Yes, No, Maybe So

Keeping track of the lineup changes in Yes is like trying to list all of Saturday Night Live's cast members since the days of John Belushi or keeping track of who's sleeping with whom on your favorite soap opera. Since the release of the band's debut album, Yes, in 1969, fourteen musicians have recorded or toured as official members, including two drummers, two vocalists, four guitarists and five keyboardists. Five members have left the band only to return, and one of them, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, recently left Yes for the fourth time. No word yet as to whether he'll be back.

As dysfunctional as the Yes family seems to be, it's no surprise that the band has had a tough time maintaining a unified style and direction. These days the problem seems worse than ever. Yes is currently touring to support Open Your Eyes, released last November by Beyond Music, a label owned by the band's management company, the Left Bank Organization. Two weeks earlier the band's Keys to Ascension, Vol. 2 was released by Purple Pyramid, a division of the independent label Cleopatra Records. The difference between the albums shows how difficult it has become for Yes to maintain any sort of cohesive vision.

Keys 2 features the band's core lineup: Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Alan White on drums, Wakeman, and Chris Squire on bass and vocals. On the first of the album's two CDs are six classics recorded live in 1996. (Another two-CD set, Keys to Ascension, was released a year earlier, on yet another label, CMC Records. The songs on both releases were taken from the same sessions.) The second CD offers five new studio tracks, including "Mind Drive," an 18-minute epic that comes closer to vintage Yes than anything the band has done since 1980's Drama.

The song features the nuances that once made Yes rock's premier progressive band: heart-tugging classical guitar passages, gentle vocal pleadings, sweeping keyboard solos, and a jam in the song's middle section that accentuates the precision of every instrument while obscuring none. Originally created during a 1981 jam session attended by Squire, White, and guitarist Jimmy Page, "Mind Drive" is a progressive-rock pleasure, providing long-time Yes fans with a much-missed combination of melodic sensitivity and barnstorming virtuosity.

Following the Keys sessions, Wakeman waffled for six months, then decided to leave the band once again to pursue other interests. He was replaced by two men: Billy Sherwood, guitarist, keyboardist, and long-time songwriting partner of Squire; and Igor Khoroshev, a classically trained pianist. Sherwood and Squire had already been working on many of the songs that ended up on Open Your Eyes, so the recording process didn't take much time. The result is an uninspired, overproduced album that was recorded seemingly with radio in mind. Leaden sheets of synthesized noise replace Wakeman's crystalline style, and Anderson's vocals are layered so thickly, it often sounds as if 20 of him are singing at once, with the sounds of 10 keyboardists thrown on top.

The songwriting, unfortunately, is just as weak. With each song on Open Your Eyes, the band strives so hard to create a memorable hook, it winds up venturing into simplistic pop. Yes' finest efforts, such as the classic "And You and I" from Close to the Edge or "Hearts" from 90125, allow for moments of subtle expectation that build, slowly and seductively, to majestic orchestral crescendos. The hooks in those songs are not forced; they're the results of smart arrangements and clever melodies. Even the band's most radio-friendly tunes, such as "Roundabout," "Owner of a Lonely Heart," or "Long Distance Runaround," display an approach to songwriting that is far from simplistic.

The one constant in Yes' 29-year history is Squire, who is featured on every album. Contrary to suggestions that Yes has been musically ambivalent of late, Squire claims the band has proven to be so many things at so many different times that every album offers a new opportunity. "In the studio sometimes we do something radio friendly, and sometimes we do longer pieces which aren't," he says, calling from the Boston stop of the tour. "And that keeps us interested in Yes -- being able to change around a bit."

Evidently, Keys 2 was not designed for radio play. Cleopatra Records releases about 600 CDs a year, mostly punk and industrial music for college audiences. Cleopatra is not equipped to promote a record to commercial radio, according to a label spokesman. In fact, the company is delighted that 70,000 copies of Keys 2 have sold since November, he said. Although such expectations are not unusual for a small, independent label, they're subpar for Yes, which seemed to have higher hopes for Open Your Eyes. But that album, too, has sold only 70,000 copies to date and fell off the Billboard Top 200 chart after one week at No. 151, making it the first new Yes studio album to fail to crack Billboard's Top 40 since 1970's Time and a Word. (Keys To Ascension, Vol. 2 didn't even make it to Billboard's Top 200 chart.) To put the band's current album sales in perspective, 13 Yes albums have sold more than 500,000 copies, achieving gold status -- and three of those were live or greatest-hits collections.

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