YES Albums Ranked From Worst to Best

YES Albums Ranked From Worst to Best

Far and away the longest lasting and the most successful of the ’70s progressive rock groups, Yes proved to be one of the lingering success stories from that musical genre. The band, founded in 1968, overcame a generational shift in its audience and the departure of its most visible members at key points in its history to reach the end of the century as the definitive progressive rock band. Where rivals such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer withered away commercially after the mid-’70s, and Genesis and King Crimson altered their sounds so radically as to become unrecognizable to their original fans, Yes retained the same sound, and performed much of the same repertoire that they were doing in 1971, and for their trouble, they found themselves being taken seriously a quarter of a century later. Their audience remained huge because they had always attracted younger listeners drawn to their mix of daunting virtuosity, cosmic (often mystical) lyrics, complex musical textures, and powerful yet delicate lead vocals.

Yes completely revamped their sound in the ‘80s, reforming their line-up with new guitarist Trevor Rabin, original keyboardist Tony Kaye, and of course the return of their trademark voice, Jon Anderson. 90125, blasted off by its big hit single “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” was an enormous success, and not just commercially. The record proved that a progressive band could give in to commercial pressure and still make an album with a certain artistic value. 90125 was, undeniably, a fully cheesy pop affair, though one which found itself on the good side of ’80s pop. Its follow-up, Big Generator, recorded in a long and tedious process, and eventually released 4 years after its predecessor, found itself on the opposite side.

Early ‘90s saw all of the present and past members reunited for lukewarm Union, with the following two releases reaching the absolute bottom. The group bounced back in 2001 with the release of Magnification, but it didn’t last for so long.

In 2017 Yes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the celebration was also an inauguration for the former members of the band—Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman—to start working under the name Yes Featuring ARW.

Looking back at the band’s 19 studio albums, minus the Keys to Ascension duology, we have come up with the ultimate ranking of Yes’ albums. See the list below, and let us know how do you rank them in the comments.

19. Open Your Eyes (1997)

I suppose Open Your Eyes makes better sense when taken into context. It wasn’t supposed to be a Yes album per se; rather, Chris Squire and the much-loathed personnel addition Billy Sherwood outlined this material for a new project. Whether it would have fared better with a different band is up for half-hearted debate, although I’m guessing things wouldn’t change. The Keys to Ascension duology gave some strong hopes that Yes were going to push their career forward post-Rabin with some strong new material, but Open Your Eyes shows the band unsure of where they want to go. As much as I preferred Yes‘ prog side over the later pop, Trevor Rabin was a clever songwriter and leader for the band. In his wake, there is confusion. Yes obviously want to harken back to a proggier sound, but they lack the drive or ambition to push themselves past predictable songwriting. Unlike Rabin‘s contributions throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, you’ll find very few interesting hooks or melodic lines on Open Your Eyes. What was it someone said about absence making the heart grow fonder?

Style isn’t the issue on the album, ultimately. Yes have let themselves fall into a disappointing AOR snag, but that’s nothing new for them. The thing that hurts Open Your Eyes moreso than any other album in the band’s discography is the songwriting itself. Even on the most disastrous albums (their latest one included), there were always a handful of tracks that stood out, at least a passage or two that stuck after the record ended. I would like to call “New State of Mind” and the catchy title track the highlights of the album (which they are), but those songs would have felt lacklustre even on Big Generator or Union. I’m up in the air whether the declawed anthem rock they’re going for on Open Your Eyes is worse than the first half of Talk, but Talk at least offered the amazing suite “Endless Dream” to make the grinding worth it. There is no such redemptive value to enjoy on Open Your Eyes.

18. Heaven & Earth (2014)

Roger Dean returned to the band a few more times over the years, but none seemed so momentous as Fly From Here, an album I met with eager anticipation. Even if that album’s long since lost its favour with me, I couldn’t help but feel the same sense of excitement when Heaven and Earth was announced. Once again, Roger Dean unveiled an incredible cover that sought to capture my imagination. The skyscape felt liberating just to look at, and from the way the band members would talk about it in promotional materials, part of me was expecting a true return to form for Yes. This was going to be the album myself and others had been waiting for

Was I right? No. No. No. No. No. No. I think it would be unfair to call Heaven and Earth a “terrible” album—it’s melodic, appropriately performed and doesn’t turn its back on the band’s prog rock history like the worst of their discography did. Yet, there isn’t a single thing about the album that stirs or excites me. We see plenty of films where a brilliant “outside the box” madman is reduced to a docile wreck in a mental institution, be it a result of medication or a lobotomy. If Yes‘ classic material was that brilliant madman, Heaven and Earth has seen the dreaded lobotomy come to pass. I’m sure the album was a well-intentioned effort to bring progressive rock back into the fold, but it completely lacks the energy and sense of adventure that would have made it work.

It wouldn’t be fair to call Heaven and Earth a pop rock album, although part of me would like to. Yes (or whatever you’d like to call ‘em nowadays) have created merely a shadow of progressive rock, one with all of the toys and trinkets of the genre, but none of the sophistication we would normally look for in it. Even the album’s most ambitious piece—the nine minute would-be epic “Subway Walls”— colours within the lines so much so as to induce a coma. When they’re ambitious enough to emerge beyond the fold of adult-oriented rock, the orchestrations are tired and predictable.

17. Talk (1994)

Long before I ever got around to checking out Yes‘ fourteenth album, I’d heard reports that it was the so-called saving grace of the Trevor Rabin era. Some rose-tinted listeners went as far to say it ranked up there with the band’s classic material. This high regard was sharp contrast to the hideously sell-outish album art, which may very well be one of the least appealing covers I’ve ever seen. If anything, the cognitive dissonance going into Talk made the anticipation that much more compelling. I was excited to find out what I’d think of it—after all, it couldn’t be any worse than Union… Right?

It’s just my luck that there’s no definitive, one-size-fits-all answer with Yes‘ 1994 would-be comeback. The disastrous collaboration of the old and new band incarnations on Union was a severe misstep, but nothing on that album was as mind-numbing and lifeless as some of the songs here. I mean, it’s as if Yes suffered dementia for several songs’ length and dawdled into the bleak abyss of Adult Contemporary soft rock anaesthesia, precisely true to what the awful cover might have suggested. At the same time, Talk manages to be a fulfilling swansong to the Rabin era, thanks exclusively to the fifteen minute suite “Endless Dream”. You often hear people discussing progressive epics as the centrepiece or highlight of an album. In the case of Talk, “Endless Dream” is just the highlight; it’s the only goddamned worthy cut Yes managed to conjure this time around. But all every estimate, it just about makes this awful mess worthwhile.

16. Union (1991)

I can’t rightly decide whether Union was a good idea in concept or not. The idea of teaming up the “classic” Yes with the fashionably poppish ’80s Yes is about as high concept as you can get in prog without spiralling into bombastic operatic narrative. While it probably sounded like a great way to merge the merits of both eras on paper, the album itself give the impression that it was a misguided decision at best. Rather than capitalize on the “best of both worlds” as Union was no doubt supposed to, the strongest suits of Yes‘ prog and pop halves alike have been dulled to make room for one another. As is the case with every less-favoured Yes record, there are a few worthy gems, but it’s not enough to compensate for Union‘s lack of focus and appalling inconsistency. If any one of the past four albums hadn’t convinced someone that the glory days were indeed over for this band, Union should have been the final nail in the coffin.

Much like the album, I too find myself torn between sides. Part of me would like to see Union in a positive light. After all, given time and patience, I was even able to find some things to love about the unpopular Big Generator, and there are just enough hints of the ‘old’ Yes here to have piqued my interest. On the other hand, even compared to the band’s ‘80s material, Union feels sloppy. Whether they’re attempting to bring out the proggy side of their sound or opting for lighter fluid pop anthems, the music sounds like it was out of a compromise. Regardless what idealistic notions paved the way for Yes to pull this “all together now” gimmick, every defining problem on Union is a cause of the decision to merge rosters. Looking at the performance credits on the album is enough to give anyone a headache; Trevor RabinAlan White and Tony Kaye (for example) are responsible for tracks 4, 6, 7 and 9, and their earlier counterparts are responsible for the rest. Instead of a real union, the band is just as segregated as ever; the only difference is that they’re stuck on the same disc together. Yes have proved a clichéd expression true—it turns out there is such a thing as too many cooks in a kitchen.

15. Big Generator (1987)

Big Generator was released four years after 90125, and two of those years were spent working on it. Clearly, the honeymoon period brought on by Trevor Rabin was over by this point; Tony Kaye and Trevor Horn had been at each other’s throats, and Jon Anderson was expressing doubt around the direction the band was taking. It’s this sort of artistic division that first sent Yes on the downward slope with Tormato, and Big Generator saw fit to reproduce this scenario with their pop era. It’s undeniably a weaker album than 90125, even possibly the first album the band released I might consider truly weak. Much like Tormato though, Big Generator has some strong moments. It’s not enough to earn a recommendation, but its enough to deserve some sort of defence against some of the “worst album ever” comments made against it.

14. Drama (1980)

Drama may have corrected many of the issues suffered on the tumultuous Tormato and even spawned a pair of great tunes in the process, but so much of the magic I loved up to this point from Yes (Yes, even including Tormato) seems to be lost here. What we’re left with is the semblance of a potentially great record; “Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit” have rightfully gone down in history as two of Yes‘ better pieces, but everything in between falls miles short of expectations. For all of the things that the band does right on Drama, so much more gets lost along the way.

Especially in the months prior to the album’s release, the band and fans were left with a question: could Yes exist without the immortal voice of Jon Anderson? The band had been through a number of lineup changes in the past, but so much of the band’s atmosphere and personality came through in his voice, equal parts angelic, innocent and lively. Bringing in a little known New Wave pair called the Buggles (who enjoyed a bit of success with their 1980 debut The Age of Plastic) seems like a big risk to have taken, even now. Regardless, the replacement for Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman (Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes, respectively) made for a decent fit. Horn manages to fill the void left by Anderson well enough; his performance here falls short in virtually every respect when compared to Anderson, but he goes through the motions well enough and without a personality of his own, very much like a stand-in.

13. Fly From Here (2011)

To be fair, Yes had only truly slipped on 2.5 albums (Union, Open Your Eyes and the first half of Talk) but they hadn’t anything great outside of Magnification either. On a more subjective note, I never shared the enthusiasm most seem to have for the Jon Anderson-less Drama, so another album without him probably would have been met with apprehension, had I only been hearing about it now.

The comparisons between Fly From Here and Drama don’t end with irregular vocalists. For one, it’s virtually the exact same membership as it was on Drama; one-time keyboardist Geoffrey Downes reprises his role. Although Trevor Horn relinquished his vocal duties to Benoit David here, he returns here as the record’s producer. Most importantly, the impressive prog-pop epic “Fly From Here” was largely written by Downes and Horn in 1980. While nothing on Fly From Here reaches the heights of “Machine Messiah” or “Tempus Fugit,” it’s a far more consistent record than Drama ever was. What’s more, to hear a band releasing solid material across six decades is a rare sight. Fly From Here is never excellent, but it’s plenty enjoyable.

The most obvious strength in Fly From Here‘s favour is the twenty minute title suite. Yes have never shirked away from the risk and rewards an epic potentially offers, and even during their otherwise weakest moments (such as Talk), they’ve managed to do some pretty great things with longform composition. Even compared to their other post-70s epics, “Fly From Here” is irregular. Whereas everything from “Endless Dream” to “That, That Is” and “In the Presence Of” aimed to create a singular, start-to-finish impression, “Fly From Here” is very compartmentalized—three of the parts within could be experienced as self-contained songs outside of their epic context. The upbeat, central theme “We Can Fly” stands as arguably being the most memorable and immediate single Yes have crafted since “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” It’s pleasantly contrasted by the more in-depth and melancholic “Sad Night at the Airfield” which, in turn, is sent up by the quirky pace and tone of “Madman at the Screens.” The whole thing is held together by the overture and reprise, which draw ideas from the three central parts in a fairly satisfying way. The only part of the “Fly From Here” suite that seems out of place is the aptly titled “Bumpy Ride”, an instrumental climax composed by Howe that seems intent on giving the epic a proggier flair, but lacks the tact and intensity to properly accent it.

12. Yes (1969)

Everybody starts somewhere. Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman were both a couple of years away from joining Yes, and progressive rock had barely started. Yes‘ self-titled debut, along with its follow-up Time and a Word have never received a fraction of the attention their successors would foster, both then and now. It’s surprising that so many Yes fans have never bothered to check them out. Yes wouldn’t begin to unlock their potential until The Yes Album, but the debut certainly deserves more recognition than its earned. Yes is a solid psych rock album, with strong melodies and tight musicianship; what more could a listener ask for?

There is a sense here that Yes are piggybacking on the tailends of the dwindling hippie movement. Unlike their more timeless prog classics, Yes feels very much a work of its time. With the notable exception of King Crimson (who set the standard for proficiency in the genre), progressive rock was nearly indistinguishable from psychedelic rock at the time. 1969 was saturated with melody-driven bands that tried to bring a heavier approach to psych rock with the use of distorted guitars and thick organ playing, and Yes were no exception. Two included covers (of The Beatles‘ “Every Little Thing”, and the Byrds‘ “I See You”) reinforce the idea that Yes were still at a stage of emulation over innovation. I think the thing that’s missing most in retrospect is Steve Howe‘s unique fingerstyle, but it’s also clearly a case of a band needing time and experience before making a bolder statement.

Compared to their contemporaries, Yes had already distinguished themselves as a technically proficient act on the self-titled. I hear that seeing King Crimson perform compelled Yes to brush up their skills and push the envelope; whatever the case, it worked to their benefit. Jon Anderson‘s vocals are already strong and distinctive, and his high-register delivery works really well with the ‘flower power’ atmosphere and melodic songwriting. Surprisingly, the musician who impresses me the most here is Peter Banks, a guitarist that time seems to have forgotten under the shadow of Yes‘ canonical riffmaker Steve Howe. If Howe was based in classical music, Peter Banks has a clear love for jazz. Although the rhythm guitars have a biting distortion and buzz of hard rock, his leads are clean, thick and jazzy. In combination with the in-vogue London psych rock direction, Banks‘ jazz leads gave Yes‘ debut an urbane and cultured feel. I think Howe as a replacement brought something far more special to the table, but Banks‘ own contributions to Yes‘ career have gone sorrowfully underrated.

11. The Ladder (1999)

Since the underwhelming mess Union at the start of the decade, the band had been suffering through a crisis of identity—it wasn’t altogether clear where they could go now that the refined pop rock of 90125 and Big Generator had gone out of style. Things were made infinitely worse when Trevor Rabin left after Talk in 1994; anyone who begs to differ should listen to Open Your Eyes. If you can find any redemptive worth in that album beyond the title track, you’re probably a Saint and have a blessed place waiting for you in AOR heaven.

The logical choice, of course, would be for Yes to fall back on their proud history with prog. In any case, their conscious fusion of pop and prog on Union resulted in their first truly bad record, and even the fully progressive studio material on Keys to Ascension felt far less exciting than new Yes epics rightly should have been. I don’t think it was the style or prog-factor that was missing in their sound. It was inspiration and a sense of excitement in the music they were making that they had done without for so long. The marriage of proggy arrangements with largely pop songwriting had been attempted before, but on The Ladder it actually works.

10. Tormato (1978)

There seems to be a general consensus that Tormato marked the end of Yes‘ winning streak. There had been personal differences arising in the band since Tales from Topographic Oceans, and combined with their conflicts of artistic vision and a greater level of alcohol consumption than should normally be attributed to a progressive rock act, suffice to say there was a steady foundation for things to fall apart. Though it seems to have earned its own small cult of respect as the years have passed, Tormato sounds undeniably disjointed and unrefined when compared to its predecessors—it’s as if Yes were no longer interested in playing together, instead hopelessly entertaining a notion that inspiration and chemistry would suddenly start up again. In spite of the obvious lack of inspiration and synergy, Tormato still manages to be a fairly engaging and surprisingly under-appreciated record, although the band’s better bouts continue to weigh heavily against it by comparison.

Like the album’s title, Tormato is itself an awkward portmanteau, pairing Yes‘ flashy progressive style with the then-nascent ‘80s pop kitsch they would deliver in the decade that followed. Like Yes‘ first two albums, Tormato seems to have flown under the radar, even for many otherwise-hardcore Yes fans. While the collective amnesia towards Yes and Time and a Word struck me as being criminally unfair, it’s quite understandable why Tormato hasn’t received much attention in hindsight. After all, virtuoso musicians they may be, who wants to listen to musicians without inspiration or passion? Listening to Tormato, I get the mental image of a band of musicians playing with their backs turned to one another- there’s the general impression they’re working together towards the same goal, but there’s no collusion or chemistry between any pair of musicians here. “Future Times / Rejoice” is a finely written, atmospheric song, but it feels like the musicians have each fled to their own little worlds. Quite a few of the songs here are otherwise well written: “Onward” and “Madrigal” are two beautiful ballad-type tracks, and “Don’t Kill the Whale” features some great melodic writing—I understand it became a minor hit for the band. Whatever the case, it’s less the composition of Tormato, and more the respective execution that proves to be most problematic for the album.

09. Time and a Word (1970)

Time and a Word is, in many ways, typical for a band’s second album. It takes the successes of the first album and matures them, adding fresh elements when possible. In the context of Yes‘ career as a whole, Time and a Word is a transition piece, elevating the band from the psychedelic organ rock of the self-titled into something more ambitious and nuanced—Time and a Word would start a streak of ambitious symphonic prog that would last a decade. I’ve heard that Yes felt the urge to polish their technical skills once they heard King Crimson perform; even when compared to the relatively capable debut, it’s clear that they took that challenge to heart with Time and a Word. Listening to “Then” or “The Prophet,” one gets the impression of a band making an effort to push themselves wherever possible. Yes weren’t as refined circa 1970 as they would be with their canonical masterpieces, but to hear a band with such an apparent motivation to aspire and improve is a treat of its own.

Whereas most symphonic prog makes use of synthesizers to get the “symphonic” element across, Time and a Word hosts a full string section. The good intention is admittedly better than the execution itself, but it’s nonetheless impressive to hear such a young band trying to work a true-to-life symphonic layer into their music. There are places where the string section gets overzealous (a great song is hiding somewhere in “Clear Days” for example, but the prominent string section sounds aimless) but it does give Time and a Word a unique sound—Yes wouldn’t try this again until their nineteenth album, Magnification, in 2001. For proof of the string section’s potential in Yes‘ music, just listen to the way it accentuates the instrumentation on “The Prophet” or the title track. The approach was in its rough stages, but I think Yes could have done some cool things with an orchestra, had they stayed the course.

08. 90125 (1983)

If there’s anything Yes‘ latest disasterpiece Heaven and Earth has taught me, it’s that I will always prefer a solid pop album over a dogshit prog one. Writing a set of catchy, concise and effective tunes is potentially just as much a challenge as penning a grandiose epic; it just requires a separate set of skills. Yes had long-since established themselves as masters of the latter, and the decade prior to the release of 90125 was filled with lasting testaments to their skill as a band. With that inspiration having shown its end with the patchy Tormato and largely outsourced Drama however, in retrospect it makes perfect sense the band found themselves in need of some renovation. Yes‘ transition on 90125 has made it the most polarizing album among fans after Tales from Topographic Oceans. Even if it’s a disappointment in retrospect that Yes didn’t have another decade of prog masterpieces left in them, 90125 stands as a remarkably well-crafted pop record, and one well-deserving of the success it enjoyed throughout the ‘80s.

Like any mid-life career change, the transition Yes made with 90125 was a risk, but it certainly paid off. Someone with no idea what a mellotron or moog is will almost surely be cognizant of their hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, and it’s unlikely they would be able to hum out the first few lines. Sure enough, I don’t think a song penned under the Yes name was so concise and effective since “Roundabout.” Cheesy electronic embellishments and lyrics are easily offset by the song’s perfect melodic writing and indomitable hook factor. With Steve Howe‘s absence, the instrumentation sounds a world away from the “classic” Yes, and might have passed for another band entirely had it not been for Jon Anderson‘s vocals. If any of classic members truly benefited from the newfound pop leanings on 90125, it would be Anderson. Granted, there’s no longer any room for his New Age lyrical dawdling here, but the his distinctive voice feels perfect for the approach the band took here.

90125 pleasantly evades the stereotype of the pop album as being shallow or inconsistent; from a point of songwriting it was the most consistent record they had produced since Going for the One or even before that. It’s granted there are none of the sonic highlights that past records offered (including my much-loathed Drama) but there’s a sense of purpose to each of the songs that Yes had struggled with on their best days. Say what you will about the dated ‘80s cheese, almost every song on the album manages to feel memorable and distinctive. This ability to write distinctive tracks served Yes well in the past, but it is especially relevant on 90125; strangely enough, the only forgettable track included—that being “Cinema”–seems most like a trace of their proggy past, a longform introduction to “Leave It” with ambient guitar flourishes that that don’t sound entirely unlike what Howe would have done, had he performed on the album.

07. The Yes Album (1971)

Greatness has to start somewhere, and though Yes have long since earned a place in the pantheon of prog rock legend, there was in fact a time when Yes found themselves in troubled waters. Before “Roundabout,” before Fragile or Relayer or any of the band’s notable achievements, Yes were a psychedelic prog act with a pair of commercially unsuccessful albums. Yes and Time and a Word were solid records to be certain, but they weren’t enough to keep Atlantic records happy. Thus was delivered an ultimatum; Yes would have to notch up their act and attract some attention, or the record label would be forced to drop them. As it so appears, diamonds aren’t the only gems to be forged from pressure. There’s no knowing whether The Yes Album would have come together the way it did had the band not had that weight of expectation on their shoulders, but it marks the first memorable and style-defining classic of their illustrious career. It has not aged as well as the masterpieces to come, but Yes‘ fusion of pop-infused cheer with prog rock sophistication set a strong foundation for the band’s golden era.

Some will point the finger at Fragile or even Close to the Edge, but I’ve always felt The Yes Album was the perfect point of entry for someone looking to see what Yes were all about. Although undeniably rooted within prog rock territory, The Yes Album is an incredibly accessible album. Even in their unabridged forms, “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” have the potential to instantly stick in a casual listener’s mind. Yes would almost always have an optimistic tinge in their atmosphere, but The Yes Album is outright cheerful. The mid-paced softer track “A Venture” is a bit of a baroque, mysterious-sounding exception, but the majority of the album evokes vivid imagery of summer and bright-eyed wonder. “I’ve Seen All Good People” even echoes the chorus to “Give Peace A Chance” at a point! I would say that there is a resounding sense of hope here, but that would suggest the potential for a darker outcome. The Yes Album negates darkness entirely with its atmosphere. Sure, the lyrics at times might be interpreted as less-than-cheery but even then, the only possible outcome for the subject matter is one where all is resolved and humanity flourishes with the power of love. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song that’s so unrepentantly rose-tinted about human nature as “I’ve Seen All Good People”. As optimistic as they may sound compared to prog rock both then and now, the rest of Yes‘ albums didn’t even sound as cheerful as this.

06. Going for the One (1977)

Going for the One marked the end of an era for Yes, what I outline in this and other reviews as the band’s 1golden era.1 Spanning from The Yes Album to Going for the One, Yes released gem after gem, and every album within that six year space warrants attentive listening from anyone who dares mention a passing interest in progressive rock. With Going for the One, it was clear that the proggy fervour was cooling off—punk was famously being said to have killed off prog, and a zeitgeist of once progressive bands giving up their mellotrons and moogs for three minute pop songs was right around the corner. Going for the One was a final bold statement before Yes‘ quality of output began to dip; it may not have the firm sense of identity or consistency as the five records prior, but the fifteen minute titan “Awaken” alone is more than worth the price of admission.

Going for the One opens with its hyperactive title track, a high-energy rock tune that signifies the album’s general approach. Although it’s got a twinge of the chaotic wall-of-sound from Relayer, Going for the One tries to express that scope and bombast with a more concise style of songwriting. As far as the title track is concerned, Yes manage to make this backscaling of their sound really work. For all of its twelve bar bluesy straightforwardness, “Going for the One” (the song) is incredibly dense sonically and initially struck me as being too cluttered for its own good. The vocals may still seem a bit drowned out in the sonic chaos, but the infectious catchiness and energy was more than enough to win me over. “Turn of the Century” was a much easier track to get into. A more tender acoustic piece in the style of “And You And I” or “To Be Over,” it’s one of the most beautiful things Yes have ever done. The instrumentation is soft and gentle, but it’s Jon Anderson‘s vocals that really stand out. In a long career of beautiful performances, this might be my favourite of his. The stark contrast between this and the title track feels a little odd in terms of album flow, but both stand out individually.

05. Magnification (2001)

In so many ways, Magnification rides on the precedent set by The Ladder. As was the case on The Ladder, the strong epic tracks may not be quite enough to excuse the inconsistent pop songwriting, but Yes truly sell their 17th album on account of the passion they’ve put into arranging and executing it. Even without the full orchestral treatment, I think Magnification could have held its own against anything the band had released in over twenty years.

Whereas so much of Yes‘ post-Drama material is cumulatively shat upon by their fans and critics, the short period beginning with their Keys to Ascension duology and ending with Magnification escaped the brunt of the storm. After how bad things got with Open Your Eyes (a next-to-worthless AOR album if ever I’ve heard one!) Yes seemed to get the message, and decided to turn their sound around for the better. The fresh studio material on both Keys to Ascension 1 + 2 was well-intentioned and proggy, but lacked soul and inspiration. In spite of a few weak tracks, The Ladder aptly demonstrated that Yes were still capable of releasing great prog in their fourth decade of existence. Magnification, then, is the next logical evolution in this short Yes renaissance. Not having employed a full-bodied orchestra since 1970 with Time and a Word, the fact alone that Yes were bringing symphonic prog full circle was pretty audacious, particularly for a band who, earlier on Union, didn’t sound like they had a clue where they wanted to go.

Most of Yes‘ orchestral experiments have felt superficial to me—Time and a Word only used the symphony in spurts, and the Symphonic Live orchestral renditions of classic material rarely did more than shadow the guitar and bass lines. In any case, Larry Groupë orchestral arrangements here proved to be a wonderful surprise. Although the focus remains almost always on the band themselves, these songs were clearly written with enough “fill in the blanks” room for Groupë to make the orchestral contribution relevant. These songs could have existed well enough on their own, but the symphonic arrangements make them come alive.

04. Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)

Before the notion was rightly dismissed by the others, Jon Anderson was said to have expressed a wish to record Tales from Topographic Oceans in the middle of a forest at nighttime. Although Jon didn’t get his wish to record their sixth LP out in the woods with the owls and squirrels, Yes instead decorated their studio to make it look more like a farmyard. Among these ornaments were stacks of hay, archetypal white picket fences, a miniature barn, and a model of a cow with mechanical udders. Even being the lifelong fan of this album as I am, I am not beyond calling that one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard a band do in order to ‘get in the mood’ for recording. Then again, their last two albums— 1971′s Fragile, and Close to the Edge from the following year—had both turned out as masterpieces, so Yes could certainly afford themselves some degree of pretentiousness.

Compared to the more institutionally recognized of Yes‘ masterpieces, Tales from Topographic Oceans still stands as a matter of contention for listeners, even today, four-plus decades after its recording and release. After having touched the sky and cracked upon the egg of ambition with Close to the Edge, Yes would have been in a tight spot; would they try to keep pushing their ambition somehow and risk alienating everyone, or pull back the reins and enjoy more familiar grounds? The band reached a near-melting point with this album, with Wakeman in particular famously feeling pretty discouraged about the way it turned out. Pushing the boundaries further past Close to the Edge and creating a double album four epics long resulted in the most critically polarizing progressive rock album ever made. A few rag-tag advocates defend the album for its scope and ambition, whereas the rest cite it as a poster child for prog rock indulgence, self-importance, and idle longwindedness…

…whatever their grievances may be, they’re wrong.

…well, maybe they are right, but Tales from Topographic Oceans‘ opaque self-awareness and bombast don’t stop it from being one of the most incredible albums ever made in progressive rock, and quite possibly even Yes‘ finest hour. It’s the true definition of a grower album, and though Yes demands more here from the listener than they ever had or would again, the ultimate rewards for sticking with it are incredible.

With Close to the Edge, Yes‘ writing had been condensed, with a clear regard for the economy of time. Almost every minute sounded like it was used to perfection, and it’s that “no-filler” attitude that has made it such a crown jewel in their discography. By contrast, Yes opens up the scope once again on Tales, no by continuing to up the density in their sound as they had been doing for their career up ’til now, but by relaxing the measurements of time and giving compositions air to breathe. Without that stress on the composition’s back, new territories are more capably explored. Somewhat like the feeling of coming off a highway and feeling like you’re driving more slowly on the normal roads than you really are, Yes‘ change of pace, and their more drawn out instrumental passages have a tendency to feel aimless or wandering compared to the band’s typical fare. It’s easy to dismiss the listener’s responsibility to stay attentive and brush the leads as longwinded, sure, but as the album grows more familiar, patterns and motifs become more obvious. If there’s anything I can say or do in this review to convince someone of the album’s wonder, I would simply ask to approach the album with the assumption that each note has been given the same thoughtful, meticulous care that Yes would put into their other masterpieces. It’s certainly not as obvious, but it’s there.

03. Fragile (1971)

A crescendo draws steadily out of my set of speakers. As I prepare for a rocking riff to open up the album, the crescendo deceptively leads to an unassuming open acoustic harmonic. Steve Howe‘s guitarwork is light and almost certainly classically influenced; the acoustic motif is mysterious, and as it’s played again, the listener is begged to wonder where the band is planning on ultimately going with it. But, before you know it, the acoustic guitar has picked up the pace and ushers in a tight rhythm from Bruford and one of the most immortal grooves Chris Squire ever dictated with the bass guitar. Such is the way Yes open up their classic fourth album Fragile and their perennial fan favourite “Roundabout.” The song itself is probably the greatest piece of radio coverage the progressive rock genre ever received, and still rightly stands as one of the best pieces from the band’s catalogue. As an album, Fragile has sometimes irked me for its focus on short instrumental cuts and apparent interlude tracks, but when taken as a whole, the album is arguably the most well-rounded and agreeably paced of the band’s career. I could still point the finger at any of the three albums Yes would release following this as the best of their career, but Fragile marks the band’s destined ascent into the realm of mastery. If there was any question left as to their greatness after The Yes Album, Fragile finally set all doubts to rest.

Of the album’s nine tracks, only four of them might be considered self-standing songs, and only three of those (excluding “Long Distance Runaround”) feel like well-rounded prog tunes. Especially when you stop to compare it to the three and four “epic” track arrangements of Yes‘ three following records, Fragile is a peculiar distinction amongst the band’s oeuvre. Although “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise” both count as two of Yes‘ strongest compositions, Fragile demands to be heard from start to finish as a whole, even moreso than other albums in progressive rock. My first impression to consider the shorter pieces as interludes was sorely mistaken in any case; they may be short, but each track makes a clear statement of its own. Somewhat in the vein of what Pink Floyd did with Ummagumma (albeit far more successfully), Fragile features a piece built specifically around each musician. The Wakeman-orchestrated “Cans and Brahms” is a fine nod to Western classical tradition. “We Have Heaven” is a soaring ode to Jon Anderson‘s vocal beauty, as well as his signature psychedelic optimism. “Five Per Cent for Nothing” is a sporadic, Bruford-led exercise in rhythm, “The Fish” showcases Chris Squire‘s skill with bass grooves, and “Mood for a Day” is a pleasant acoustic piece from Steve Howe. None of these five shorter pieces would be entirely fitting for individual consumption, but as a whole, they flow together seamlessly.

02. Close to the Edge (1972)

There was no doubt Close to the Edge enjoyed sophistication and depth that made most rock music look neanderthal by comparison, but I couldn’t help but feel that the album feel far short of its reputation as a masterpiece to trump all others. Today, I can look back and understand why the album’s orchestral density and blocky flow may have made it a slow grower for me initially, but time and experience with Close to the Edge has seen me fall in line with the legions of proggers that sing its praises. It’s a slice of near-perfection, and still sounds monumental over forty years since its recording.

Part of the reason I may not have been able to see the full brilliance of Close to the Edge initially may have been my own experiences as a listener. Many of the title piece’s instrumental sections sound like they could have been spawned from a miraculously devised improvisation; each instrument fills their side of the sound with a groove and rhythm of its own. From the start, “Close to the Edge” forgoes conventions that were commonplace in prog rock epics even by 1972. Rather than choosing to welcome the listener in with a resounding theme or overture, Yes erupt into a chaotic swirl of guitar-based jamming and synthesizer-fuelled madness. When the band brings the chaos down to earth a couple of minutes in and goes for a more typical sort of focus, the melodies and symphonic warmth are refreshing, thanks in large part to the jarring contrast.

Where most progressive epics are most impressive for their composition, “Close to the Edge” has always stood out for its focus on the band performance itself. Like a well-balanced meal, there’s plenty to keep a listener busy and occupied; somehow tired of the brilliant guitar and key leads? That’s fine, simply look just beneath the surface and there’s an equal depth to the sophisticated bass grooves and drumwork. Listening to “Close to the Edge”, it’s a granted delight to take it all in as a whole, but repeated listens have often found me focusing on one part of the performance without being any less engaged as a result. Even in progressive rock, where this degree of complexity is often a mandate, I find myself hard-pressed to think of a few other albums that have this much depth and engagement in the performance. To name many at all, I’d have to start talking about jazz music.

Steven Wilson‘s recent 2013 remixing of the album for Panegyric Records brings a refreshing new perspective to the album. He has proved his ear for production and mastering countless times before, and Close to the Edge is no different. The instrumentation feels more lively and balanced than before, Chris Squire‘s bass guitar in particular has finally been given a well-deserved showcase in the mix. I’ve mentioned that Close to the Edge is an album most impressive for its band-centered performance, and this remix has acknowledged those strengths and capitalized on them. Of course, a remixing isn’t so much an improvement as it is a fresh interpretation, and there are some parts of Wilson‘s reimagining—most notably the upmixing of Howe‘s thinly performed background vocals on “I Get Up, I Get Down”—that should have been approached differently. The remix is by no means flawless enough to be the new “definitive” edition of the album, but it has enough changes to warrant a check-out from veterans and newcomers alike.

Although progressive rock has been marching onward for what is now close to half a century, the genre had already reached an outstanding maturity and familiarity by 1972. Though still in the midst of its golden peak, progressive rock was already beginning to get comfortable with its own set of conventions. Both as an epic and as an album, Close to the Edge did not so much avert these conventions as it put a new spin on them, and took them to new heights of sophistication. Yes may have been doing exciting things in 1971 with The Yes Album and Fragile, but the following year and Close to the Edge finally saw them explore the sort of ambitious quasi-perfection usually reserved for erudite composers and traditional “art music.”

01. Relayer (1974)

Imagine you are somewhere, whereupon you meet two beautiful women. From the onset, it’s clear they are sisters; both of them are alike in their beauty, intelligence and sophistication. Although they’re both among the most gorgeous women you have come across in your travels however, as time goes on, you find yourself slowly gravitating towards one over the other. Even if the other one might ultimately prove to be more popular, the younger of the two sisters strikes you as being more adventurous, risk-taking and intellectually provocative than the other.

For a long time now, this has been the way I’ve thought of Yes‘ 1972 classic Close to the Edge and her younger, more adventurous sibling Relayer. Don’t get me wrong; Close to the Edge was as impressive as albums come, and well-deserving of its status as Yes‘ de facto “essential” album, but with Relayer, they took the formula and went somewhere even more exciting with it. It’s undeniably more uneven and rough than its spiritual predecessor, but that’s part of what makes it so damned good; this is Yes at their most uncompromisingly creative.

I’ll say this first and get it out of the way: I stand by “The Gates of Delirium” as the greatest progressive rock epic ever made.

If the epic cornerstone of Close to the Edge had married rock and classical music together in some glorious fusion, “The Gates of Delirium” added jazz to the melting pot. Basing a progressive epic on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” may be tantamount to a prog cliche both now and when the album released in 1974, but Yes have by no means tied this epic to its source of inspiration. Really, the epic can be interpreted more broadly to reflect a battle; before, after, and in the midst of it. “The Gates of Delirium” opens up sounding remarkably spacey (even by Yes‘ standards!) but—as was the case with Close to the Edge—the overture eventually consolidates itself into a firmer structure to accommodate Anderson‘s vocals. Even if Jon Anderson‘s performance here retains its trademark optimism, the mood is instantly tense; the tempo is fed with a drive and expedience far removed from the leisurely pace of Tales from Topographic Oceans, as if the music has been spurned forth on a forced military march into battle. The tension continues to build until the music sounds like a symphony fed through a distortion box. By the time the famed instrumental “battle” takes place, “The Gates of Delirium” has already built a frightening momentum, and a perfect precedent for what is possibly the most impressive passage ever written in progressive rock.

The intensity and catharsis of a battle is a fertile ground for respectively intense music, but there aren’t all that many pieces of music that truly capture a battle’s chaos and rupture. “The Gates of Delirium” isn’t only one of those few pieces to come forth from rock and its subgenres; it is, arguably, the most cathartic battle music. Yes‘ sound is usually padded with symphonic warmth, but here, the instrumentation is cutting and sharp. The mood is epic, cinematic and large-scale, but almost overwhelmingly so, as if the catharsis one may have expected from a battle proves to be too much to bear, and overtakes the listener (and would-be soldier) in its impartially brutal grasp. Although Alan White‘s “interesting” choice of percussion during this sequence—he pushed a rack of junkyard car parts over during the recording—seems like a crude and risky move, it fits the tone so damned well; in a battle, I don’t imagine there would be time for subtle, refined percussive techniques, and Yes acknowledge this fact well.

The epic’s beautiful denouement “Soon” is a steep contrast to the chaos it succeeds. One gets the picture of a quiet aftermath; there are no victors, none to reap the victories of warfare, none who have even survived the ordeal without deep scars, in body and soul. It’s too mellow to have warranted Atlantic Records‘ decision to use it as a single, but it wraps up the epic with a signature tenderness the rest of the work was intentionally left without. Anderson‘s voice here is at its most beautiful, and Steve Howe‘s guitar tone sounds like it’s actually weeping, it’s that gorgeous. There’s far more I could say about “The Gates of Delirium,” really, but it’s enough to say that it’s possibly the greatest work of progressive rock I’ve ever heard, classic and contemporary alike.

In its wake, the second half of Relayer feels like an addendum to the main attraction; “Sound Chaser” and “To Be Over” are nowhere near as powerful or perfect in their writing or execution. Like the proggy-mellow dichotomy enjoyed between “Siberian Khatru” and “And You And I” respectively on Close to the Edge, these two pieces contrast each other, this time to an even greater degree. While “To Be Over” is one of the most aesthetically beautiful things Yes have ever composed, “Sound Chaser” is sporadic chaos incarnate, in performance and especially in its composition. Thanks in large part to Patrick Moraz‘s recent addition to the band as keyboardist (Wakeman had grown tired of the band’s direction on Tales from Topographic Oceans and made like a tree), there is a strong jazz fusion kick to the music, in a space that would have usually Wakeman‘s high classical influence. The introduction to “Sound Chaser” is pretty mind-blowing and surprising, especially upon first hearing it. It’s really unfortunate that the song doesn’t serve to ultimately do something with that momentum; before long, the chaos has died down, leaving Howe to noodle away at an extended solo with no accompaniment, somewhere along the lines of what Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page may have done live during a twenty minute instrumental break. “Sound Chaser” does get back on its feet in time, but there are a few minutes there that feel too aimless for their own good. Moraz steps in for a fusion key solo towards the end, but it feels sort of underwhelming, given the context of a patchy song structure, and the brilliance the album’s first side had to offer. “To Be Over” honestly bored me when I first heard it, but it’s one of the most tender things Yes ever created. As if Yes are intentionally trying to balance out the miasma of “The Gates of Delirium” here, “To Be Over” sounds like resolution and tranquility manifest in a song; really pretty sounding stuff, even if it doesn’t serve to match the genius of the album’s epic.

Relayer is less balanced than Close to the Edge, Fragile and Tales from Topographic Oceans, but it’s that experimental, choppy nature that keeps listeners engaged. Like a classic painting placed underneath blacklight, Yes took their masterpiece formula and put a frightening, alien and penetrating spin on it. Even “Sound Chaser,” when overlooked for its obvious structural weakness, has the ability to surprise and shock more than most more conventionally structured works in prog rock. Even so, the album’s greatest strength is blatantly obvious, and while I would normally condemn an album for being so one-sided in my love for it, Relayer continues to challenge and provoke me a listener. If anything, it’s that quality that makes the album (among) the best this band has ever done.

2 Comments

  1. tunapiano

    May 12, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    Very fascinating round up of YES. I’m in complete agreement except I would switch GOING FOR THE ONE to #3. Awaken is an incredible Opus, a fullness and maturity of YES. I am glad to see RELAYER get the #1 spot…it is, was an amazing album. I’ve had it playing in my car for 8 months now. Just can’t bring myself to replace it just yet. I’m also glad to see TALES get the high grades it so richly deserves. In fact, I would say TALES assisted in moving YES to record RELAYER. Night and Day albums but great in their own rite. Kudos to the listing, and as a YES fan, I went into this figuring I was going to be critical. Nice job.

  2. Mike Reiss

    December 5, 2017 at 7:39 pm

    My top three favorites also and in that order probably. I know many Yes albums don’t consider Fragile to be top three or even top five but I sure do. After that I would say “The Yes album” and then “Going for the One.” I agree that GFTO should be pretty high. Tales I wouldn’t put quite as high. Maybe number six for me. Magnification I like a lot but I think there’s maybe a few others I would put a bit higher. I have a soft spot for Big Generator too even though it typically doesn’t rank very high. If you view it just as a pop rock album with a lot of prog and hard rock stuff throwin in you might be able to appreciate it more. The same thing with 90125. Yes is a great band though and I’m disappointed not to see more comments here.

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