Independent release, 2009
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/23/2009
If Yes were the Beatles, Billy Sherwood would be their Billy Preston. The fifth Beatle / sixth man, the guy who came in late in the lifespan of the group, helped revitalize it for a brief time, and then went off to do his own thing, continuing to work often with members of the famous group he’d been associated with for a time.
Of course, Yes has never really broken up, not counting 1980-83, but it’s been fractious enough again and again that there been plenty of opportunities for members to work with others, whether they were in or out of the main group at the time.
In the case of the original lineup of Circa, both halves of the last statement were true. Circa was born out of a collaboration between Sherwood and founding Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, and grew to include longtime Sherwood pal (and fellow Yes fan) guitarist Jimmy Haun and longtime Yes drummer Alan White. After White’s “other band” called him back to touring duty, Sherwood recruited another longtime ally, Jay Schellen (Conspiracy, World Trade) to man the drum kit for HQ.
The result is a thoroughly satisfying follow-up to Circa’s excellent debut. The superb musicianship, crisp production and often-lovely quiet moments, you expect; what provides a happy bonus is the increasing confidence and craft of the group’s songwriting. The music is every bit as strong as 2007, albeit less riff-focused and a bit dreamier, but just as compelling in its ever-shifting moods and flavors. Furthermore, the lyrics – not an obvious strength on 2007 – reveal themselves as an excellent fit for the band’s name, comprising a sort of narrative of the present moment, examining the increasing intrusion of technology into our daily lives and the perpetual search for meaning and purpose.
Sure, you may ask -- but does it rock?
It does. Ten-minute-plus opener “If It’s Not Too Late” might have some sleepy moments, but there’s thunder aplenty to balance it out and everyone gets their chance to shine, as they do again on the driving instrumental “Set To Play,” which uses Kaye’s organ as the bridge (think “Foreplay/Long Time”) for the band to plunge into the steady-rocking “Ever Changing World.”
In between, the boys prove their brand of modern prog is not without humor. “Haun Solo” is in fact proof of how slow I can be sometimes; when I first read the title I thought “they couldn’t give it a real name?” Then I said it out loud and the light bulb finally went on. Somewhere, George Lucas is chuckling…
And let it be said – Haun’s playing here is definitely of hyper-drive caliber. He pulls off any number of nimble twisty-turny solos and experiments with a variety of tones, and while he can still sound like Steve Howe at times, he sounds more and more these days like no one other than Jimmy Haun. “Twist Of Fate,” for example, features some wonderfully crinkly-scratchy Haun soloing around two minutes in, which he follows with another sharp, evocative performance on “All Intertwined.”
The latter, buried as track nine, is in fact a huge clue to this band’s musical DNA, as it often sounds remarkably like Cinema, the short-lived Rabin-Squire-White-Kaye lineup that preceded the 80s edition of Yes, created when Jon Anderson joined. The one song to survive unaltered from those sessions, “Cinema,” has a distinctively bold and orchestral feel that the other Rabin-era stuff never had – a feel that Circa has captured and evolved into what it could have been, which is the missing stylistic bridge between old-school, free-form, experimental classic-prog 70s Yes and the more concise and riff-oriented 80s version. For any fan of Yes who’s ever wished the band could find a way to bridge that gap, it’s right here; Billy Sherwood and Tony Kaye studied the clues and solved the puzzle. Which makes perfect sense since Sherwood is such a Squire and Rabin fan, and he and Kaye started Circa with White and Haun.
The thing about this album that’s really striking to me, though, is Tony Kaye. Here’s the guy who essentially got pushed out of Yes in 1971 when the rest of the group decided what they really wanted was a Rick Wakeman, someone who had the classical chops and the orchestral sensibilities and played seventeen different keyboards and could make synthesizers do everything but get up and dance. And for most of his career, Tony Kaye has been a really good Hammond organ player and that’s about it.
Until now, that is. The first and especially this second Circa album are the best performances of Kaye’s career, hands down. His Hammond work is not just impeccable but as dynamic as it’s ever been, and he’s expanded his palette to include new synth tones and even a flash of rather Wakemanesque synthesized church organ, heard on closer “Remember Along The Way.” It’s extremely strong work, and he pulls it off as the elder statesman of the band, a 63-year-old keyboard wizard not just keeping up with but constantly pushing a group of guys a full generation younger than him.
“Remember Along The Way” in fact deserves more than just the above passing mention. For the second album in a row Circa has chosen to close out with a mini-epic that’s worth every minute of the 12:36 the band devotes to it. Kaye kicks it off with the aforementioned Wakemanesque church-organy opening section before the group falls into a Pink Floyd groove, a slow blues with spectacular, arcing-skyward guitar solos that would make David Gilmour grin. Then we move into a little acoustic pastoral thing with Kaye playing keys that sound like flutes (mellotron, maybe?) and “Han” Haun playing wonderful acoustic. The final big solo section between minutes 11 and 12 is again heavily Floyd-influenced.
The great thing about Circa, though, is that while they are band that wears their influences on their sleeves, this is no tribute album; this is an original, compelling and terrifically entertaining piece of work. Floyd-heads, Yeswholes and modern prog fans alike should eat this up like the delicious brew of classic and modern prog that it is.