Prog-rock legends Yes talk hi-fi, remastering, and the lasting appeal of the album format

audiophile yes move heaven earth get closer edge hi fi sound 2014  photo by rob shanahan
If you search the phrase “great progressive rock bands,” the first group you’ll see listed is Yes — and with good reason. The British collective best known for its symphonic approach to expansive compositions like “Roundabout” and “Close to the Edge” shows no signs of slowing down 46 years into its existence. One of the main reasons for such longevity is the respect the band has for the integrity of the album format. As Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes explained to Digital Trends, “These are big pieces conceived to be listened to in a specific order, like the way classical music is composed. Listening to an album is a bit like getting a symphony in four movements. You don’t play the third movement before the first one.”

“Listening to an album is a bit like getting a symphony in four movements. You don’t play the third movement before the first one.”

This philosophy has carried over to the band’s live show, which has seen a number of classic albums performed in order from start to finish for years. On July 8, Yes embark on a 35-date U.S. tour that will find the band playing the entirety of 1972’s monumental Close to the Edge and, for the first time, 1971’s prog-blockbuster Fragile. In addition to an encore of classic hits, Yes will debut selections from its latest effort, Heaven & Earth, due out July 22 on Frontiers. H&E cuts like the elegiac “To Ascend” and the propulsive “Subway Walls” showcase not only the band’s continued commitment to high-fidelity sound, but also how well it’s able to put a modern spin on its deep prog-rock roots, due in no small part to the songwriting magic sparked by lead vocalist Jon Davison, who joined the Yes fold 2 years ago.

As a lifelong owner of a progressive heart, I found no disgrace in probing all five members of Yes to get the scoop on the band’s ongoing high-fidelity inclinations and what albums they’d love to tackle in full next. Your move, Yesmasters.

What do you feel when you do full albums originally performed by a singer and songwriter of the stature of [original Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson?

Jon Davison (vocalist): He’s always been such an inspiration to me, so I just feel gratitude. That’s the main thing when I’m singing this music: I feel so grateful being in the position I am, and I want to live up to how good this music should sound. I haven’t met Jon yet, but I hope to have that opportunity someday.

Yes has a longstanding reputation for making high-quality recordings, and now much of your back catalog is being remastered in surround sound in 192-kHz/24-bit resolution by Steven Wilson. I think Wilson has done a stellar job with his golden-ear 5.1 remasters of Close to the Edge (1972) and The Yes Album (1971). What do you think of them?

Steve Howe (lead guitarist): Steven has done an amazing job. He’s trying to get as close as he can to the original mixes with what he’s doing with the 5.1. At different times in my life, I’ve liked quadraphonic and 5.1, so it’s really about having the hi-fi experience.

YES---HEAVEN-&-EARTH-_-ALBUM-COVERSurround is a funny animal. It’s really about separation. The separation is what makes for a good surround mix. There’s some great separation in these mixes, and I suppose that’s the main point of having them. Sometimes there’s an emphasis on reverb and an emphasis on “theater” — but 5.1 is also for theater, so in a way, we’re redesigning music around what’s made for a theater. So I say, great! Every time J.S. Bach is recorded, from a cylinder to a 78 to a 33 to a 45 to a CD to a MiniDisc to an 8-track to a cassette (both laugh) — I mean, Bach’s music has gone through the same kind of transition our music is going through. It’s keeping up with the times. It’s being reinterpreted by other people, and redesigned through great recordings that can be rereleased over time. Ultimately, the format of the music isn’t important; what’s important is the music. And if that can transcend the performance, then I think you’ve got music that evidently will last.

What’s the best Yes song to listen to in 5.1?

Geoff Downes: (keyboardist): “Close to the Edge.” It’s a fascinating piece, almost 20 minutes long. I can’t imagine anyone would write a piece of music like that again. It goes through so many different changes and mood swings. It’s quite an incredible composition, because it doesn’t just settle into a groove; it keeps changing. The main themes keep getting dished up in different ways. And I think that’s also the principle of classical music, in many ways — you have a theme or a motif that’s been developed, and then it comes back in different guises.

What Yes album would you like to hear mixed in surround sound?

Alan White (drummer): Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974). I think that mix will be fantastic, because there’s a lot of interesting percussion on that album, along with quite a few different percussive overdubs — all this kind of crazy stuff Jon Anderson and I dreamed up in the studio. That one’s going to be something to hear.

Time for a semi-loaded question. What other albums in the Yes canon would you want to play live from beginning to end?

Davison: Well, I’d like to do them all, because I like all the classic masterpieces. Drama [1980] would be great since Geoff is in the band. Relayer [1974] would be good too. And I’d love to do Tales from Topographic Oceans if possible. I’d even like to recreate that tour. Yeah, why not?

YES-2014-BLUE-LOGO

A live set consisting of a double album that has just four songs on it, one per side, and each averaging 20 minutes in length? I’d vote for that. Could we get that added to the live full-album playlist?

Chris Squire (bassist and Yes co-founder): Maybe for you and three others! (both laugh) When that album was released, we went out and played the whole thing along with Close to the Edge, so it was like a five-album show. We had a lot of energy then.

White: Yes were the pioneers of doing the whole album thing live. When we first went and played all of Tales, they said, “You guys are crazy!” (laughs)

Downes: Drama would be fun since that’s an important album in my life, but I’d certainly like to do 90125 [1983]. That’s a great Yes album. There are some amazing moments on there. Even though it’s a slightly different era of the band, it has all of the building blocks of what Yes music is about. “Changes” is a great song. It’s pretty progressive.

Squire: I like that idea. Obviously, a lot of fans came into the Yes fold in the ’80s, with 90125 [1983] and Big Generator [1987]. We haven’t done much of that material apart from “Owner of a Lonely Heart” every now and again. I would even like to do some of the songs from when we had the eight-piece band on the Union tour [1991-92]. If we were doing an expanded Yes again and Trevor [Rabin, Yes guitarist from 1983-94] was onboard, it would be a lot more feasible. We have such a wealth of material we could do.

Heaven & Earth by Yes will be available July 22.

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