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.
Even having been a fan of the band and album for years now, the fact that Fragile‘s flow works so well remains a mystery to me. 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.
There’s no question, however, that the true meat of Fragile rests at the heart of the longer compositions. Even if “Roundabout” enjoys its share of the FM waves, it’s a remarkably sophisticated piece that’s as close to perfection as you’re bound to hear in prog. At eight and a half minutes long, it rivals the ambitious scope of a progressive epic but retains the tightness and instantly memorable factor of a pop tune- I can’t recall another song in the genre that manages to achieve both simultaneously. If the album had a darkest moment, “South Side of the Sky” would be it; even if it retains Yes‘ trademark bounce and ethereal atmosphere, it’s a more reserved counterpoint to “Roundabout” and a solid way to round off Fragile‘s mid-section. “Long Distance Runaround” is concisely written and pleasantly written; if not much else, it’s got some fine vocals from Anderson and an interesting guitar hook. Even so, the album’s most pop-oriented tune feels downright underwhelming compared to the three longer tracks, and even a couple of the more ambitious interludes.
Now, if I’ve sung so highly the praises of “Roundabout”, let it be known that Fragile reaches even greater heights with “Heart of the Sunrise”. Bringing together Yes‘ atmospheric beauty and burstfire tightness under the banner of a single track, it’s one of the most incredible songs Yes ever crafted in their career. Tight instrumentation (particularly from Howe and Wakeman) and a haunting climax are among the qualities that make it one of the band’s greatest ever works. Closing off the album with a brief reprise of “We Have Heaven” was a nice touch as well.
Fragile marked the first album with Rick Wakeman onboard, and while many fans will attest that they hit their mark with The Yes Album, I’ll stand by this record as the moment where Yes finally unlocked their own slice of heaven. It can be too easy to get complacent as a listener when getting into a classic like this; after all, the verdict’s already been made up, they’re albums we’re supposed to find depth and inspiration in. Listening toFragile over four decades since its release however, and I’m still finding myself taken aback by the creativity and sophistication Yes brought to the table with this one. Surprisingly enough, Yes would ascend to an even higher plane of ambition with Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans. Even if Fragile doesn’t represent the artistic pinnacle for Yes as an act, it retains the distinctive quality of a classic album, with a unique personality the band sadly never sought to explore further.
1. Roundabout (8:29)
2. Cans And Brahms (1:35)
3. We Have Heaven (1:30)
4. South Side Of The Sky (8:04)
5. Five Percent For Nothing (0:35)
6. Long Distance Runaround (3:33)
7. The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) (2:35)
8. Mood For A Day (3:57)
9. Heart Of The Sunrise (10:34)
Total Time: 40:52
Bonus tracks on Elektra remaster (2003):
10. America (10:33)
11. Roundabout (early rough mix) (8:35)
* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass and vocals
* Rick Wakeman – keyboards
* Bill Bruford – drums
* Steve Howe – guitars and vocals