Yes, Topographic Drama – Live Across America: a Review
Yes has just released its latest live album called Topographic Drama – Live Across America documenting their 2016 tour.
The line-up Yes fielded on this album is:
- Jon Davison: lead vocals, guitar
- Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
- Billy Sherwood: bass guitars, vocals
- Alan White: drums, percussion
- Geoff Downes: keyboards
- Jay Schellen: additional drums, percussion
The track list is as follows (the album from which the songs come in parenthesis):
- Machine Messiah (Drama)
- White Car (Drama)
- Does it Really Happen? (Drama)
- Into the Lens (Drama)
- Run Through the Light (Drama)
- Tempus Fugit (Drama)
- And You And I (Close To The Edge)
- Heart of the Sunrise (Fragile)
- The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn) (Tales from Topographic Oceans)
- Leaves of Green (Tales from Topographic Oceans)
- Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil) (Tales from Topographic Oceans)
- Encore: Roundabout (Fragile)
- Encore: Starship Trooper (The Yes Album)
I have written several reviews on this blog. I have reviewed albums, concerts, movies, and books. One of the things I have realized is that any review, whether good or bad or high quality or low, is almost always dependent upon what one expects from the thing reviewed. Deviation from expectation nearly always leads to bad reviews while meeting expectations nearly always leads to good. There is also the “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t” variation of the expectations problem of making an album that sounds too much like prior albums (is this respect for an established sound or a reflection of a lack of creativity?) or sounding too little like prior albums (is this disrespect for an established sound and rejecting what Yes (or whomever) is “supposed” to sound like?); Yes’ last studio album Heaven and Earth suffered from this quandary (see here). I have done my best to acknowledge my expectations when reviewing things, but I am sure I, too, have fallen victim to expectations.
I mention this because, as this is a Yes album purchased nearly only by Yes fans (I doubt many causal music listeners are buying a random new live album by a ~50 year old prog rock band that is largely out of fashion). Jon Anderson, Yes’ co-founder, composer, and long time vocalist, left Yes in 2005 or so, and Yes has toured and released albums and videos without him since 2008. It goes without saying that Anderson is enormously influential on Yes and, for many, is inherently identified with Yes. Similarly, Chris Squire, Yes’ other co-founder who defined Yes’ sound for a generation and is the only member who never left the band and is the only member present in every official Yes iteration until 2015, died in June 2015. Indeed, due to his constant presence in the band from its founding to his death, Squire, too, is often inherently identified with Yes.
I mention the above because, no matter what this album sounds like and no matter how good the performances are, this album will never pass muster or sound like “real Yes” for many fans. Davison and Sherwood are different people than Anderson and Squire and, despite their similarities to Anderson and Squire, can never precisely duplicate Anderson or Squire (of course, if they did, they would be then accused as aping Anderson and Squire, which leads to an impossible conundrum: on one hand they are criticized for not sounding like Davison and Sherwood, but on the other, if they sound too similar, they are accused of being uncreative copycat hacks. I suppose this is why some say Anderson and Squire should never be replaced and Yes should fold.). In light of this, this album, and indeed this iteration of Yes, will never be heard in a positive way by many Yes fans due to its lack of Anderson and/or Squire. So, just for full disclosure, while I am a Yes “fanatic,” I am of the school of thought that is willing to allow Yes to move on from Anderson and Squire and into a new reality where Davison and Sherwood are taking the band into its next phase of existence, and will judge it accordingly.
This album documents the 2016 tour. I had the opportunity to see a show from the 2016 tour and most of my thoughts about this album mirror that show, so I will not repeat what I said about that show here; just look at my review for my thoughts on it here. Instead, I will just focus on this album.
With the above out of the way, and in the light of the above, I can say that this album is an excellent album of well played and well executed Yes music. The playing is at the level a Yes fan should expect. The vocals are soaring and well harmonized. The guitar playing is aggressive and intricate. The drumming is solid and driving. The keyboard playing, arguably the most questionable of the instruments in this iteration of Yes, are exactly what one should expect from a Yes keyboard player: Downes plays expertly and successfully adds his own flavors to Rick Wakeman‘s material albeit in his own style. Finally, Sherwood’s bass playing, which is significant in Yes history as this is the first time Squire is not the bass player on an album, more than does Squire justice. Sherwood plays all of the parts with heart and maintains a very Yes sound while giving his bass tone a sound unique to him. Sherwood is somehow able to channel Squire, his style and sound, all the while sounding like himself at the same time. It is really magical and exactly what one should expect from a Yes member.
The sound of this album is near perfect. Every instrument is clearly audible, well balanced, and easily identifiable. All the vocals, sounds, and playing are really crisp.
I loved hearing the Drama material, which from 1981 to 2008 was totally ignored, played in full here. It was really special to hear “Into the Lens” and “Does it Really Happen?” as those songs have not been played live since 1980. Perhaps most interesting is that this album documents a live performance of “Run Through the Light” which had never been performed live before the 2016 tour.
This album, to me, is a superb Yes album. Unless one specifically listens for the stylistic differences between Davison and Anderson or Downes and Wakeman or Squire and Sherwood, I found it very easy to get lost in the music and sound and forget who is in the lineup. This album, despite featuring a very new and different lineup, sounds like Yes and what Yes should sound like.
If I had to, there are admittedly some nits to pick. The tempo in some of the songs is a tad slow (mainly the songs featuring White as the drummer). So, “Machine Messiah” is a little slow, “Roundabout” seems a little slow to my ears (perhaps this is only in contrast to older live versions which were faster than in the studio), and “Starship Trooper” (though this is mainly Howe’s doing). Of course, when it comes to “Starship Trooper,” its been slower since the band started trying to precisely replicate the studio version starting in 2013 (see here), and the slower tempo I hear is in contrast to older and faster live versions and not the studio version. Some say “Tempus Fugit” sounds slow, but I think it sounds as fast as any live version I have heard and that, according to Howe, it has never been played live as fast as on the studio. “Roundabout” is a snore to me (and usually skipped to be honest), but that is mostly due to it being utterly overplayed and over-included on collections like this. Finally, it probably goes without saying that Davison was brought on board because he can sing Anderson’s songs well and in the same (or similar) register as Anderson and in a similar style. Unfortunately, one of the featured albums on this collection is Drama which features Trevor Horn as lead vocalist. Davison’s voice creates a little bit of a different feel for the Drama songs as compared to how Horn sang them. For a lot of it, honestly, you do not notice it, but there are times, like during “Does it Really Happen?” or “Into the Lens,” where Horn’s vocals are short, crisp, trippy, or terse, as opposed to Anderson’s more soaring and melodic vocals, where Davison’s approach is a bit of an awkward fit to the music. On one hand his vocals could be seem as an interesting approach, and a window into how Anderson could have approached this material, while, on the other, they seem ill-suited to the music which was crafted for Horn’s vocals. Luckily those moments are fairly few and far between. Indeed, for the heavy-duty Yes fan, Davison’s take on “Does it Really Happen?” could be an interesting insight into how Anderson would have sung the song were he to have remained in the band as it was, interestingly enough, originally an Anderson song (see here for a recording of the song with Anderson). In fact, Davison sheds a little light on what an Anderson sung Drama could have sounded like in general.
I have to say that I really enjoyed this album as it shows a new Yes with energy that has its own stamp while, at the same time, sounding like how Yes is expected to sound.