By Johan P, with the amiable assistance of David Rosales. This review continues Death Metal Underground’s 1970s Progressive Rock for Hessians series.
In this part of the article series “1970s Progressive Rock for Hessians”, I have chosen to take on the English group Yes‘ fourth album Fragile from 1971. While their fifth effort, Close to the Edge, is generally regarded as their creative peak and definite statement, Fragile was more important for the development of the nascent progressive rock genre, and perhaps a more suitable entry point for someone who is getting into prog rock from a metal background. There is definitely a sense of power in the works of Yes even if it takes on a different form than what we are used to in metal music. Where early metal bands like Black Sabbath expressed a gritty, doom-laden heaviness through guitar-centered power chord riffing, Yes opted to build momentum through a more instrumentally integrated approach. That is not to say that there are no heavy guitar parts on ‘Fragile’, but here the guitars assume a somewhat different role than in metal.
I suggest anyone who is curious of the music of Yes (or progressive rock in general) to approach the music on its own terms and not just as a comparison to other listening preferences. In terms of songwriting, instrumental performance and conceptual vision, Fragile and its follow-up pushed the frontiers of rock music while still being listenable. Fragile has stood the test of time remarkably well, not just as a progressive rock album but as great music regardless of classification. Below I present some of my arguments for this stance.
In the Beginning…
Yes was founded by vocalist Jon Anderson and bass guitarist Chris Squire in 1968, with a third core member, former jazz percussionist Bill Bruford, joining later the same year. Starting out as experimental pop-rock outfit, they released two albums in this style before moving closer to the sound and structures of the dawning progressive movement on their third opus, The Yes Album (1971). The album featured four longer multi-sectional compositions, bridged by two short pieces. Although some sections sound a bit blockish, these songs showcased a band that had not only evolved as song writers but who had expanded their musical palette considerably. The addition of the fourth core member – encyclopedic guitarist Steve Howe- at this point was an important factor for the musical broadening.
Symphonic Progressive Rock and the Classical Connection
A large part of the band’s sound had fallen into place by the time of The Yes Album even if it would take Yes two more albums to fully realize their style’s compositional potential. Their style can be described as belonging to the “symphonic” camp of progressive rock. This is the most inclusive of the various prog subgenres as it potentially encapsulates all progressive rock bands who play some sort of mix between rock and western classical music. Symphonic rock is also the least fashionable; it has in some circles become a somewhat derogatory term for pretentiousness and pomposity in rock music.
A stylistic signature of this sub-genre of progressive rock is the use of a wide range of instruments, i.e. various keyboard instruments or synthesizers are used to emulate the sounds of a real orchestra. Others include lengthy and complex compositions in comparison to other rock genres and sometimes an aspiration to integrate stylistic material from other musical genres. Last but not least, there is the idea of mixing rock with classical music. This is something I find interesting but problematic.
“Western classical music” isn’t exactly a narrow or easily defined genre so when a band claims to be “influenced by classical music” it can mean just about anything. For the sake of simplicity I will single out three different methods that prog rock bands have used to integrate some sort of influence from western classical music into their rock ‘n’ roll. First, there are bands like ELP (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) who make direct quotes from the classical canon into a rock context. ELP are probably one of the more successful examples of this type; they often had the whole of the original composition in mind when quoting classical sources. Furthermore, the feral playing style of ELP’s keyboardist Keith Emerson gives these quotations a highly-entertaining, ferocious characterg. Others did far worse by taking the most crowd-pleasing fragments from classical works to use in quite pedestrian rock songs without any regard for context. I find this type of method for mixing classical and rock music to often lack any lasting value in these cases. It isn’t aesthetically rewarding to hear works which in their original form show a great deal of subtlety and multifacetedness be reduced to simple radio rock tunes.
The second variant, which is closely related to the first mentioned method, features rock bands joined by classical musicians (often a whole orchestra) to perform rock songs. This was a popular combination in the late sixties and early seventies, with major bands like Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and even Yes themselves releasing albums backed by symphony orchestras. These experiments seldom lasted for more than one record. Either it was too expensive to keep a whole orchestra occupied, the results weren’t as good as bands had hoped, or most probably a combination of both. There are two easily identifiable weaknesses present in the majority of these releases: First, during most of the records’ playing time, there is seldom any musical interaction between the rock band and the orchestra; either they play two separated songs, or the orchestra just add some arbitrary embellishment to the rock material. The second and biggest problem was that the actual songs weren’t interesting enough to start with and collapse under the additional orchestral weight.
The third and most interesting method for mixing classical music and progressive rock eschews the more superficial traits of the other two methods, which used classical music more as a resource to exploit and as a badge of honor. Instead, this more effective course opts for integration on a deeper compositional level. Isolating and showing exactly where this influence is at work is much harder in contrast to the earlier mentioned methods. Although it is highly unlikely that listeners would mistake Yes for a classical orchestra, I consider the music on Fragile to be a good example of this more effective integration. Like most progressive rock, Yes’s music is rooted in the rock tradition even if their style is more elaborated and eclectic. What’s important is that classic-era Yes broke away from many rock conventions in search of a new musical language which better suited their conceptual vision. This new style was not just a quest for novelty but a way to find better means of expression, and the influence of classical music was one of its components.
Discovering classical influences in the music of Yes is not impossible no matter how deep they are buried. There are so many things that could be mentioned here but to avoid the tediousness of excessive enumeration I have chosen to give only a few relevant examples. One of the more explicit is is the frequent use of contrapuntal melodies which I will touch occasionally throughout the text. A second example is the way Yes broadened their musical vocabulary by expanding their harmonic language. Yes’ guitarist Steve Howe undertook some serious work in this field. His playing repertoire is not limited to just rock and western classical music: there are nods to folk, jazz, country and Indian classical music as well. He used these influences tastefully, avoiding the pitfalls of exoticism and imitation on Fragile.
Towards a New Language of Rock
1971 was a busy year for Yes. Not only did they release two albums, The Yes Album and Fragile), this was also the year the group metamorphosed into what came to be the classic Yes configuration. The classic Yes line-up was completed with the arrival of the classically trained pianist/organist/keyboardist Rick Wakeman (primarily known by metalheads as the guy who provided session keyboards on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). With his expertise as a musician and his willingness to experiment, he was a perfect match. Yes were at this time constantly trying to expand their sonic palette, both by improving their instrumental skills and incorporating new instruments. Wakeman’s precursor Tony Kaye (keyboard player on Yes’s first three albums) was sacked due of his reluctance to expand his set of instrumentation beyond the Hammond organ and piano.
With their newest member onboard, Yes now possessed the necessary knowledge and experience they needed for realizing their vision of a new form of rock music. Although much has written about the virtuosic qualities of the individual members of classic-period Yes, I think more attention should be given to their strength as a collective. There seem to have been some kind of synergy effect at play that elevated their combined efforts to a new level while writing and recording ‘Fragile’. This view of Yes as an integrated union of artists is confirmed by an inspection of the track list and liner notes included in the LP sleeve. The album is centered around four collectively arranged works, complemented by five solo compositions (one by each individual member, which in terms of quality range from brilliant to agreeable). While the solo pieces definitely play an integral role on the album, the heart and soul of ‘Fragile’ lies in the group effort.
What I find most striking about the group pieces is their highly organic and integrated character. They have a natural, seamless flow to them which is quite remarkable considering their scale and density. This character is strengthened by each song’s underlying narrative which takes the listener on a journey through a variety of moods. It is impossible for an outsider to reconstruct the compositional songwriting process which led to the creation of Fragile, but some information on the construction of the album may be extracted by reading certain interviews and biographical material.
The Compositional Process I: Building the Songs
There is a reason that Fragile is, on a surface level, relatively tuneful and accessible. In each group piece there is an underlying “song” in a more conventional sense that constitutes the backbone of the composition. These basic songwriting ideas would be strong enough to function as independent tunes, but instead the band chose to use these “songs” as the core material on which to construct more intricate compositions. Judging from the multitude of musical ideas both big and small coming from all Yes members that are crammed into the album, the band probably had a lot of material to work with. The task of “sewing” the pieces together mostly fell on Rick Wakeman. It must have been a gigantic labor to arrange and transform all these disparate parts into a comprehensible whole, but he obviously did excellent work.
Several traditional rock components are still present, ie the familiar verses, choruses and instrumental sections. These parts are brought into a larger structure that transforms them into something very different than the usual rock tropes. Furthermore, recurring parts (verse and chorus) are often manipulated both lyrically and instrumentally as the songs progress. A sort of parallel to this last mentioned type of compositional method can be found in the “riff gluing” and riff permutation techniques used by metal bands such as Dutch veterans Asphyx.
The Compositional Process II: Instrumental Redistribution
There is another aspect to Yes music that separates them from the majority of contemporary rock bands in addition to their new way of writing songs which was outlined above. This concerns the very different role each instrument assume on ‘Fragile’ compared to reigning rock conventions.
If you pick a couple of random rock songs (from any subgenre) and compare them, they might sound different in many ways but they will most certainly have at least one common feature: the role played by each instrument. Even if a band choses to replace the leading part of the guitar with a keyboard, the basic roles will stay the same – even if the sound is different. To make my point more clear, I will narrow my argument to the most stubbornly played role in rock, namely the rhythm section. If forced to name one common element of (almost) all rock music, it has to be the primacy of the beat. Rhythmic continuity provides a necessary anchor1 to give rock songs, among other things, a sense of grounding. The rhythm section in rock music is almost always played by a bass guitarist and a drummer, who contributes to the group by laying out a firm ground for the rest of the band to build on. If you take away the beat then the whole building collapses.
But what happens if the bass and drums refuse to play their given parts and instead decide to do something else? This idea, (present already on early Yes recordings) is explored with playfulness on Fragile. Naturally, this exploration was primarily inaugurated by Yes bass-player Chris Squire and drummer Bill Bruford. Squire’s bass playing is definitely one of the main pillars of Yes. Already on their early albums he made clear that he did not want to limit himself to provide the guitarist with root note backing or note-by-note shadow playing. Instead he opted for a livelier style of playing and was not afraid of stretching his lines over unusually large parts of the fretboard. His circular melodic patterns constantly mutate in tandem with the larger development of the song. Luckily for those of us who appreciate inventive bass playing, Squire’s playing is placed very much in the foreground on his recordings with Yes. In many songs it is hard to tell if Squire thrusts the rest of the band onward or if he is has such a keen ear to know exactly how to adapt to what the other musicians are doing at any given time. Either way Yes’s “liberation” of the rhythm section consequently lead them towards a new kind of progressive rock. A more organic and vital sound was produced by letting each instrument contribute more independently to the overall composition. More freedom for each instrument also made for greater use of contrapuntal composition, which in turn often gave the songs more depth. This is something I wish to see mirrored in metal music where the possibilities of the bass guitar in general is severely underdeveloped.
However, all this compositional and instrumental labor would amount to nothing if there was no real substance to the working material or if the interlocking ideas and instrumental parts didn’t have a meaningful direction. I want to conclude this article with a presentation of one of the group compositions on Fragile called “South Side of the Sky”. My intention is to give a glimpse of how Yes put their compositional model to use.
“South Side of the Sky”
Since “South Side” is probably one of the most metallic-sounding works in Yes’ discography, I think it lends itself well as an introduction to the band in a “Progressive rock for Hessians” context. Structurally, the composition follows the enhanced song-centered format I outlined above. While much rock music “goes nowhere” because the songs are locked in a circular repetition of fixed parts, Yes overcomes this problem by bringing all of the parts together into a musical and lyrical narrative. Recurring staple components of rock (the verse and chorus) are used, but by clever sequencing and gradual transformation of the returning sections, the individual parts are integrated into a larger whole.
To set the mood for what is to follow, the song begins with the sound of an approaching tempest. Then, through the storm, a stumbling drum introduction set the piece in motion only to give away to the entrance of bass, guita,r and vocals. Yes were never a thoroughly guitar-centered ensemble, but this section (the verse, which succeeds here the introduction) is relentlessly dominated by guitar and bass. Written maybe as a paraphrase to the opening, the sound and pacing of Steve Howe’s guitar line is disturbingly irregular, yet played with a keen sense of control – like it is following its own demented logic. Simultaneously, bassist Chris Squire provides melodies on his trebly Rickenbacker that refuses to play the by now expected role of “rock bass guitar”. Instead of sticking around to provide root-note grounding for the rest of the band, Squire locks his bass melodies into circle motions that at the same time paradoxically drives the song forward.
Considering the torrent of abrupt lines from the string instruments, it’s impressive that the vocals of Jon Anderson are able to make themselves heard at all at this point. He somehow manages to take the helm and guide the listener through the song with the story he narrates. Not surprisingly, given what has just been heard, it is a tale of the perils and beauty of untamed nature:
A river a mountain to be crossed
The sunshine in mountains sometimes lost
Around the south side so cold that we cried
We seem to be in the company of an alpine expedition gone wrong. The opening verse is followed by the first entrance of the refrain, which gives voice to a growing desperation among the mountaineers:
Were we ever colder on that day?
A million miles away it seemed from all of eternity.
Lost in an infinite winter landscape, their bodies grow colder. To stress the urgency of the lyrical content and give the song a sense of dynamic intensity, the ensemble unites their disparate voices in a unison chorus. The story is further developed in two additional repetitions of verse and chorus, although the word “repetition” isn’t really the accurate term. Both lyrics and music are successively transformed each time these sections reoccur to fit the narrative. There are also subtle sound-effects (perhaps generated by a synthesizer or by a guitar; I’m not sure) placed in the background for atmosphere.
As the protagonists get caught in the snow storm, they realize that they have reached their journey’s end:
The moments seemed lost in all the noise
A snow storm, a stimulating voice
Of warmth of the sky, of warmth when you die.
Then the story takes an unexpected turn. Maybe as a result of oncoming hypothermia, the members of the expedition seem to experience sensations of warmth and calm in the midst of the turmoil:
Were we ever warmer on that day?
A million miles away we seemed from all of eternity
This event is cleverly mirrored in the music. After the third repetition of the chorus, a calm yet foreboding instrumental section takes over featuring primarily Wakeman on the piano. The opening part comes creeping in and has an eerie character to it thanks to the reverberating recording of the piano. After a while Wakeman begins to play an alternatively ascending/descending line, which sounds like someone going through a slow struggle, only to fall back to where he/she began. Perhaps a parallel to the futile efforts of the mountaineers?
The piano playing is complemented by the exemplary drumming of Bill Bruford. I have for various reasons not given much focus to his contribution on the album. Not because he is a bad drummer though. On the contrary, he definitely was one of the best and most tasteful drummer in progressive rock. His work on “South Side” is a testament to his brilliance. With his sense of economy and restrain he has understood the value and dynamic power of silence; he knows when it is better to shut up than to play an extra fill. The percussion in the song’s instrumental section helps to give the interlocking piano lines a sense of seamless flow and furthermore, moves the song forward. This is evident in the intersection between the piano parts and the following section which consists of wordless vocal harmonies. This could be the musical depiction of the ambiguous feelings supposedly experienced in a state of hypothermia. The voices has a resigned character to them but also express something bordering on feelings of bliss.
The wind persists and the vocal harmonies vanish into thin air at the return of two more repetitions of the verse-chorus cycle featuring further microscopic variations on the earlier material. The intensity is upped to depict a final effort of human mobilization. However, this is a futile task. The party inevitably fall prey to the sublime, but ultimately indifferent forces of nature:
The sunshine in mountains sometimes lost
The river can disregard the cost
And melt in the sky, of warmth when you die.
An elegiac guitar solo of sort steps in for a few bars but doesn’t overstay its welcome. The song comes to an end as the music gives way to the sound of the persistent mountain winds; A testament to the triumph of untamed nature. I will not dwell further on the meaning of the song or its story. My aim was to show how Yes put their compositional model and instrumental prowess into practice. A bitter interpretation to the lyrics would point to the futility of all human struggle leads to inevitable death. An attentive listener will surely find this outlook problematic.
Finally, I want to reconnect with what I wrote about Yes’s connection to classical music. Large parts of “South Side” feature parallel running melodies and make use of harmonies to create musical depth. This is not uncommon in progressive rock. While many Yes songs contain multiple melodies that would work well enough as hummable radio rock tunes by themselves, I think they take on a different character in this particular song. If one would isolate the melodic lines of the guitar, bass, and keyboard, et cetera of “South Side”, they wouldn’t make any sense; They would sound too fragmented and there would be no context to make them come to life. Instead, it is the combination of the separate parts and their juxtaposition in a larger structure that creates the song. Although it would be stretching things too far to call “South Side” a symphony in rock format, I do believe the song takes on certain symphonic qualities in the way the individual instruments contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.
Conclusion (Further Listening)
With this article, I have only scratched on the surface of the musical universe of Yes. There are many loose ends that I haven’t followed to their conclusion. There are even more aspects of the music I have left unexplored. However, I’m not sure that the end result would be better if the text was longer. For the few of you who are still reading and are interested in delving deeper into progressive rock in general, and Yes in particular, I want to conclude this article by sharing two recommendations for further listening.
My highest recommendation goes to Fragile‘s follow-up Close to the Edge, where Yes fully realized their potential. This record (especially the title track) is arguably one of the pinnacles of progressive rock.
For those who wish to hear intense but still epic music, I recommend the first side of Yes’s sixth album, Relayer from 1974. The side-long track on side A, “Gates of Delirium”, is a multi-sectional gem which proved that Yes had not burned-out completely after their gargantuan 1973 double-album release Tales From the Topographic Oceans. There is something very metal-sounding about this song, right down to the upfront production values. Be sure not to miss the violent instrumental “battle” section which makes just about every “hard” prog band seem soft in comparison.
1I have borrowed the notion of musical ”anchor” from Bill Martin’s book Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-1978. (1998) Open Court. p 32.