January 30, 2014

Do you like this?

Decades of prog-rock from Yes, Finnish ghostly melodies

The British band Yes is an easy target, sure; just think of its prog-rock indulgence, keyboardist Rick Wakeman wearing a cape, Jon Anderson’s high voice and precious new-agey lyrics and those fantasy-landscape Roger Dean album covers. 

These things can be pardoned because when Yes was at its peak, it was monstrous and sublime—fulfilling a huge ambition with the technical chops and compositional imagination necessary and absolutely deserving of a spot in the rock pantheon. However, Yes had its share of dodgy points too, and the new 13-disc boxed set documents a tumultuous career, containing Yes’s studio albums from the self-titled debut to Big Generator.

First of all, here are the nuts and bolts—these are the 2003 remasters, which still sound excellent, including all bonus tracks from those issues.  Buy it for the music, not the packaging or extras: there’s a fold-out mini-poster but no book (which would have been nice, but there’s always Wikipedia), and the CDs are enclosed in small reproductions of the original albums. Prog-head audiophiles, note that the brand new Steve Wilson surround-sound and stereo remasters of Close to the Edge are not included here.

Yes has always dabbled in pop since the beginning, and the debut album is an often overlooked gem in the catalog, benefiting from Bill Bruford’s distinctive, charged drumming style. 

After the orchestra-enhanced Time and a Word came the band’s three-album peak, with The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge, rightfully considered the band’s masterpieces with classics like “Yours is No Disgrace,” “Roundabout,” and the 19-minute “Close to the Edge.”

Then, things start to go a bit downhill. While most of these albums aren’t as bad as some people might have you think, they also aren’t as good as the band perhaps wanted them to be. Tales from Topographic Oceans is the epitome of prog-rock excess; it’s a huge mess, but not without splashes of brilliance. Relayer fares better and is probably the best from this stage, and thenceforth, Yes seemed to go pointedly into more strictly rock or strictly pop territories. 

With low expectations, listeners may be pleasantly surprised to realize that Tormato and Drama are flawed but not worthless. This writer has fond childhood memories of 90125, but today, its slick, radio-friendly production and badly dated flourishes are hard to bear, apart from the still-enjoyable semi-a cappella “Leave It.” 

Big Generator, however, is unlistenable and best forgotten. It’s never been easier to absorb the whole Yes spectrum and decide for yourself.

A

ny new release by the Finnish concern Kemialliset Ystävät, centered on brainchild Jan Anderzén, is cause for celebration, and it taps into a weird energy to create its colorful 21st century electro-acoustic music that is odd but not off-putting. 

Its latest EP, Kultaista Kaupunkia Etsimässä (“Looking for Golden Town” in Finnish), is finally finding a proper release on the Dekorder label after being created in August 2009 by Anderzén and six collaborators, and it doesn’t sound a bit stale today; this writer figures that it won’t sound stale 20 years from now, too.

Kemialliset Ystävät perhaps sounds like a more loop-obsessed version of the Residents in the mid-’70s, intentionally warping every single sound to give it more personality; no presets seem to be allowed, with nothing permitted to be normal. 

The first track, “Marsin Kanaalit” (“Canals of Mars”), uses thickly layered deformed sample loops and a flurry of wordless vocal pieces, with ghostly melodies skulking around; there’s a primitivism to it, offset by the artificial electronic flourishes. 

The clangs and warbles of “Yhdeksänmetrinen Jättiläinen” are like some bizarre pan-ethnic concoction, bringing to mind folk music from both Asia and Eastern Europe, and the brief “Hyppivät Saaret” evokes Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh with jarring loops and playful pitch-shifted vocal shards. “Onko Tulella Vapaa-Aikaa?” (“Is it the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s Leisure Time?”) is a complicated mesh of disjointed percussion and 8-bit electronics, followed by two bonus tracks by Tomutonttu, which is just another name used by Anderzén, including the cleansing, gurgling beeps and bloops of “E.K.A.”

It’s a stimulating album, gleeful in its eccentricities but not to the point of being annoying. It’s confusing and transportive but not unpleasant, perhaps a bit like enjoying getting lost in an unfamiliar forest, not particularly eager to find your way out soon.

January 30, 2014

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