I'm in a minority, albeit far from unique within the Yes fan base, in being already aware of - in fact, for decades very familiar with - the musical sapling at the centre of this new Yes album. That was due to my extensive collection of live bootleg CDs of the band, at one point containing several thousand discs.
The Horn/Downes penned demo We Can Fly From Here was played at a total of 67 shows on the 1980 Drama tour of North America and Europe. I owned recordings of 32 of these performances.
Despite its live coverage, the song was never included on a studio album. Not even on the 2004 Rhino release of Drama, expanded though that was from 6 to 16 tracks, with the inclusion of much bonus material, some less worthy. Though it did have an official live release in 2005, on the Rhino live box set The Word Is Live, it wasn't until this most recent blinding roundabout of personnel changes, ending in the reunion of core Yes men Chris, Steve and Alan, with the song's original writers, that a studio release became a possibility. And actually, much more than that.
Old School Prog
To say that I disapproved of the replacement, in 1980, of angelic but abstract singer/lyricist Jon Anderson, and classically trained keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman, by those two Age Of Plastic Buggles Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, would be completely to misapply the moderate and perfectly serviceable concept of disapproval. In fact, I suffered a complete breakdown of rationality, an implosion of incredulity, which sounded a little like this: What? The! Fuck?!
Looking back, I knew nothing about record production, and so missed the fact that a lot of the best and my favourite 80s pop - Propaganda, Frankie Goes To Hollywood (with Steve Howe on guitars!), Art Of Noise, Lisa Stansfield, Simple Minds - all was Trevor Horn produced.
Fly From Here
The main, 25 minute, 6 part epic (including the now obligatory Overture) is not at all bombastic, quite the opposite; for the most part it canters and trots a few simple themes which weave around themselves, or around light relief at one stage reminiscent of Zappa's Tink Walks Amok. All the same, and following in the tradition of their peerless Close To The Edge, which grew out of a single melodic idea by Steve Howe, it is unmistakably an old school Yes reworking of seed material, by way of thematic contributions from all band members, into a thing of epic scale.
It also shares a lot more than just structural outline and scale with its 1973 predecessor. Simplicity for one thing, in both its wondrously plain but beautiful musical motifs, and its simplistic lyrics. I get up, I get down has become a static descriptive thread about an abandoned airfield. Then too there's variety of texture, with its Madman at the Screens diversion, or the madly sauntering, Howe-penned Bumpy Ride. And it all ends, of course, with the equally obligatory Reprise.
This analysis of the title piece is borne out during the 18½ minute "Making Of" DVD, which came free with my copy. Everyone interviewed attests to the same narrative of frictionless collaboration and inclusiveness. Production god Trevor Horn tellingly emphasises, "I didn't want anything programmed," shaking and lowering his head as if discarding too heavy, unpleasant baggage; "I wanted it to sound more like the band sounded in the 70s, necessarily, than the band sounded in the 80s." Steve Howe cements the account: "It would be an illusion to say: Ah! This record sounds like the 70s. But the thing might be, there might be a concept in our new album, Fly From Here, that does carry a lot of that 70s... but it's not about copying the sound, it's really about just thinking in that way."
By turns anthemic, acoustic, inspirational, soft, rocking, and diverting, the album's centrepiece is an unconditional melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and organisational success. As for the remaining tracks...
The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be
A love song with melodic hooks and an irresistible message. Uncomplicated pop, flavoured with the soft rock sensibility of Downes' and Howe's Asia work.
Life on a Film Set
Another Buggles written reworking. Starts off slow and acoustic, then switched midstream to a fiesta dance, eleven to the bar. Nice cross-cutting solo guitar work from Steve. Yes!
Hour of Need
The Japanese release has an extended version of this song, a ballad written by Steve Howe. I'll withhold my verdict until I manage to get hold of that, as it's reputed to be a great improvement on this little three minute ditty.
This is my favourite Steve Howe solo work, out of the entire canon comprising his own solo releases and those acoustic spots with Yes. Many long time fellow Yes fans have already disagreed with me on this, but I hear the richest ever concatenation of varied guitar styles, the most accurate fretboard and pick fingering, and melodies mostly sweet, only occasionally and at the very end, minor and sinister.
Into the Storm
A strong finish, again featuring some great solo work by Steve, who appears to have gone all out for quality over number of notes this time.
Fly From Here is a great little album with a clearly retro sensibility. One I felt inspired and obliged to write about at length. One that deserves a chance of commercial success, however unlikely that might be for almost any artist today, least of all a 40+ year old progressive rock outfit. The overall sound can be summed up by saying you can hear all the instruments, something unfashionable given recent fads for production munge*, compression and clipping. Also something at which the previous album, 2001's Magnification (Yes! From ten years ago!) spectacularly failed - at least if you ask Steve Howe.
Fittingly, the cover artwork is a superb Roger Dean original in something of a career-spanning amalgam of styles, started in 1970, and left unfinished until now.
*My own term. Fortuitously, I now discover its usage in computer security, specifically password creation, where it means Modify Until Not Guessed Easily. Well, that is precisely what I mean by munge in the context of musical production: modified until there's nought but a thick beige soup, whose ingredients can no longer even be guessed. Except maybe for mechanically recovered broiler chicken.