Yes: War and Peace

Yes Relayer CoverThe Yes album Relayer, one of the band’s most adventurous and enduring records, was originally released in 1974. It is a progressive rock masterpiece that includes elements of jazz-fusion, and a looser feel, thanks in great part to keyboard player Patrick Moraz, and the sessions that were part of its writing. The album is a work of art, in its story telling, prose, virtuosic playing and beautiful cover art by Roger Dean. Its release was followed by two tours of North America, England and Europe, each segment utilizing amazing stage sets designed and built by Martyn Dean, resulting in the most impressive theatrical performances of their careers. Forty years after it’s release, Steven Wilson remastered the album from its original multitrack tapes in stereo and 5.1 sound, producing what is now the definitive release on CD and Blue-ray.

THE ALBUM

Relayer’s centerpiece is “The Gates of Delirium” which occupies side one of the vinyl album. Written during the unending turmoil of the Vietnam War, and the August 1974 resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon, it weaves a tale about the evils of war and it’s aftermath, inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace. As Anderson described the multi-part suite “There’s a prelude, a charge, a victory tune, and peace at the end, with hope for the future.” It contains some of the most assured and aggressive instrumentals and vocals of the band’s catalog. The music perfectly illuminates the central story and it’s lyrics. Consider the battle scene instrumental, complete with the sound of battle cries and clanging metal, the band creating the sometimes abrasive tones of naked aggression – following the lyric:

The fist will run
Grasp metal to gun
The Spirit sings in crashing tones we gain the battle drum
Our cries will shrill the air will moan and crash into the dawn

This cacophony fades into the peaceful finale “Soon,” one of the most beautiful songs Yes composed and an enduring fan favorite. Just as with the story of war before it, “Soon”, perfectly matches music to hopeful prose emerging from the shadows of battle. Moraz lays down a backdrop of peaceful organ and Mellotron. Steve Howe leads with atmospheric pedal-steel and acoustic guitars, and Jon Anderson delivers one of his most touching yet powerful lead vocals, a reflection of his utopian philosophy:

Soon Oh soon the light
Ours to shape for all time, ours the right
The sun will lead us
Our reason to be here

“The Gates of Delirium” is a prime example of Yes’s large-scale songs that are designed to take listeners on a journey, to take them to a place far removed from their beginnings. The song begins with a state of turmoil, the onset of war and reaches its climax in the middle with a musical depiction of war. A state of peace is attained after the battle, bringing the listener into a world free from the fetters of time and space. The beginning of the piece has a strong rhythmic force, which propels the music forward. The ending has an absence of beat and pulse, and produces a feeling of timelessness, quietude, and contemplation – a hymn-like atmosphere. While Tchaikovsky and Mahler give their final slow movements tragic overtones, Yes’s slow movements portray hope and transcendence rather than tragedy. It is music for the theater in our minds.

The second side of the original LP contains two tracks that are masterful works in their own right. In particular, the jazz fusion influence brought by Moraz is demonstrated in “Sound Chaser” featuring his impossibly fast leads on the Fender Rhodes keyboard backed by similarly frenetic drum and bass runs – some of the best synergy between Chris Squire and Alan White on record. The frenetic middle instrumental passes between key and meter with vocal punctuations (cha cha cha, cha cha!). This music rewards only the attentive listener. The more gentle, melodic “To Be Over” makes a perfect closer for this brilliant album.

Yes Relayer CD Cover 72dpi

The cover art for Relayer is one of Roger Dean’s most beautiful paintings. I felt fortunate to see this finely detailed work up close at a San Francisco Art Exchange showing in 2009, prior to seeing a Yes and Asia gig in the city. Roger once described the painting: “Relayer was really a pencil drawing –I’ve said it jokingly but it was almost painted with dirty water- its got so little color in it. It wasn’t a conscious intention to do a contrast– it was just how that should have been – just the right way to do it – to this day it’s definitely one of my top 3 favorites.” A poem by Donald Lehmkuhl sets the tone for Jon’s lyrics and Roger’s cover art; it begins with the line, “Snakes are coiled upon the granite.” As rendered, the artwork imagines an otherworldly, nearly colorless historical setting for “Gates” creating the perfect packaging to match the musical genius inside.

Yes Relayer SFAE Show
Alan White chats with Doug Harr at SFAE

THE 2014 STEVEN WILSON REMASTER

As to the latest remastering, the CD and Blue-ray DVD present the best sounding versions of the albums I’ve heard to date. In an interesting turn of events, the battle sound effects from the original mix of “Gates” are not included on the remastered versions of that track as they were not found on the multitrack master tapes. Not to worry, as original album versions, including two with the needle drop are included on the DVD. In addition we get single edits of “Soon” and “Sound Chaser” along with a studio run through of each track. It’s nice to have the clean Blu-ray stereo pressing of “Sound Chaser” live from Cobo “Hall” (an arena in Detroit, Michigan) in 1976, though it was previously available on The Word Is Live, and would have been more valuable had it been paired with “Gates” (which appeared on YesShows) and a version of “To Be Over” from the prior year. It would in fact have been a notch better if an alternate live performance of the entire album was included, and even more interesting if any live video had been added. Having said that this now definitive set contains a wealth of audio to consume and appreciate.

Yes Relayer Booklet 72dpi

TOURS AND LIVE RECORDINGS

As to live video, the only complete film from this period is a valuable if flawed document of the Relayer tour at Queen’s Park, London from May 10, 1975. The picture is excellent considering the era, though because it’s the early leg of the tour, and the band played during daylight, the staging effects are poorly captured. Unfortunately, the sound is poor during the first segment of the show, and never completely recovers. At some date we may see unearthed footage from later segments of this tour, which eventually ended with the most impressive staging of the band’s history. For now it is the most important footage of this incarnation of Yes.

The staging by Roger and Martyn Dean represented a massive undertaking for the ensemble during the long tour. If we include the 1976 “solo albums” leg of the journey, there were almost 150 performances between November 1974 to late August 1976. The staging went through three iterations – beginning with the Tales set, followed by a set dubbed “Barnacles” for the second U.S. visit between June and July of 1975. A subsequent tour with the same lineup but no new Yes album to support came in May of 1976. Dubbed the “solo albums” tour, this is still referred to by most as part of the Relayer tour, though “To Be Over” had been dropped from the set list to make way for a few alternate and solo tracks. Most importantly, the break left time for Martyn Dean to conceive of his most stunning staging yet, the “Crab Nebula.”

Yes Relayer Ticket 1976The “Crab Nebula” was a three-headed creation that towered over the band, fit out with spotlights, and built to emerge and vanish during the show, because as Martyn noted “Anything that’s onstage for three hours becomes boring if you can’t make it vanish.” Ten people worked for three months on the “Crab Nebula” structure, made with wood, aluminum, foam, plaster and varnish, resulting in a transportable, sturdy construction that kept it intact and functional through the summer tour of stadiums and coliseums, which ended in August of 1976. This was part of Martyn’s work with Yes over a seven-year period, when he and his team produced increasingly sophisticated and impressive staging. Along with the cloth backdrop designed by Roger and made by Felicity Youlette, it represented scenery and craft raised to the level of artful theater.

Music, lyrics, poetry and art come together on Relayer, creating a sumptuous package. Considered along with its legendary performances, this is one of the pinnacles of 1970’s era progressive and classic rock.

More to come on this fantastic album, its long tour, and its place as one of the most theatrical works of the progressive era, when I finish my next book! In the meantime, collect these discs and put on your headphones…

2 thoughts on “Yes: War and Peace”

  1. Thank you – was able to catch your 40 year spanning review of Relayer and the more recent H&E. It’s a toss up for me, CTTE and Relayer, as the top Yes albums, but I am inclined to the latter for what they also achieved in concert working with Roger and Martyn Dean 🙂

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