Quick Look: Yes: The Studio Albums 1969-1987

April 21, 2014
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This less-than-lavish box set includes Yes’ first dozen studio albums, along with a bevy of bonus tracks and a diminutive poster of the same Roger Dean artwork that graces the box. Each album is presented in a miniature reproduction of its original sleeve, with no additional information provided, much less a book of any sort. (To view the bonus tracks you’ll need to pop the CDs into a player and scan the playlist.) And although the albums have been “remastered,” the work was done a decade ago (Rhino is a little cagey about this), and all have been available individually since then other than Big Generator, which could only be obtained as a Japanese import. The good news is that the albums sound quite good, and provide a panoramic overview of Yes’ first 18 years—from the psych-pop- proto-prog of 1969’s Yes (which includes covers of the Byrds’ “I See You” and the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing”) through the band’s “classic period” of progressive rock masterpieces to its commercially successful but artistically dubious mid-’80 rock outings (including Yes’ only #1 hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”). And the really good news is that you can pick it up online for as little as $50.

The first two albums feature the late Peter Banks on guitar—an underrated player whose inventive style and compelling blend of crunchy rock and clean jazz tones, with the occasional Leslie or other effect, was unusual at the time. And at the other end of the timeline, there’s Trevor Rabin’s period-correct hard rock riffing and clever use of harmonizers and sample editing. The other eight albums in this collection, however, are where the real 6-string magic happens, and the thought I kept having while listening to them was: “Steve Howe is a f**king great guitarist.”

Right out of the gate, on the first track on his first album with the band, Howe launches into funky filtered chord stabs followed by bubbling clean arpeggios and melodic runs, pedal-steel-like volume swells, twanged-out pull-offs and hammer-ons, and an understated solo contrasting slinky fuzz sustain with fatback jazz timbres. And that track’s followed by a brilliant live solo-acoustic guitar performance that references “Classical Gas.” Howe is Chet Atkins, Tal Farlow, Eddie Cochran, Jimi Hendrix, and Mason Williams—without being any of them.

And that’s just the beginning. Howe’s work on the following four albums was increasingly exploratory and inventive, resulting in a unique amalgam of approaches and spectacular tones that few even bothered trying to emulate. His use of effects, alone, was stunning—and that’s not to mention his electric sitar, nylon-string, and cosmic lap-steel work.

The alternative to this collection is the limited edition High Vibration SACD Box issued in late 2013 by WEA Japan, which includes newly remastered 24-bit/96kHz SACD and16- bit/44.1kHz CD versions of all these albums and more, along with a 200-page book (in Japanese), but it costs nearly ten times as much, making it easier to say “yes” to this more modest collection.

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