The long version: longtime Yes vocalist/songwriter/figurehead Jon Anderson falls ill with respiratory issues, is unable to participate in a 2008 tour, is replaced by Canadian Benoît David, former vocalist for a Yes tribute band named Close to the Edge. Legendary producer Trevor Horn (formerly of The Buggles and Yes’ 1980 album, Drama) is recruited for a new Yes project: Fly From Here, set to revive the epic title track which was written (but never recorded) in the days of Drama. Anderson, who was kept blind from the personnel changes, gets wind, gets pissed, writes a disappointed letter on his website, moves on with his life. The short version: Despite an absolute mountain of bullshit and the nearly certain prospect that Fly From Here, their 20th studio album, would be a laughable disaster, Yes have released their best work since the ‘70s.
First, let’s talk about the new guy. David’s voice is naturally deeper than Anderson’s, but when he chooses to skyrocket into his upper register, like he does in the tender initial moments of “Fly From Here: pt. 1 (We Can Fly),” his history as a Jon Anderson tribute singer is unmistakable. Remarkably, David actually manages to kinda do his own thing with the material. While it’s never quite far from your mind that, at least sentimentally, you’re listening to the next best thing, he avoids the pratfalls of sheer mimicry by letting the material dictate his style. Plus, the dude has an excellent voice all on his own merits, a fact which is evident from those first angelic sighs on “We Can Fly.” Yes diehards who cried foul over Anderson’s less than cordial replacement drama may have a right to gripe, but they should pipe down with the tribute band jokes until they’ve heard what David has to offer in the studio.
As for the musical content on Fly From Here, it’s an undeniable return to form. Horn’s influence turns out to be the band’s saving grace—not only is he credited with co-writing a bulk of the album’s material (including a large chunk of the 25-minute title track), but his silky presence behind the boards is an undeniable glue that holds the album together. Horn’s cohort Geoff Downes (a former bandmate in both The Buggles and Yes) is back in the fold on keyboards, replacing sometimes member/virtuoso Rick Wakeman (and Wakemen’s son, Oliver). Downes’ parts favor moody synth ambience and texture over flights of fancy—which is actually a welcome relief in the expanses of these already busy tracks. As for the rest of the gang, it’s business as usual—unbelievable musicianship, tight band interaction—only this time, the songs and production values are way higher than they’ve been in ages. Chris Squire’s bass still pulses with his trademark pick-assisted effects; Alan White’s drums punch and stutter consistently; meanwhile, guitarist Steve Howe, the album’s MVP, reclaims his throne as the world’s greatest prog-rock guitarist. Throughout, Howe’s guitars are spectacular, utilizing fluid effects, avoiding dated ‘80s tones in favor of the blistering psychedelic fills he perfected in the band’s early days.
“Every day that you waste is one more that you’ve lost,” David sings—a sentiment dutifully heeded by the players. The brilliant title track alone is worth the price of admission. The gorgeous piano overture starts classical in nature and then gets all ‘80s on our asses with chugging distortion and sweeping synth pads. Working its way from the majestic main theme to the futuristic math-funk of “Fly From Here pt. IV (Bumpy Ride),” it somehow all hangs together as one piece.
Honestly, who knows how long the whole Benoit thing will last? With Yes’ constant member shifting and hot/cold dynamics, their liner notes basically read like a prog-rock tabloid. I’m sure a hearty apology from Squire and company, kick-started by an old-fashioned jam session, would be enough to entice Anderson into joining his old pals once more. But if those days are in the past, if this is truly the new face of Yes, the rebirth present on Fly from Here suggests that music will outlive the gossip.