Yes: Relayer (1974)

 One prog-rock album to rule them all…
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When I was growing up, prog-rock was seen as a bit of an embarrassment. You know what I’m talking about, all those mammoth bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, and so on – a lot of overblown, noodly, high-concept, fanciful nonsense that started off with good intentions but soon got way, way out of hand and there was all those blokes playing organ solos in capes and wasn’t one of them performed on ice and wasn’t it great when punk destroyed it and all that?Prog-rock did commit more than a few sins – it’s not sexy, for one thing. Just you try fucking to ‘Wot Gorilla?’. Impossible. You can’t dance to prog either. It’s rarely intentionally funny. It didn’t inspire many decent fashion movements. True, at its best it took the limits of the rock song to its logical limit, encompassing a huge scale of ambition, imagination and spectacle. Yet at its worst it was a whirlpool of interminable solos, pomposity and embarrassing lack of self-awareness. To give yourself over to prog is risk ridicule.

The thing is, who gives a shit about what other people think of your musical tastes? I first heard Yes in my twenties, when my uncle played me side one of The Yes Album (that was a very smart move on his part, for that LP is about an effective an introduction to the band as possible) and the sheer scale, giddy enthusiasm and restless changing of musical scenery caught my attention immensely. From then on, I explored Yes’ other works, fully aware of their ‘uncool’ status, fully aware that this was music of a certain time, and also fully willing to dive in head first.

Yes, for me, are the all-round best of the prog-rockers. Their sound, like many of the genre, became anathema to many after their early to mid-seventies peak in popularity – a common but amusing rejoinder to any positive talk about Yes is a succinct ‘NO’ –  but they were indeed massive back in the seventies. Their albums sold, and for a long time they were critically beloved too: they even managed to wring out some charting singles out of those monster compositions of theirs. Their most beloved songs are rich, complex (but rarely muso) and epic creations that made other genres seem so hopelessly small and closed-in. Songs like ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘The Revealing Science of God’ can be awe-inspiringly cinematic, truly enormous, adrenaline-surging and spectacular. In particular, ‘The Gates of Delirium’, which I will be raving on about in this piece, is a song that, unlike some songs that you feel would work perfectly in a film, essentially IS a film in music-form. Adding visuals would be unnecessary. I’m not blind to Yes’ faults – they were often over-the-top, sometimes indulgent and pretentious, but that’s sometimes what happens when you dare to go so close to the edge.

They started off with a couple of impressive, if relatively modest albums that had more than their fair share of spectacular moments, but for many, their imperial phase is usually regarded as when classical guitar virtuoso Steve Howe joined the band for The Yes Album. This is also when they started stretching out their songs to epic length, delivering dazzlingly melodic, rhythmic and yet very accessible rock songs like ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’. Each member of the band was a major talent – alongside Howe’s remarkable dexterity and tuneful ear, we had the chunky, addictive bass of Chris Squire, the kinetic and thrilling drums of Bill Bruford and the panoramic keyboards of Tony Kaye, not to mention the inimitable, ethereal vocals of Jon Anderson…

God, I sound like Homer Simpson rattling off the respective virtues of Grand Funk Railroad.

Seriously though, Yes were a band of superb individual parts that, when put together, created magic. Kaye was out the door by the time of follow-up album Fragile, which heralded the introduction of Rick Wakeman on the keys, whose baroque, classically influenced approach was, for many fans, the final piece of Classic Yes. Fragile took the epic achievements of the previous album and ran with them. Songs like ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ were mammoth works, nicely balanced by the neat inclusion of little solo pieces by each member of the band. Don’t worry, the drummer’s contribution only lasted thirty seconds, and yet even that was great! Such little touches were gone however by the time of Close to the Edge, which for many remains THE prog-rock album. For the first time, Yes delivered a side-long opus – the eighteen minute long title track – and they’d achieved the impossible and managed to create even bigger, more sumptuous soundscapes than ever before to get lost in and be blown away by. Other songs like the awesome (and I mean that literally) ‘And You and I’ and the super-charged rock-funk of ‘Siberian Khatru’ tapped in to a world of astonishing musical possibilities. Close to the Edge isn’t my favourite Yes album, but it is the one that sees them teetering on that musical precipice, where the band pushed themselves to the limits of their own exploratory voyage without going overboard. Critics loved it, it sold a load and everything was Good. Okay, the album was apparently a nightmare to make (Bruford would quit, to be replaced by Yes mainstay Alan White), but everything seemed to point to further greatness.

Of course, blow a balloon up too much and it’ll burst, and Tales from Topographic Oceans represent the POP! Only four songs, you might note, but each one took up a whole side of vinyl: add that to Jon Anderson pushing Yes-naysayers’ already shaky tolerance of his lyrical flights of fancy past the point of no return, not to mention that yes, it was too big, too much and too bloody long, and Yes had finally lost their footing. It’s still a bloody spectacular album though: ‘The Revealing Science of God’ is a classic opus that goes for the (big) one and succeeds, and ‘The Remembering’, while clearly guilty of padding, is still lovely and pastoral. Even the third and fourth sides, whilst guilty of losing focus, had loads of wonderful stretches. True, it was overblown, but I’d rather go for an album that aims high and occasionally gets lost along the way than anything more modest and workaday. Saying that, prog-rock isn’t recommended listening any time or all the time – sometimes I want something else, but something else isn’t what we’re talking about.

Relayer, the album that followed Tales, is the apotheosis of progressive rock – it learns from the excesses of its predecessor and yet still manages to take the genre as far as it can, albeit in a different, more focused direction. It’s half as long as Tales yet achieves twice as much. After this, even Yes had nowhere else to go back down to Earth, and only after a three year break too. Prog-rock gets bashed for its pomp, but the best of it represents a truly exploratory, exciting idea of just how vast and spectacular pop/rock music could go. Much of my love for Relayer stems from the extraordinary achievement of its first side. To be honest, anything else that followed a first side that amazing could be dismissed as mere bonus material, so it’s wonderful that the second side is actually a superb thing in itself.  It was the last of Yes’ truly fearless prog-rock albums, the last one where they lived entirely in their own universe, a world where musical possibilities seemed infinite, ambition was colossal and musical chemistry was near-supernatural in its skilfulness and magic. After this, there was the break (solo careers, etc), punk came along and there was more a sense of the band second-guessing themselves, of trying to change with the times.

If you consider Tales the all-encompassing (for better or worse) centre, then Close to the Edge and Relayer are satellites on either side – the former, when Yes were only getting bigger and better and, even five albums into their career, still full of possibilities, promise, beauty, splendour and colour, and the latter, created after the band delivered their first (in the eyes of critics and some fans) their first blunder, an album that ranks as their darkest, greyest (that’s a very apt Roger Dean-designed cover they decided to go with) and most violent.

At first, the album may sounds like too much – unstructured, cluttered, incoherent. Of its three songs, only the closer, the resigned and beautiful ‘To be Over’, sounds anything like a normal song, albeit one that’s nearly ten minutes long. The first song  in particular is so overwhelmingly massive that one listen won’t be enough to take it all in. The second is an immense racket that doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason. Relayer has been often noted as the Yes album with the most obvious influence of jazz or jazz-fusion. I’m not a fan of jazz, and don’t have the patience for it (to the point where I don’t even think there would be something worth hearing after repeated listens – sue me), but I often notice how often I love songs or albums that betray a jazz influence. It’s like these bands are taking this form of musical expression that I don’t have the time for, twisting it to their own means and making it palatable for listeners like me. There are moments on Relayer‘s first two songs that are quite ‘jazzy’, but this isn’t a bad thing for me. In fact, I find something like ‘Sound Chaser’ one of the most exciting things ever recorded by anyone, ever. I didn’t think that at first, mind. Anyway, back to the first song…

‘The Gates of Delirium’ may very well be the most accomplished achievement of Yes’ entire musical legacy. It was the last song of theirs to encompass an entire side of vinyl (although ‘Awaken’ on the next album is still epic at fifteen or so minutes), and unlike some of the band’s mammoth efforts, there are absolutely no spare minutes, nothing that can be taken away from it. Only ‘The Revealing Science of God’ from Tales does as much with so much time. Hey, what about ‘Close to the Edge’, I hear you ask? Well, it is a classic, but I feel it peaks at the ‘I Get Up, I Get Down’ section around two-thirds in and then ebbs away after that. ‘Delirium’ is a full-blown conceptual masterpiece, an attempt to encapsulate Tolstoy’s War and Peace in twenty-two minutes, beginning with preparation, heading into and then immersing itself in battle, followed by victory/defeat and then reflection. Personally, I think it is the high-water mark of progressive rock – a veritable Bayeux Tapestry set to music.

Praising such things as musicianship risks coming off as sounding drearily muso – technique is always something to be admired, but can it be loved? Yes were consummate players – each one a undeniable expert in their field. Steve Howe is an amazing guitarist. Chris Squire is an incredible bassist, and so on. We can all sit back, stroke our chins and pay head-nodding respect to these guys. They know their chops. And yet all of that would be mere academic achievement if it were not the fact that these guys played off each other amazingly well. At their best, the sound of Yes is the sound of absolute musical chemistry at its most astonishing. You can admire this music, but fuck that, you need to FEEL this music.

The opening section is an instrumental notable for the introduction to the group of Swiss keyboard dynamo Patrick Moraz, following the departure of Rick Wakeman. You see, Wakeman had had enough of Yes, was bored of the his bandmates’ indulgences, so much that he was likely to pass the time eating a curry on stage whilst Alan White delivered one of his drum solos. He’s been on record to say that he’s glad that he didn’t like Relayer when it came out, as it was too free-form for his tastes, therefore validating his earlier decision to leave the group. Then again, he did come back for the next record. Yes land is a mixed-up land. Moraz’s playing is less classically inclined than Wakeman, more complementary, though when he does get the chance to take centre stage, the results are pretty spectacular and totally his own. This makes Relayer a sometimes unique entry in the Yes catalogue, though to be honest, this is a band that has thrived on change, especially on the personnel front. Let me put this way – Wakeman is not missed, bless him.

The first eight or so minutes is magnificently exciting and foreboding – you really get the sense of warriors preparing to battle. Scared souls, brave souls, full of bloodthirsty determination and/or terrifying self-belief. It is indeed a war song, but through the lens of Yes it becomes something like a futuristic fantasy that non prog-rock fans might dismiss as Dungeons and Dragons-style make-believe, but if you’re willing to surrender to its cinematic scope, becomes intensely powerful. It all begins with an extended instrumental opening as Moraz sprinkles keyboard dust over Howe’s metallic, bone-scraping guitar – the latter’s playing had rarely been this harsh. There’s no prettiness here. When Anderson arrives a few minutes in, his lyrics turn out to be darker and meaner than they’ve ever been before, or ever would be. Talk of killing, warning that ‘peaceful lives will not deliver freedom’ and the memorable clincher, ‘slay them/burn their children’s laughter/on to Hell’. His voice, hitting a new kind of desperate harshness which is at times hysterical, is a far cry from the angelic tones of yore, though later on we’ll get that good old-fashioned choirboy vocal of his, albeit a far sadder version than what we’ve been used to. Alan White, who had only just joined the band an LP earlier, feels truly integrated into the band. His playing on Relayer is tremendous, full of oomph, variety and power.Squire’s trademark full-fat bass provides a constant ominous hum during this opening act and melodic counterpoint to Howe’s guitar- they’re such a vital, inimitable double-act and an essential element of Yes that one without the other just ain’t Yes. Even when Jon Anderson left the band, 1980’s Drama still felt quintessentially Yes because Howe and Squire were still there delivering the goods. Honestly, Drama is one of the very few albums where a lead singer has temporarily left the band and yet it still feels like a legitimate album, whereas the massive but Howe-less follow-up 90125 (the one with ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ on it) felt less like a Yes album even though Jon was back behind the mic!

Back to Howe though, and there’s little of the fleet-of-foot, rural loveliness or even electric heroism that was a key element of his work to date. Taking the spikier sound of his work on Tales‘ ‘The Ancient’ to the next level, Howe is reborn here as a much more intense six-string proposition. Of course, we’re still talking Yes here – this ain’t punk music, but ‘Delirium’ definitely sees him and the rest of the band freak out, thrash out and let loose in a way that’s quite thrilling. You could almost call it careless abandon (especially during the battle section), but I get the sense Yes knew what they were doing from start to finish. This ain’t an aimless jamming session. It might take a while to successfully put all of these pieces together, but once you have, you might question why anyone would call this music ‘incoherent’ or ‘lacking in structure’, as some reviews did at the time and still do now. There are many spectacular hooks, refrains and melodies in this first act of ‘Delirium’, admittedly nothing long enough for Yes to pull off one of their unlikely single edits (more on that sort of thing later) but the progression, escalation and sense of trepidation is hypnotic. Of course, it all leads to….

…the battle sequence, which lasts for around six minutes and will very likely at first sound like an unholy, godawful mess. It sounds utterly mad. When I first heard it, I was like ‘aww shit, and it was all going so well!’ and I was relieved when something approaching a hook re-appeared later on. The thing is, the more you listen to the whole song, the more this bit becomes focused, makes sense and turns out not to be a load of random jamming, crashing and explosions, but something closer to a truly spectacular, thrilling depiction of battle that remains unparalleled in rock music. It’s scary, confusing, strangely exciting and totally immersive. It resembles jazz in that each player gets their own chance to shine – there’s a super clunky-funky bass riff here, a shrill keyboard attack there, a vicious guitar onslaught there, and there’s also loads of sound effects, some of it literally crashing scenery, that just adds to the madness. It builds and builds to a psychotic crescendo, as keyboards and drums reach the peak…. and then…

…the sequence after all this chaos is one of the most breathtaking moments in all of music. I like to call this the victory section, as it does sound like the winning side is riding majestically over the battlefield, the vanquished fleeing in terror. Moraz kicks it off with a triumphant, yet almost foreboding keyboard melody that sounds truly monstrous. It stands tall, surveying the shattered wastelands. You think that might be valediction enough, but then Howe takes over the same melody with his guitar and lets rip with an absolutely enormous solo (air guitar on standby) that threatens to tear the skies in two,and fuck me if it doesn’t sound like the other side has been well and truly BATTERED. War is over. I must add that the rhythm section on this bit is stellar. Squire and White giving it everything. Then the sound dies down, the mist clears and what follows is a deeply eerie, quiet section of proto-ambient that Eno might have been going nuts over if he hadn’t already been praising the birth of ambient with Miles Davis’ ‘He Loved Him Madly’ from the same year. Both examples are ultimately ambient, although Davis went the whole hog and went on for thirty minutes, whereas this bit only lasts sixty or so seconds.

The ‘Soon’ section follows, as mournful, beautiful and elegiac as any piece of music found on an album. Interestingly, it was this section that was selected as a single for the album – indeed, it is the most straightforward part of the song, but blimey, despite its ultimate optimism and hope for a better future, it has to be one of the most mournful singles ever released. If guitars could gently weep, Howe’s playing would cry an ocean. Anderson’s voice has rarely been so lovely. The melody flows and falls, building to an astonishing finale that, while hopeful in terms of lyrics and vocals, musically loses itself in pure, heartbreaking sadness. Howe has never, ever been more powerful. Chord changes stab at the heart and there’s one lurching, staggering shift in key near the end that is almost too much to bear, and it’s here that you know the song’s finally going to end, and it does so with an utterly haunting, spectral and uncertain ebb and flow that sounds like it is literally dying before your very ears. Listen to it in the dark and it gets scary. Twenty-two minutes long, and every time I listen to it, I feel like I’ve just been through the wars. Hey, I love a three minute pop classic as much as anyone, but sometimes I want this. You got to play it loud, mind.

After this remarkable achievement, where the hell do Yes go from here? I mean, we’ve just been put through the wringer, came out the other side emotionally drained, and we could have been given more of the same, which frankly would have been too much. No, they do the only sensible thing and go NUTS. MAD. INSANE. ‘Sound Chaser’ is easily the most experimental, wild and exhilarating thing they’ve ever recorded. It’s absolutely fucking mental. Rick Wakeman didn’t like this album? His loss! This song is bound to make no sense at first. You feel like it would only makes sense to five people, and they’re all in the band Yes. At least ‘Delirium”s mad section was cushioned by relatively accessible material. This is just a ten-minute space trip. And yet like that ‘Delirium’s battle section, the more you listen to ‘Sound Chaser’, the clearer its vision becomes. Hey, I can understand if you don’t want to give it time. If I genuinely didn’t see anything worth investigating in these songs to begin with, I wouldn’t have bothered. But right from the start ‘Sound Chaser’ has lots of moments that make you go, ‘wow!’ – yes, they’re all disparate and all over the place, but it was enough to make me return to it, again and again. And now it makes perfect sense to me, and yet it’s still such an amorphous, seemingly undisciplined thing that I still encounter lots of little surprises me every time I listen to it.

As soon as it starts we’re on edge – nothing stands still for a second. Moraz slinks in, then White charges through, Squire hippity-hops – no guitars yet. Not yet. I don’t know how Yes do it, but they’re even making drum soloing sound great on this track, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, then Howe bursts in on the scene unleashing ridiculously complex (but still thrilling, never forget that) guitar lines and then it all makes way for Anderson barking lyrics like he’s been on the uppers and the non-stop sermons for two days straight, and it’s all got something to do with the ‘LOOK IN YOUR EYES!’ – this bit in particular, and the skyrocketing keyboards straight after, is sheer bliss! There are times during ‘Sound Chaser’ where you almost have to laugh, so addictively mad it is. It slows down here and there, even though no one told Howe about the change in tempo (he’s still on nitrous oxide). Soon even he gets the message and everything crawls to a shimmering oasis of eerie trepidation, only occasionally broken up by White giving it the full sturm-und-drang on his drums. Anderson has calmed down a bit, but deep down we know he’s just getting his breath back so that the band can go happy-go-madly once more. In the only predictable bit of the song, they do. Vapour trails of music stream on, and it’s here I start to think, ‘it’s around now that Jon’s going to do his bonkers ‘CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit. When he does you can either throw your hands up and give up praying for Yes, or you can surrender to the sound and start praying to Yes.

Oh, as for that ”CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit, well I bloody love it. It’s absolutely mad. I’ve heard that some people really hate this bit, but in the context of the song it makes perfect sense. I also love the ‘huhhhmmm!!’ backing grunts during this bit too. Yes were seriously possessed around this time. They were gods. Moraz then has his moment in the sunshine with a hilarious keyboard wig-out, the guitars start to skyrocket and there’s a huge build-up and then it’s all ‘CHA-CHA-CHA!’ again, a quick, final freak-out then it’s all over. This song may leave you breathless. We need to come down.

‘To Be Over’ is the calm after the storm. God knows, we need it. Actually, all that stuff I said earlier about Relayer being the darkest and most violent Yes album of them all is contradicted slightly by the sheer loveliness of this song. It has nothing to do with the themes of ‘Gates’ but flows perfectly from the ground zero of ‘Sound Chaser’. The first few minutes are actually serene. The song even fades up at the start! It’s really very calming indeed. Still, when you think about it, there is after all literally only a single letters difference between ‘Relayer’ and ‘Relaxer’. This is pastoral, very pretty music – sitting by the lake, taking in the early morning mist, such calm, such peace. And hey, there’s a sitar too! Nice to hear from you. Jon’s lyrics only add to the sense of bucolic charm further: ‘We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly/By the breeze’ – sorted. However, the song’s not content to drift along calmly down the same river for too long, and it opens up spectacularly, as Howe’s guitar switches from gentle acoustic to chiming, glittering and eventually properly chunky electric, before opening up to take in the widescreen view: in fact this section, almost foreshadows the more lighter-waving end of 80’s stadium rock in its big, anthemic sing-a-long mid-section. Also, this section recalls the finale to Tales‘ most blissful song, ‘The Remembering’. All valediction, extended triumph and swaying happiness. Moraz gets a cute, cuddly and perky solo near the end too. That would be it for him and Yes, sadly. Hey, I’m not going to complain about Rick Wakeman – his contributions to Going for the One are fantastic, but Moraz’s all too short tenure with the band nonetheless feels brutally curt. Oh well, at least the one Yes album he did play on was…you know, the best one they ever did.

Still, that three year gap between the albums…. Relayer feels like the end of an era. Punk came along and changed a lot – right from the opening guitars of the title track, Going for the One feels like a deliberate effort to get scale it back to relative basics (well, as much as is possible for Yes), to modernise their look (as evidenced by replacing Roger Dean with Hipgnosis for the sleeve art), and they even delivered a song that didn’t even need to be edited to make for a successful single (the lovely ‘Wonderous Stories’). The sound on that album was also their sleekest, cleanest and streamlined – the songs themselves were still in thrall to their prog-rock peak, but even ‘Awaken’ sounds far more refined. elegant and comfortable than the infinite possibilities of their earlier epic tracks. It’s a great album, though. After that there was the fun but messy and badly-produced Tormato, the surprisingly thrilling Yes + Buggles = Yeggles supergroup shenanigans of Drama, and after that a second wind of 1980’s MTV-aided superstardom. But Relayer was the last time this band truly achieved astonishing transcendence. Don’t be embarrassed for loving this. Yours is no disgrace.

PS: Come to think of it, what’s a relayer?