When I went to my first Yes concert in 2000, I kind of knew what to expect. Having seen several recorded performances over the years, as well as performances by other "classic rock" artists, one thing was apparent: these bands were stuck in the 1970s.
So, when Yes took the stage at the PNC Bank Arts Center that summer, I knew what to expect, enjoyed the experience thoroughly (enough to go out to see them two more times, in fact) but was still somewhat disappointed the band pretty much kept to the staples -- the "Roundabouts," the "Close to the Edge's," the "Awaken's" were represented. But, what about the band's later catalog? What's the point of them making new music if they just continue to fall back on their old chestnuts?
Thankfully, that's where their latest cashgrab, er, I mean, release comes in. Not to try and be funny or anything, but Essentially Yes is essentially the 148th re-release of some type to come from the Yes library since their first album in 1969. In fact, they seem to be one of the most prolific from the onset, with Yesterdays coming in 1975. The difference this time, however, is this retread is retreading those later releases that tend to get one or two songs played on the tour for that particular, then stowed away in favor of another rendition of "I've Seen All Good People."
Starting with Talk (1994), guitarist Trevor Rabin's last salvo with the band and continuing through Open Your Eyes (1997), The Ladder (1999), Magnification (2001) to their live from Montreux, Switzerland, performance in 2003, Essentially Yes is essentially all one needs to get them up to speed with that band that released "Owner of Lonely Heart" over 20 years ago.
The Ladder, which many fans praised (perhaps a bit too much) following the universally lukewarm reception to Open Your Eyes, is still lacking. Songs like "It Will Be A Good Day" and "To Be Alive" are beautiful and harmoniously Yes (oops, I hope I didn't give anyone a title idea for the next compilation), with Jon Anderson, by this point 55 years old, singing in that trademark high-pitched sing-song voice about peace and love and all that good shit, while "Lightning Strikes" is a sprightly attempt at a late-career hit that's pretty enjoyable. Some songs, however, tended to meander and, at points, that peace/love vibe Anderson has always touted seemed phoned in. Still, for many, it was a return to form.
Longtime guitarist Steve Howe had returned to the fold after a long hiatus (sure, he was on 1991's Union and part of the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe project in 1989, but I don't generally consider him a full-on member of the band since he left after Drama (1980)) and hopes were high that 4/5ths of the "classic" lineup (Anderson, Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White), along with longtime Yes collaborator Billy Sherwood (guitars) and newcomer keyboardist Igor Khoroshev would produce a golden piece of classic Yes following Rabin's departure.
What came, Open Your Eyes, was generally dismissed as a meandering, unfocused attempt at combining the magic of the band's 1970s output following Rabin's departure. In truth, it's not *bad*, but it wanders a bit. Songs like "Love Shine" have that disingenuous "we're Yes so we need to sound like super peace-loving hippies" vibe to it, "Universal Garden" meanders, while the title track has a pretty catchy vibe. So, no, it's not horrible (perhaps it wasn't well received because it was a bit of a departure post-Rabin), it's not terrible, though it's certainly the weakest of this collection.
The real treats are the bookends. Talk, Rabin's last album, has been said to have been the most complete Rabin-era release ever. I agree. Following much hootin and hollerin in the 1980s of whether or not Trevor Rabin had seized too much control over the writing in the band, he and Anderson collaborated throughout Talk and came through with not only a critical success (if not a commercial one), but a thoroughly listenable one as well. "The Calling" and "Walls" are poppy and toe tapping, while "Endless Dream" ranks up there as one of Yes' most compelling, thrilling long-form compositions, making a 15-minute piece feel like it's over far too soon, making the listener hit repeat, as I did often when I first heard this album 13 years ago.
Magnification, the band's most recent (and sadly, I think, probably final) studio release, was the first to also feature a full orchestra (in place of the departing Khoroshev). While some of Anderson's somewhat tired and increasingly cliche love babble is still present, some of it is plenty good and poetic, such as the all too short and utterly beautiful closer "Time is Time," the bombastic "Spirit of Survival" the classic Yes sounding "Give Love Each Day" and another too short track, the Squire-sung "Can You Imagine." If there was to be a final Yes album, this is certainly a fine one to go out on.
It's just too bad Rick Wakeman wasn't a part of the process. For, shortly after releasing Magnification, the virtuoso keyboardist came back to the fold and performed several tours with the band, including those aforementioned two other concerts I got to see. Somewhere amidst that run the band performed live in Montreux, Switzerland and recorded the fifth disc in this collection. Their set was comprised of, of course, mostly classic-era material, but also featured a pair from Magnification. "In the presence of" might not have been my first choice, but its inclusion was nice, the sound quality of this recording is professional, and the album makes this package just different enough to warrant its existence.
Being a relatively latecomer to the band, I was never around to see Yes in their true prime, that 1970s era that garnered their most critical of successes. As a 4-year-old, I wasn't a fan yet to appreciate the band's one true mega-success, 90125 in 1983. It wasn't until the late 1980s had I taken a true shine to one of the true greats of classic rock and I haven't looked back. Perhaps it's that late entry that has always made me more of a Rabin-era fan than a Howe-era fan, and perhaps that's also why I consider myself a fan of the music, not of the memories of the era that many associate with Yes' music of the 70s.
Essentially Yes, then, comes plenty recommended as something for those fans pie-eyed for the band's prime, that haven't given them a chance since, and for anyone who truly enjoys good music -- even if this is the bazillionith collection they've released.