Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Triumvirate of Doom: The Yes Catastrophe of the mid 1970's

Surely the most beloved Prog band of basement-dwelling virgins everywhere during the moribund sludge of the Carter Presidency – and on, shockingly, to this day – Yes was a band I listened to as a youth because my brother had all of their albums, and after all, had it not been for my much older bro, I would never have known of Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Dark Side of the Moon, or even Physical Graffiti, the album that taught The Curator the power of the Rock. Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania in an old coal mining town that was haemorrhaging jobs like a slaughtered hog, my misery was tempered by my love of Prog. I even had a pretend Prog band in which I played keyboards – they were called Palace and had one album, Mechanical Mysteries, of course I still remember it, I was about nine and heavy into 2112, I did the album art myself (you have to with imaginary playthings) and it was a spaceman floating by a lifecord outside of a generic-looking starbase. My pretend band broke up not long after – I had the guitarist die in a horrible car wreck ala Marc Bolan – and I never actually learned to play the keyboards; but I always loved Prog and still consider King Crimson to be my favorite band. Prog is very important to me for reasons you will never be able to understand.

I listened to those albums and was one weird kid, digging Jean-Luc Ponty because my bro did, reading too much, being gangly, wearing glasses, being regularly beaten by the grimy-nailed cognoscenti of coal patch hauteur, digging on the Alan Parsons Project and plotting revenge, picking up a lifetime’s worth of neuroses and swearing that someday I would leave and never return. As I grew older and started to think for myself, I followed through with my threat to leave, and began to acquire obscure culture as a proof that what those bullies held as sacred was in fact trash, and that I was better than they were because I knew who Antonin Artaud was. Off in college, one day I was listening to Jon Anderson’s idiotic New Age-y vocals emitted in that unutterably piercing and shrill voice he had crafted and was never held accountable for, and I realized that I really didn’t like this band very much, even considering the skill of the musicians and generally trippy atmosphere of the whole production, from album cover to finished vinyl. I believe I truly entered adulthood and independence from my faulty childhood the day I accepted that Yes was a fucking horrible band.

Over the years, thinking more and more about the time lost to Rick Wakeman’s keyboard peregrinations and Anderson’s sheep-being-slaughtered vocal excesses, I came to despise Yes, blaming them for ruining Prog and making an already bleak and sorrowful world an even darker place with the truly wretched excess of their output. There have been many things said about Yes, and if I wanted to, I could keep the PRHOI in business for the next five years just publishing reviews of Yes albums proper, various side-projects and the myriad groups they somehow inspired to make similarly indulgent and pointless music. I’m going to pass on that option, as I’m forbiddingly depressed enough already to ever survive writing my thoughts on Tales from Topographic Oceans or Wakeman’s own Journey to the Center of the Earth madness. Instead, I’m going to deal with three of the albums that Yes released over a roughly 40 month span in the mid to late 70’s, albums that signaled a band in decline and yet simultaneously at the height of their powers. For as they died, like a great god or king, they resolved to take everyone down with them, and the results of this infernal pact with the Lords of Suck were Relayer, Going for the One, and Tormato – the last perhaps the worst and most ridiculous title ever bestowed on any album, crap or classic, Prog or mainstream. Look at that goddamn album cover, look at it – and tell me your liberal heart still yearns to abolish capital punishment for a crime against aesthetics so vile and miserable. Shark Sandwich was made up, but these motherfuckers were coming from the heart.

The incomprehensible – and in my view inexcusable – long-term popularity of Yes is largely due to a phenomenon I have observed in other culturally-challenged sub groupings of society – prison Nazis, collectors of Thomas Kinkade paintings, people with a lot of Pottery Barn flatware in their kitchens. The problem is one of mistaking all similar product with being of similar quality; i.e., if I like King Crimson, it is only natural that I would have a yen for Yes. If I drink beer, then Budweiser or Kokanee will be fine if Pilsner is too expensive. If mushrooms make for a good trip, perhaps I’ll try huffing nail polish remover. The point is, none of these quasi-syllogisms ring true, and are in fact dangerous misjudgments that help define the culture whore as opposed to the truly cultured.

Yes exemplifies that lack of discretion in the follower of Prog. Take these three monstrously abominable and mind-numbingly boring albums as proof of the gaping void that must animate the Prog whore’s discernment reflex. Relayer was in the spirit of earlier Yes efforts, meaning that the record starts with a 21:55 second “song” that is about as focused as a drunk’s urine stream and hops from notion to notion (none of the elements could be properly called “ideas”) like a third-grader who forgot to take his Ritalin. Sadly, as Steve Howe’s guitar work is often dynamic – there is even what appears to be a little nod to Jimmy Page’s brilliantly messy solo from “Heartbreaker” on “Sound Chaser” – the music is controlled by the interruptions of Alan White’s overly noisy drums and the unusually aggressive vocal stylings of Anderson. Indeed, what identifies Relayer the most to me is its sheer noisiness – new member Patrick Moraz, having replaced the grandiose stylings of Rick Wakeman on keyboards, is given little chance to do other than offer fills to violent bursts of cacophony and the ever-present threat of Anderson’s bleating; allowed to calm these tracks down a little, Moraz might have proved valuable. As it is, he’s lost in a mix overrun mad with ego.

While Anderson’s lyrics were mildly annoying and pretentious on Relayer, the follow up album Going for the One presents a man in full flower of personal idolatry. There’s much more actual singing on this album – a threat on the order of magnitude of Ethel Merman or Anthony Newly – and an unconscionable need to fill the mix with an avalanche of noise. Alan White may be the best drummer in the world for all I know, but I still hate him because on these two albums the sheer overload of sound he produces makes following the interesting guitar work utterly impossible; and yet, perversely, he gets back to hammering out a beat when Anderson’s vocals start, just the moment when any amount of noise is desperately needed to drown out the pseudo-mystical chicanery mewed out with the unction of a Papal castrati by the loathsome Jon Anderson.

Going is also notable for its cover. A Roger Dean operation that is very far removed from his sword-and-sorcerers proto-Heavy Metal style that essentially defined both the band and the genre for the entire decade (and mercilessly and spot-on parodied by Krautrock geniuses Grobschnitt on 1977’s Rockpommel’s Land – a triumph of slander) , this is another of those bare-assed Apollos that popped up way too often in those years on album sleeves, Rush being similarly obsessed with this “masculine” imagery. Regardless of what this may let slip about the band and its followers, the design is as pointless as the record, and is as foolish as Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy, a horrible cover that perfectly matches the shit product contained within. Thus, it’s a package compleat; a holistic hell of shallowness and wasted virtuosity, crappy album art, Jon Anderson, and the knowledge that the music you’re listening to is beloved by guys who have been to every Rush concert since the Power Windows tour.

Finally, the triumvirate collapses utterly on Tormato, an album so worthless that I almost feel bad for the kind of band that would produce such drek. Not a lot can be said about the banality of this waste, so why not just consider the song titles and tell me that you have any desire to actually listen to the fucking thing: “Don’t Kill the Whale”, “Arriving UFO” and “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” – the last very probably the worst song on any of the three disastrous albums in question, and having the fetid scent of John Anderson all over the composition, like a small mangy dog that in a fit of petulence pisses on its homeless master's blanket of newspapers. Indeed, what seems to have pushed the group from the rather innocuous blandness of The Yes Album to the aggressive and metastasizing horror of The Triumvirate is that Anderson took control of the band, enforced his philosophies on the proceedings, and insisted that he could sing. For years I have wondered: what is it, precisely, that makes me hate Jon Anderson as a singer above any other performer who has ever picked up a microphone – beyond Tito Jackson, Barry Manilow, or even the loathsome Dennis DeYoung? Recently, while thinking the problem over, I believe I came to an answer. If you listen to Anderson at his most obnoxious, there is a depth to his would-be falsetto that hints at a range of bad vocals all going on at once. Specifically, I invite you to listen to CSN&Y and their most bloated track, “Deja Vu”, coincidentally one of the most homicidal-rage-inducing songs this side of Harry Chapin. During the chorus of “we have all been here before”, you can hear the vague outlines of Anderson’s voice as it blossomed to full atrocity – indeed, I am convinced that what is most awful about his “style” is that Jon Anderson is, somehow, a one-man barbershop quartet, harmonizing with his own voice to create a chimera vile, perverse and utterly unequalled for horror in the history of rock music. Squire could play bass, Howe was a fine guitarist, when Bill Bruford was in the band they had probably the best Prog drummer in the world. But Jon Anderson was capable of drawing attention only to himself, and merely by giving voice to his own inane, Deepak-Chopra-deep lyrics; like a dwarf rushing the stage and setting himself on fire during the swordfight scene of Hamlet, what goes on around him may be brilliant or even sublime, but you can only watch that little fucker burn and scream, burn and scream, just like my ears will only ever hear the endless la-la-las of Anderson as he destroys yet another song with his interminable singing of utterly vapid lyrics.

I am forever coming to grips with the tragedy of my childhood; but already, tonight, a burden has been lifted, and a perhaps brighter future beckons. I hate Yes, and now the world knows. And, even more importantly – I now know why.

Liberation, you are a sweet, sweet mistress. - TR


  1. Tormato must have the distinction of being the worst album with the most vinyl copies in print. No cutout bins in retail chain record stores ever had less than 12 of these at any given time back when I was a teenager.

  2. There has never been an album that had more contempt for the fans of the group than "Tormato"- Yes denizens, I ask you to consider my point. I don't hate you- your favorite band does.
    It hurts, but sit back and really listen to what they threw at you on this and other albums- rotting fruit for fresh vegetables. "Thrak" was that moment for me, and trust me- I love the Crim.

  3. I think you need to rename this to Badblog. What tripe!