Yes - Essentially Yes [boxset] Review
by Kevin Wierzbicki
Yes is only a couple of years away from celebrating a 40th anniversary and their output over the past four decades has been extensive. The band has weathered many line-up changes, but basically their career can be broken down into three eras: The early days, the Trevor Rabin era and the post-Rabin era. The early days saw the band building their fan base with spacey concept albums like Fragile and Close to the Edge, works that featured a lot of lengthy cuts that highlighted the big band's musicianship. The albums fit perfectly with the zeitgeist of the time when the world sought relief from the daily horrors of the Vietnam War; tune in, turn on and drop out. A little cannabis and a little Yes and you were in escapist heaven. And you didn't have to worry too much about interpreting lyrics---what the hell was the hit single "Roundabout" about? But as times changed, the band really didn't and as the '70s wore on and the '80s dawned, Yes' music got pegged as meandering and indulgent and album sales dwindled as hippies put away their bongs and joined the work force. It wasn't until 1983 that era #2 began with the release of 90125, the first album featuring guitarist Trevor Rabin. The band rocketed to its commercial zenith based on the album's mega-hits "Owner of a Lonely Heart," "Changes" and "Leave It." A whole new audience was born and old Yes albums started disappearing from thrift store bins. But after riding that wave, the band again fell into a rut with subsequent albums sounding like rehashes of 90125 but without the hits. The 3rd era began with Rabin's departure and it marks the maturation of the band and its core members Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White. The transition point from the 2nd to 3rd eras is where the five-disc box set Essentially Yes picks up.
The albums that make up the Essentially Yes box are Talk (1994), Open Your Eyes (1996), The Ladder (1999), Magnification (2001) and Live at Montreux 2003. Talk was the last album featuring Rabin and it was clear that he was running out of ideas for the group. Songs like "The Calling" and "Walls" looked back a decade to the heyday of 90125 but the band was also working its way back to its original sound with cuts like the fifteen minute "Endless Dream" suite. This is probably the reason why Talk is a good album---everyone knew an era was ending and last gasps were not going to be allowed to sound desperate. Two years later the group bounced back with Open Your Eyes, the first of a trio of excellent studio albums, and Rabin was clearly not missed. Original guitarist Steve Howe had returned to the fold and second guitarist Billy Sherwood came on board and their fretwork throughout the effort is magnificent. Their concise soloing on "The Solution" is nothing short of stunning. Getting back into the groove with Open Your Eyes set the band up for its next two albums, The Ladder and Magnification, both of which are masterpieces through-and-through. Honey-voiced Jon Anderson sings with conviction, primarily about spiritual and ecological matters and the band has never sounded better, not even when they were youngsters banging out favorites like "Starship Trooper." Magnification also finds the band playing with a full orchestra, an effect they hadn't employed since 1970. These last two albums come off like a sigh of relief, like a tremendous burden had been shaken as confidence soars. Rounding out the box is Live at Montreux 2003, a 7-cut affair that features mostly very old tunes like "Siberian Khatru," "Don't Kill the Whale," "And You and I" and the cryptic chanting of the hit single, "I've Seen All Good People." Magnification was the current studio LP at the time and a couple of cuts from it also grace Live. So what you have here in total is three stellar efforts and two pretty good ones, all of it mostly undiscovered by a fickle listenership. Fans of progressive rock should find this box set a winner, but fans of the early Yes sound should find it an indispensable treasure. This is their chance to go home. Breaking out the bong is optional.
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