted as less-than-cheery (I've heard "Yours Is No Disgrace" commonly interpreted as being about the Vietnam War, I've sometimes seen the lyrics even regarding the fallout of nuclear war) but even then, the only possible outcome for the subject matter is one where all is resolved and humanity flourishes with the power of love. I mean, I don't think I've ever heard a song that's so unrepentantly rose-tinted about human nature as "I've Seen All Good People". As optimistic as they may sound compared to prog rock both then and now, the rest of Yes' albums didn't even sound as cheerful as this.

The slow, unassuming closer "Perpetual Change" has never struck me as a particularly memorable piece, and "A Venture", in spite of its clever songwriting, tends to get lost in the woodwork of the album, dwarfed by the two epics that precede it. Barring that last third, The Yes Album contains some of the most memorable songs Yes ever wrote. As I've said, "Starship Trooper" and "I've Seen All Good People" are instantly gratifying epics. Even if the musicianship is kept to an expectedly high standard (Bill Bruford's lively drumwork stands out in particular), the passages that focus on technical skill are few and far between. It's all about accessible, breezy songwriting here. Hell, "I've Seen All Good People" would have made a perfect radio single even in its unabridged seven minute form. "Yours Is No Disgrace" offers some pretty stark dynamic changes throughout its ten minute course, but it always feels direct and focused in its approach.

Yes' more instantly gratifying approach to progressive rock was likely what saved them from the cutting block, and the songwriting should only need one or two spins to get really stuck in a listener's head. Therein lies some of the problem I've had with The Yes Album, really; it offers up its eggs so readily, and without any challenge to the listener. Especially with an album that's widely considered to be one of progressive rock's finest, I would have hoped and expected to hear an album that grows on me with time and age. Instead, the wilful optimism and ubiquitous cheer only tend to wear on the nerves, given too much exposure. Compared to Fragile and especially Close to the Edge, The Yes Album sounds downright primitive. Like I said, it's a gateway album.

With The Yes Album, there's no denying that Yes owed a large part of their stronger style and success to Steve Howe, replacing Peter Banks as the band's new guitarist. In retrospect, it's difficult to think of Yes without the rich, twangy and lively fingerstyle Howe brought to the table. "Yours Is No Disgrace" introduces Howe's style wonderfully; a lead played overtop the intro marries a clean electric rock tone with a brand of rapidfire fingerpicking you would sooner find in bluegrass of all things. "The Clap" (retitled in a few painfully politically correct reissues merely as "Clap") is a total showcase of his brilliance as an acoustic player as well. Howe's classical guitar influence isn't as evident here as it would be on future albums, but he made a bold and adventurous introduction with the band here. It's not often a recently added musician goes to such lengths to influence a band's sound, but Howe's addition only ever worked to the band's favour.

Even upon first hearing it in its instantly gratifying glory, The Yes Album has never struck me as the masterpiece others attest it is, and of the three notable mini-epics here, only "Starship Trooper" gets regular attention from me. It isn't as brushed up or thoughtfully arranged as the rest of the albums from Yes' golden period, but that can easily be forgiven when you take the album in the context of their career. The Yes Album marked a strong transition from just being another psych rock band to a burgeoning legend of prog. If The Yes Album, in all of its poppy, pep-rally glory can be held to thank for making everything from Fragile to Going for the One possible, then I can only be thankful for its existence. It's a great place for a newcomer to start with Yes, but make no mistake, there are far greater things to experience from them.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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