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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Recordings Review: New Maps for Topographic Oceans

Yes compile the five Steven Wilson Remixes.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Detail from Roger Dean's cover art for Yes: The Steven Wilson Remixes.
Displayed here for promotional purposes only © 2018 Roger Dean and Yes.
In the vast catalogue of the British progressive rock band Yes, there are five studio albums that are considered (by fans and critics alike) to be the band’s height. Released between 1970 and 1974, they are: The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer. (Only two of these records feature the same lineup.) Taken in sequence, they track a remarkable evolution, from a jazz-inflected group heavily influenced by psychedelia to pioneers exploring new oceans of sound. The five albums are now available as a luxe vinyl boxed set, a cheaper CD edition or (reviewed here) a set of high-quality .mp3 downloads at a bargain basement price.

Each of these five records was released as a new super-deluxe audio edition in recent years, with extra tracks, detailed notes and a high fidelity remix done by another progressive rock icon: guitarist, producer and singer-somgwriter Steven Wilson. Mr. Wilson, who rose to fame as the leader of acts like no-man, Blackfield and Porcupine Tree has applied his remarkable ears to the task of sprucing up these recordings. The mp3 set does not include the b-sides or extra tracks, but its contents: the twenty-five songs that make up these five original albums, are still impressive, breath-taking and at times, even jaw-dropping.

From the first notes of ”Yours is No Disgrace”, the track that introduced Steve Howe as the band’s new guitarist, the difference is apparent. Chris Squire’s trademark Rickenbacker bass (played with a pick) is restored in round-ness and bloom. Past remasters made his attack hard-edged and trebly, blended with Mr. Howe’s guitar. That has been corrected here, and their interplay on cuts like "Perpetual Change" and “Disgrace” makes for fascinating listening.  Mr Howe’s GibsonES-175 (an instrument he started playing at 17)  retains its distinct sharp timbre. Drummer Bill Bruford also benefits, His delicate cymbal work and intricate jazzy fills can be heard in detail, right down to off-hand moments like his stick-clicks on “Roundabout.”

The role of the keyboardist is also expanded, thanks to the wider sonic picture. Tony Kaye’s Hammond organ gets a workout on The Yes Album but it is his replacement Rick Wakeman who really shines. Among the tracks restored to glory is Mr. Wakeman’s much-maligned solo piece "Cans and Brahms." This is a run-through of the third movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony played on four keyboard instruments, one each taking the role of strings, percussion, winds and brass. All that detail can be heard to an exquisite degree whereas in the past it sounded like one blurry mass.

On Close to the Edge, everything comes together for the band and for the listener. The opening of the title track with its mix of bird-songs, tape loops and tone clusters still sounds radical today, and the ratcheting tension of its four movements comes across here the way it does in concert. Mr.Wakemen’s pipe organ solo (recorded in a church) is restored to its proper size and weight and Jon Anderson’s lyrics are  rendered intelligible, a feat that will doubtless correct many Yes fans who have never been quite sure what he is singing about.

That gap between progress and audience comprehension was what the band fell, through with their next effort: “Tales from Topographic Oceans.” This insanely ambitious 1973 double album, consists of four songs averaging twenty minutes apiece. Here, Mr. Wilson makes some interesting choices, like lopping off the ambient opening to The Revealing Science of God that was restored on the previous 2003 remaster. Alan White replaced Bruford as the band’s drummer, and his straight ahead rock power and taste for the exotic added chimes, small cymbals and even timpani to the sonic seascape. The last two tracks have extended solo percussion passages, which spring to life with great clarity and detail. Also restored here is much of Mr. Wakeman’s much maligned playing on this record, lending ornament and color to each ocean wave of sound. At the center of the work though stands the team of Steve Howe and Jon Anderson, who wrote most of the music and came up,with the abstruse concept.

The last remaster is Relayer, the band’s thorniest record and one that included another change of personnel, with Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz replacing Waksman. Again, Mr. Wilson opts to a less-is-more approach to the 22-minute The Gates of Delerium excising the musique-concrete sound effects from the battle sequence. (It loses none of its power either way.) The quirks of Relayer dominate “Sound Chaser,” the most musically challenging ten minutes in the Yes catalogue. Here, Steve Howe’s Telecaster does gleeful battle with the rhythm section, and the lyrics break down to mere scat singing The gentle majesty of "To Be Over" ends the record with Steve Howe adding sitar and pedal steel to this overlooked mini-epic. As its=s river of sound winds to the close with the band chanting a nonsensical mantra over the riff, one wishes that the vocals were further forward in the mix. 

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