Our reviews of Yes (published November 8th, 2005), Yes: Keys To Ascension (published December 24th, 2009), Yes: Symphonic Live (Blu-ray) (published October 8th, 2011), Yes: The New Director's Cut (published September 17th, 2008), and Yes: Yesspeak (published June 11th, 2011) are also available.
"As one with the knowledge and magic of the source
"In and around the lake / mountains come out of the sky / and they stand there…"
If there is one lyrical line that best represents the essence of early 1970s prog rock—that symphonic psychedelia that matched bombast with a rock and roll Renaissance festival to lull a planet of potheads into a happy state of near middle earth bliss—it would be this ecological bon mot. Culled from "Roundabout," the 1972 hit for the perennial pastoral Yes, it's this one song that continues to categorize a band that is more Celtic than cock-rock, eclectic than electric. The soul of the music made by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman, and Alan White can be found in the atmospheric tone poems and oft-mentioned musical paintings the band creates. Complex, esoteric, and completely original (not many bands out there releasing their own Tales from Topographic Oceans), they have never once sold out for the sake of a hit, though many critics could point to their latter years with guitarist Trevor Rabin, who orchestrated a commercial comeback with the totally '80s "Owner of a Lonely Heart" as a crash cave-in to the pop charts. But Yes would argue otherwise. They would find a way to turn such surreal lyric lines like "Here is my heart / Waiting for you / Here is my soul / I eat at chez nous"(?) into an ethereal protestation worthy of Amnesty International and/or a sci-fi convention. With their video-ready prime behind them, they have surprisingly become one of the most popular touring bands in the world! Over the years, the core members of Yes have had a lot to say about their music and methodology. New to DVD, Yesspeak captures the band in a rare reflective mood, discussing how almost four decades after the fact, being a member of this unique conglomeration affects them personally as well as professionally.
This is not a concert film per se, even if there are regular sequences highlighting the band's musicianship in front of a live audience (the material was recorded at shows along their recent Full Circle European tour). Instead, it's a strange hybrid, a little bit documentary, a little bit rock and roll. Meant as a history, but sometimes playing like an infomercial set to sell corporate sponsors on future tour bookings, this detailed, if dry, accounting is hard to enjoy completely. True fans will flock to this title hoping to see their heroes in action. And they will not be disappointed. What the group says about themselves in the numerous interviews that weave throughout the presentation is true: they sound just as good as they did all those years ago. Their musicianship is flawless, their improvisation and unit tightness impressive, and their connection with the audience electric. Though we only get to see intermittent scenes of them playing live (the material can be heard in its entirety in an audio-only offering accompanied by slide shows of the concert on Disc Two), they are an impressive pack of performers. In a stadium setting or an informal club context, they manage to create the grandeur and scope that their epic compositions require while never once losing their devoted legions. You may not care for their meandering madrigal music, but there's no denying that they pull it off magnificently. Yes is one of the few bands that are actually greater as a whole than in parts (anyone who's toyed with the individuals' solo outings can attest to that).
But it's interesting to note that, while the individuals here constantly champion the group dynamic, they are never once interviewed together. We do get shots of them backstage—Anderson and Squire and Howe keeping to their own entourage while Wakeman and White pal around—but there is never a five-man sit-down to discuss any aspect of their career. Obviously, some 35 years after initial impact, the members of Yes are divided into three distinct camps. There is the journeyman jocularity of the White camp, an old pro session player who stumbled into this band and is more than happy to put in his playing time before returning home to the material fruits of his artist labors, mainly a large mansion on a golf course and a pleasure boat. Then we have the artistic temperament and quirky obsessive section, made up of Gollum's brother Steve Howe and the madman of the Moog, Mr. Rick Wakeman. Both men are vehemently protective of their gear and their sound, and they are very hands-on, almost to a fault in all aspects of how their equipment is maintained (and who helps them maintain it). And on the far side of the camp, locked in their own little universes of self-importance and aggrandizement are Jon Anderson and Chris Squire. Both see themselves as the founding fathers of the band, the keepers of the forward-looking frame and the creative force that continues to drive the group. While jocular and jovial most of the time, these two titans can grow a bit wearisome with their constant credit taking.
What is needed here is some manner of perspective, an outside influence shaping the story. Sadly, there is no critical voice on Yesspeak, no interviewing entity present to focus or investigate the claims made. The Who's Roger Daltrey narrates the presentation with all the eloquence of a grade school student reciting from a primer. It's not that he's horrible, but he does have to struggle to find any emotion in the bare bones copy he is given. The decision to break up the band into chapters is also an odd one, since it starts to look like a competition. White and Howe get, say, seven minutes apiece, but Anderson and Squire seem to demand (and receive) twice as much. Of the entire band though, Wakeman and Howe are the two biggest stars and revelations. The keyboard wizard who tends towards robes and long sequined coats is actually a cheeky bugger, a synthesizer Monty Python wannabe who's almost as funny. His constant chiding of the videographers and his fellow band mates balances well with his personal disclosures about pressure, fame, and failure. Howe, with his Smeagol-inspiring mug (Jackson can deny it all he wants, but you can be the judge yourself) seems like a tight, twisted perfectionist locked in an angular, angst-ridden frame. He has all the makings of an OCD candidate, what with the meticulous care he requires for his prized guitar (he used to buy it its own airplane ticket) and his need for quiet isolation. Squire strives for down to earth effervescence, but can only maintain it for so long. And Anderson just has to brag about his discography and play us a few new tunes. On stage, Yes is an unqualified unit of success. Offstage, in the privacy of the worlds that fame built, you can hardly believe they tolerate each other.
This is an incomplete look at the band. By focusing on the 1974-75 incarnation alone, they skip over many important members and crucial events that helped keep the Yes name viable. If there is one person who is truly underrepresented in this docu-medley, a key figure in Yes' look and image, it's the amazing artist Roger Dean. Sure, he gets an obligatory chance at explaining his methods and inspiration when it comes to the group he helped define, but after a few kind words and a slideshow of images, he's gone. He is far more important than the brief lip service they pay him. Dean's disappearing act highlights this phantom presence flaw in the film in general. We do learn a lot about the individuals and the music they made. But we never really get a grip on Yes as a part of rock and roll history. They would argue that they are timeless, not part of any trend or era. But even with two discs upon which to sell this sentiment, it's a hard characterization to agree with. Classic Pictures DVD treatment is equally elusive. The images are marvelous, crystal clear, and shimmering in a magnificent anamorphic widescreen print. The direct-to-video footage often looks three-dimensional, it's so impressive. Equally evocative is the sonic source, a spectacular Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that opens up and envelops the music, bringing all of its careful complexity to glorious life. DTS was not available to this critic, but judging from the other aural offerings, it must be magnificent. Sadly, the extras get shortchanged here. The film is spread out over the two discs, with only audio tracks available for the live performance pieces. The slide show incorporated into the presentation is nice, but it really can't capture the spectacle of watching the band work their musicianship.
So here they are, 30-odd years later and still going strong. Anderson remains blessed with high-voiced chops, matched by Squire's precise harmonies and bass. Wakeman can still recall an era when the synthesizer made a band special, and Howe is a guitar hero buried in a sometimes befuddled façade. And in the back is the sturdy session man, Mr. White, pounding out the rhythm that brings it all together. Yes is indeed a band of talented players and performers. Their music may not be everyone's cup of oolong, but at least they are true to their roots. Frankly, it's rather easy to do so when you selectively recall only what you want to. Yesspeak is such an example of pinpoint history. Take a single section in the band's member-ography and make it the group's sole legacy. Such "long distance runaround" may serve the "classic" line-up well, but it's really a "roundabout" way of avoiding anything critical. You will definitely hear Yesspeak on this DVD. But it's just not all of Yes.
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