BY HAL BIENSTOCK
Yes is one of the most hated bands in rock and roll. To some extent, I can understand why (more on that later), but it’s mostly unfair. In an era when even the most hardcore fan of one-chord punk has grudging respect for Radiohead and The Flaming Lips, it’s hard to see why Yes is seen less an influence and more as a guilty pleasure at best, a joke at worst. After all, what is the Lips’ The Soft Bulletin if not a Yes album? Wayne Coyne even sounds like Jon Anderson at times.
The holiday season release of the 13 CD Studio Albums box set offers a good opportunity to reassess Yes while showing off both the band’s myriad strengths and serious failings.
Let’s start with the strengths. The three best albums from their 1970s heyday – The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge – are great records that hold up remarkably well. Do they have goofy lyrics about spaceships and mountains? Damn right they do. But these albums also are everything prog-rock should be. They’re ambitious, musically adventurous and played by serious musicians who are great at their instruments. Unlike most prog, they’re also chock full of hooks. Most of the band’s best, and best-known, songs are here: “Roundabout,” “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Starship Trooper,” “And You and I.” All deserve another hearing. The band’s overlooked 1977 album, Going for the One is almost as strong. Unfortunately, it’s the last Yes album you can say that about.
Then there’s the good. The band’s first two albums, Yes and Time and a Word are often ignored, but both have a lot to recommend them. The band is still trying to find itself on these albums, but that process is quite a bit of fun to listen to, especially when they tackle songs by the Beatles, the Byrds and Richie Havens. Their 1983 comeback 90125 is also worth revisiting, although it’s marred by terrible early ‘80s production. Still, many of the songs are well-crafted, and I had forgotten how strange hits like “Leave It” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” actually are.
Of course, no overview of Yes’ career would be complete without a look at the bad. And boy, is it bad. 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans usually comes in for the most criticism – understandable considering it was released as a double album with one song per side and was built around a concept that no one actually understands but supposedly has something to do with Eastern religions. The music itself isn’t all bad. There’s a decent 35-minute album in here somewhere, but who would bother spending the time to find it?
Its follow up, Relayer, is far worse. And 1987’s Big Generator, which is available for the first time in the U.S. in its expanded and remastered version through this set, is equally bad. I can’t see anyone ever hitting play on either one.
The remaining albums, Tormato and the Jon Anderson-less Drama, both have their moments ( “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” “Tempus Fugit”), but are tough to listen to all the way through.
The set looks and sounds great. It includes the most recent expanded and remastered editions of the albums, and each disc comes with original artwork and gatefolds (although not the booklets that were packaged with original pressings of some of the albums).
As with any box set, the big question is: should I buy this? At a list price of nearly $75, it’s hard to justify, unless you’re a fan who for some reason never got around to buying the remasters when they first came out. For the price, you’re getting four very good to great albums and three good ones. Cherry picking the highlights is probably your best bet. Hopefully this set encourages people to do that.
DOWNLOAD: “And You and I” “Starship Trooper” “Heart of the Sunrise”