Atlantic Records, 1972
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/07/2004
Fragile is an odd album, even for a group that's gone through as many metamorphoses as Yes. The fact that it's also the album that broke them to a global audience is just one more milestone along the unpredictable path tread for 35 years now by this groundbreaking prog-rock juggernaut.
Two important elements of the Yes mystique made their debuts on Fragile -- Rick Wakeman's keyboards and Roger Dean's visuals. Wakeman was already a minor star in Britain as a solo artist when Yes came calling, looking to fill the keyboard slot with a player on par with recently recruited guitarist Steve Howe. For his part, Dean was just the cosmic illustrator to bring the Yes sound into a third dimension with his sprawling sci-fi landscapes.
One of the most unique elements of Fragile was driven by the most straightforward motivator -- money. Wakeman's recruitment saddled the group with substantial financial obligations -- synthesizers weren't cheap in 1971! -- at the same time they were under pressure to deliver their next album. As a result, the album was somewhat of a rush job, consisting of four pieces composed and played by the band, and five tracks composed -- and in some cases performed -- solo by each member.
This could have been a recipe for a disjointed disaster if not for one simple fact -- the three longer band pieces, the eight- to 10-minute mini-opuses "Roundabout," "South Side Of The Sky" and "Heart Of The Sunrise," are three of the strongest tracks this band ever rolled tape on. If you need evidence, consider this: all three tracks were staples of the regular set on their 2002-03 world tour, more than thirty years later.
Though "Your Move" from The Yes Album is currently making a move for this title thanks to a spate of movie soundtrack and trailer placements, as of today the single track most non-Yes fans identify with the band is Fragile's dynamic opener, "Roundabout." Its quirky combination of sharp, concise acoustic and electric licks, flashy organ and synth figures, and Chris Squire's bounding bass line are all characteristic of the best Yes works -- a cacophony of virtuoso playing that still manages to incorporate strong pop hooks, creating a whole that's both dazzling and much more than the sum of its parts.
"South Side Of The Sky" has been regarded by fans for years as the proverbial one that got away. Hard-edged, guitar-heavy verses frame an extended bridge that features Wakeman's lyrical piano-playing under complex, gorgeous harmonies from lead singer Jon Anderson, Howe and Squire. For more than thirty years, fans begged fruitlessly to hear this overlooked nugget played live, until the band finally gave in and tackled it -- to thunderous response -- on their 2003 tour.
"Heart Of The Sunrise" is Yes at its most hard-edged (if you can truly use that phrase when describing a band containing Jon "if we were flowers…" Anderson). The opening section is Squire in his prime, propelling Howe and drummer Bill Bruford through a hammering sequence that shifts, grows, cycles and repeats until Anderson finally comes in with a soft, delicate verse around 3:35 -- right about the time most "pop" songs are finishing up. The contrast is striking, and remarkably effective.
Wakeman and Howe's solo tracks are impressive if somewhat one-dimensional showcases for their instrumental prowess. Anderson and Bruford's pieces are brief and somewhat puzzling, if entertaining. Squire's piece, "The Fish (Schindeleria Praematurus)" is the standout among the solo segments, a showcase for his unique technique on the bass guitar that manages to be both amazing and evocative in a primal way.
While by its nature uneven in places, Fragile remains a superb album, as well as the logical stepping-stone to what came next -- the band's masterpiece, the boundary-shattering opus Close To The Edge.