What Was The Question?
Independent release, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/11/2011
Imagine a musician who’s able to play, and play well, every instrument in the basic vocabulary of rock: guitar, bass, drums and keyboards.
Then imagine that said musician is also a phenomenally prolific songwriter/performer/producer able to simultaneously record solo albums, lead a working band, tour Japan as half of a duo, produce and play on others’ albums, mastermind all-star tributes, and juggle flaming swords while blindfolded.
Okay, I made up the part about the swords.
But in just the last few years, Billy Sherwood has done everything else on that list and more—and I’m willing to bet if you gave him a week or so to practice, the swords would start flying, too.
Sherwood first came to notice around 1990, when Yes bassist/vocalist Chris Squire considered him as a potential lead vocalist during a period when both Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin had their energies focused elsewhere. Squire and Sherwood wrote a few songs together, but Yes soon reformed eight men strong—and without Sherwood-- for the Union album and tour. Still, he continued to be part of the band’s extended family, performing as a sideman on the 1994 Talk tour, and producing and engineering during the Keys To Ascension period, before finally completing the long leap from teenaged fan to full-fledged band member during the 1997-2000 period covering the Open Your Eyes and The Ladder albums and tours.
For those who’ve come to know him a little bit, maybe the most remarkable thing about Billy Sherwood—besides the fact that he’s indisputably the hardest-working man in progressive rock—is that he’s also one of the most genuine and accessible guys in modern music. Unfailingly good-humored, modest and upbeat, it seems that Sherwood the professional musician and producer has never abandoned his inner fan. Today, his openness and willingness to engage with people online stands in remarkable contrast to his former bandmates.
Sherwood’s fifth solo album What Was The Question? feels like an extension of the work he has done over the past decade with fellow Yesmen Chris Squire in Conspiracy and now Tony Kaye in Circa. It’s music that defines the happy medium between the classic prog sound of ’70s Yes and the heavier, slicker arena-prog sound of Yes in the ’80s.
As noted already, Sherwood has the advantage of being able to play every instrument in the standard rock vocabulary, and play them well. His best instrument, though—and the one he plays in the very Yes-like quartet Circa—is bass. On the bass guitar, Sherwood is up there in Chris Squire / Geddy Lee territory; i.e. a world-class talent.
You’re reminded of the latter right away as the opening title track features strong “lead bass,” along with airy vocals and a characteristically philosophical lyric. The precision and spaciousness of the arrangement reminds a bit of both Yes and—particularly in its nimble, aggressive instrumental sections—Rush. Sherwood throws every trick in the bag at you in this seven-minute mini-opus—bass solos, guitar solos, keyboard solos, drum fills, flashes of acoustic strumming, multipart vocal sections—and makes it all work together.
One characteristic of solo albums is that the lyrical content often tends to be more personal or topical than you might find in a group setting. Here, Sherwood pens both “Counting The Cables” a moody, atmospheric tune about the Wikileaks controversy, and “Free World on Fire,” a skeptical examination of global politics (“Follow the leaders to the edge and back again”) that’s also quite dreamy and sprawling. Both cuts also feature nice jams in the latter stages.
Other highlights include “Living In The Now,” a thoughtful number with a cascading central riff and positive message about getting past worries and stresses about yesterday and tomorrow and focusing on the present. “Delta Sierra Juliet”—featuring a guest appearance by Asia lead vocalist John Wetton, whose recent solo album Sherwood produced—is an intriguing story-song about a small plane that disappeared many years ago after reporting a UFO sighting. The dynamic “Made Of Stars” has a suitably interstellar feel, rather Pink Floyd-ish in tone. And closer “Just Breathe” is a rippling, contemplative affirmation. A few of these tunes feel like they might have stood a little tightening up—only one of the nine tracks comes in under six minutes, and they tend to flow (and flow) rather than breaking into distinct sections—but an abundance of riches is not a bad problem to have.
What Was The Question? is the most consistently impressive of Sherwood’s five solo albums to date, packed with fully-realized tunes that honor Sherwood’s influences without ever imitating them. What he accomplishes instead is to synthesize the styles of the groups he grew up loving—Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rush—and create something fresh and all his own from that familiar musical vocabulary.
To cap off this tale of inexhaustible talent, Sherwood, apparently in his sleep—because when else would he possibly have time—is now also making his own videos, including a couple of terrific ones for What Was The Question? So what’s next, a feature film that he scripts, directs and stars in, while also composing and performing all the music? Discount the possibility at your own risk… because so far, it seems there’s nothing Billy Sherwood can’t do.