Fly From Here
Frontiers Records, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/19/2011
Forty-two years after the band’s 1969 debut, Yes persists. That simple fact alone is remarkable, especially considering the group has never in its entire four-decade lifespan managed to keep the same lineup in place for more than two albums in a row. But is persistence alone enough for a band on the downside of a long career, that hasn’t released a new album in nearly a decade?
Fly From Here, the band’s first studio album since 2002’s Magnification, comes with considerable drama attached—no shocker there, and pun absolutely intended. For only the second time in its history, and the first since 1980’s Drama, the band began touring in 2008 without co-founder and lead voice Jon Anderson. The circumstances and significance of his departure from the band will inevitably cloud some fans’ perceptions of this album, mine included; what I’m going to attempt to do here is simply set those issues aside to be addressed elsewhere, and focus on the music that bassist-vocalist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Alan White, new singer Benoit David and newly reinstalled keyboardist Geoff Downes have offered up to the world.
One thing that’s clear is that this album would not exist without the two men who joined Squire, Howe and White to form the Drama-era band, keyboardist Downes and producer (and in the Drama era, lead vocalist) Trevor Horn. The bulk of the “new” material on this disc was written by Horn and Downes, much of it intended for an early-80s second album by The Buggles, the electro-pop duo the pair comprised prior to joining Yes. Downes hadn’t been a member of Yes in 30 years when he was asked to come in and help develop this material, an occurrence which triggered the exit of erstwhile keyboard player Oliver Wakeman.
Whatever the shortcomings of Fly From Here—and surely its reliance on songs written by former members three decades ago doesn’t speak well of the group’s capacity for generating new material—it does have its moments. Most of those happen during the 24-minute, six-part “Fly From Here” suite, an epic that hangs together better than some the band has recorded, even if it lacks the impact of a “Close To The Edge.” With Horn again replacing Anderson as chief lyricist, the band sheds its “cosmic brotherhood of man” ethos to delve into a surreal narrative about an old abandoned airfield haunted by the ghosts of pilots past.
The opening overture is exactly that, an overview of the musical themes that run through the entire piece, anchored by Downes’ dense work on multiple keyboards, but also spotlighting a tight, angular Howe riff, throbbing Squire bass, and a couple of stately, rather martial fills from White. “Fly From Here, Part I: We Can Fly,” an edit of which has been released as the album’s first single, is a strong number that effectively synthesizes the band’s progressive heritage with its poppier side, driving verses filled with entertaining little diversions and filigrees before blossoming into a melodic chorus. Squire’s harmony vocals are, as always, the band’s secret weapon, lending fullness and dimension at moments both anticipated and unexpected.
“Part II: A Sad Night At The Airfield,” takes things mid-tempo, with Howe launching arcing arrows of slide guitar into the stratosphere as David and Squire harmonize over a dense layer of keyboards. The third segment returns to a heavier attack, bringing in White’s drum motif and Howe’s stabbing riffage from the overture. Here you really feel Horn’s influence in the arrangement, which is strongly reminiscent of Drama. “Part IV: Bumpy Ride” is the one portion of the suite Horn and Downes didn’t compose, and the one piece that isn’t terribly convincing in the way it’s been stitched in, a sequence of jittery Howe riffs that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the suite. The closing reprise serves mainly to rein in this digression and restate themes before winding down.
The album’s high point is followed immediately by its low. “The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be” is a thoroughly saccharine love song penned and sung by Squire, the sort of maudlin self-indulgence that solo albums were invented for. The fact that it ended up on a Yes album at all speaks both to the band’s dearth of new material to work with and the reality that with Anderson’s departure, Yes is indisputably Squire’s band. (It’s no coincidence that, for the first time in Yes history, Squire’s name is listed first in the Fly From Here credits.)
“Life On A Film Set,” another Horn-Downes composition, is as reminiscent of Drama as anything on this album with its dynamic changes and full vocal arrangement. Unfortunately it also falls victim to “Into The Lens” disease, i.e. an unfortunately dim and repetitive lyric. (“Riding the tiger” 15 times in under six minutes? Really?) “Hour Of Need” is a Howe composition played by the full band that harks back to airy, acoustic Yes numbers gone by—a pretty but rather inconsequential song. Companion “Solitaire” is a Howe solo acoustic outing that’s a fine demonstration of his prowess on the guitar, but has no business taking up space on a Yes album, and therefore smacks of ego, or desperation, or both.
Interestingly enough, closer “Into The Storm,” the one song here that’s credited to the pre-Downes lineup, Oliver Wakeman included, sounds like nothing so much as an outtake from 1999’s The Ladder. It’s rather frothy and playful at first, leaning more to the harmonized pop side of the band’s multiple musical personalities, until Howe lets loose with some nice soloing in the final two minutes.
Serving in the largely thankless role of replacing the much-beloved Anderson, Benoit David conducts himself admirably. David’s voice is, like 99 percent of the adult male population, lower than Jon Anderson’s. He can sing Anderson’s parts capably well in concert, but doesn’t try to imitate him here; instead, he adapts his voice to the songs themselves, and serves them well. For all the angst among Yes’ fractious fan base over David’s presence in this lineup, he’s perhaps the most innocent party of all in the current situation—just a fan who unexpectedly landed his dream job and continues to do the best he can with it.
In the end the question is, does Fly From Here hold up as an addition to the Yes catalogue? While the opening and closing tracks offer enough solid moments to make FFH worth a listen for curious fans, the material in between is eminently forgettable. For a band that set the highest possible standards for musical creativity and imagination back in its prime, mere persistence is not enough.