YES, MR WILSON

After my first listens to Steven Wilson’s remixes of five core seventies albums from the Yes catalogue, I confess I was ambivalent. It was not easy to pin down what was preventing a full-hearted embracing of Mr Wilson’s work. Perhaps it was simply different, and I was uncomfortable with the changes to sounds I’ve enjoyed for decades. A bit like your partner coming home with a different hair style. It’s not that you don’t like it, it’s just different.

So I went pottering around the net to see what others thought. Given the esteem in which Steven Wilson is held by prog cognoscenti, it was not unexpected to find enthusiastic praise for this Rhino reissue of the Yes studio albums from 1971 to 1974, all on heavyweight vinyl and cosily bundled together in a lovely box and housed in sleeves re-mixed by Roger Dean from his original master tapes.

Certainly the detail is amazing. I kept hearing tiny sparkles I have never heard before… but was it only that I had cranked up the volume to immerse myself in the new versions and my 2018 stereo is a whole lot better than the kit I had in the 70s and 80s? And here’s another thing: being caught by new details can become a bit annoying; it’s almost like being interrupted while reading a familiar and treasured book. Stop it! Don’t distract me!

The other dramatic difference in these versions is the breadth of the sound stage. Wilson has spread the instruments across a panoramic screen the grandeur of which is undeniable. Not only does one hear new details, but the interplay between instruments and harmonies is much more evident. I imagine many will love this, but sometimes it does seem as if the players have spread out and are waving from a distance rather than staring into each other’s eyes. A conceit, I know, as the music was recorded in parts anyway, but that’s how it sounds. Musician and sonic sorcerer Peter Miller expresses it neatly:

It’s an interesting thing to hear, but I’m not sure how well it works. For a start, it pulls apart the structure of the music in ways that don’t feel true to the ideas. And of course, that’s likely, since the music was never envisioned in that way. On the other hand, in a purely archeological sense, it does provide great insight into the framework of the compositions

Humans adapt; adjust. Our brains incorporate new data and it becomes normal, expected even. After a couple of spins I was already forgetting what had nudged my ears the first time round. Except for the vocals.

As every Yes fan will tell you, the Sound Of Jon is a core component of the Yes ensemble. With his elfin tenor voice and obscure lyrics, Mr Anderson’s vocals are one of the defining textures of the band. I’m no sound engineer, but it seems to me these remixes have somehow added extra depth to Jon Anderson’s voice. Not pitch, but resonance. And I’m not sure I like that. It was especially noticeable on Relayer, which always had a slightly trebly, almost screechy tone. Although it bordered on the uncomfortable at some points during “The Gates of Delirium”, it was part of the listening experience; the music was edgy, there is tension. And a little of that has been lost, the edges are not so close.

Lest it seem this is turning into a negative review, let me emphasise that these albums do sound amazing, none more so than Tales From Topographic Oceans, the sprawling, magnificent double album despised by critics (and Rick Wakeman) but loved by most Yes fans. In fact, I think that as we Yesicles have grown older, Tales has grown with us. For this fan it was—and remains—a work of ambition, complexity and great beauty. These days it is the Yes album I most frequently reach for when in need of familiarity and filigree, sustenance, and soothing. Sure, it’s grandiose in parts and it does help with the navigation if you have a bit of musical training, but nothing can diminish the achievement of the band.

Of course, no Yes article is complete without commenting on the album art. Roger Dean is synonymous with Yes and his covers define an era and a style.

The re-mix sleeves range from minor tweaks (The Yes Album, Relayer) to total revisions (Close To The Edge). In between are a puzzling downgrade of Topographic Oceans and a rather sweet “Take 2” on FragileThe visual facelift was entirely unnecessary, but certainly is fun.

If you are a long-haul Yes-believer, you’ll doubtless enjoy the 2018 vinyl box set.

Is it the best entry point for the rich and curious? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’d probably suggest picking up one of the 21st century remasters on CD and building a Yes catalogue from there. Or grab ‘em on vinyl when you see them. What is certain is that whatever version you listen to ,the music shines through. With or without Mr Wilson, just say ‘Yes’.

NOTE: Yes are no strangers to these pages. You cab find all their appearances in the A-Z Album Index or go straight to features on Close To The Edge and Relayer. The writer’s Personal Top 10 Yes albums are here.

20 comments

  1. Full disclosure: I was mostly talking about Wilson’s 5.1 mixes of the King Crimson albums, most of which I bought. But my observation stands for the stereo remixes of those as well.

    Having just restored one of my own 30-year-old works for a new release, I have had cause to think quite a bit on what is acceptable for restoration/reinvention of the past. I think my own view has settled into a rather purist one. I feel that it is acceptable to remove all the artefacts that time has rendered: (clicks, pops, surface noise) etc, and to fix things that were undesirable and hard to address at the time (tape noise, distortion) but otherwise to leave the music and its format alone. In other words, try to present it in the way that we were aiming for at the time.

    Time melds a certain ambience to old music which I think is as much of the experience as the music itself. The question to ask is whether re-interpreting it adds anything to the experience other than novelty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to clarify and expand your thoughts, Peter.

      Via the listening and writing for this post, I think I’ve landed somewhere pretty near your position. I favour aiming for purity of sound without changing the essential shape of the original recording and polishing only to achieve an approximation of the best sound that could have been achieved back then. Whenever ‘then’ was. Otherwise, you are actually creating a new version of the work.

      I wonder if that value is covertly expressed in the ‘new’ artworks for the Yes albums. A message saying, ‘This is the album you know but not the album you know’. That would also explain my ambivalence to the new covers: loving Roger Dean’s work, several of them are a delight. Loving Yes’s original albums, several of them are unsettling. Perhaps it would have been more honest to simply stamp “Version 2” on the front covers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think Steve Wilson presents these mixes – certainly the 5,1 versions – as ‘new interpretations’ of the original music, which is totally fine. The question for me is if the interpretations actually add anything valuable, or whether the main result is just novelty. As I said in my original comment, for me it’s great to get a view of the archaeology of the music when you can hear it all exploded apart, but I wonder if that’s really too scientific an approach for enjoyment of the music itself.

        I guess the only way to know the answer to that question is to ask someone who knows no other version, and get them to give both the new and the old a good critical listen. Even then, we must remember that this was music of its time, and the era in which we listened to these albums must, itself, be a significant player in how we approach and enjoy them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Naturally there is a certain excitement in having a pseudo-new seventies Yes album! I think the thrill of acquiring ‘new’ Yes music (augmented by the revamped artwork) was notable for this consumer.

          The topic of the music nostalgia industry is another whole bag o’ worms.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Team Offord! Down with this sort of thing etc…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How’s your ‘SAY NO TO YES’ placard going?

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      1. Hmm that’s not quite right… Yes aren’t the problem. How about a pre-emptive “Save Our Gryphon”? Or VDGG! Has he done them yet?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. A pre-emptive strike is always a good plan. And ‘Save our Gryphon’ has a fine ring to it. When are we marching?

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        2. I’ll let you know. I need to actually listen to them first.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Was pleased to see this one, VC. Been thinking about the Steven Wilson Yes remixes lately and, to be honest, harboring a little fear of missing out were I to opt not to spring for them. I have a couple of Wilson’s Jethro Tulls, finding Aqualung to be interesting/worthwhile and Songs from the Wood to be electrifying. But in both cases, I already loved the album as it was and had felt no longing for something “improved.” In this case, after reading your piece, I will (a) stick with my current Yes versions, (b) hope to have the chance sometime/somewhere to have a dedicated listen to the Wilson remixes on some kind soul’s quality set-up, and (c) nurture a little jealousy toward you for owning that beautiful physical product.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great…and informative…entry here, Bruce, as I’ve pondered getting this if the price is right. I already own all of the CD/blu-ray versions of these albums with Steven Wilson’s 5.1 mixes and they are among the gold standards for surround sound mixing of classic albums (the other gold standards are mostly courtesy of Mr. Wilson as well, although a few other engineers also understand it’s not about gimmicks but simply creating a new mix in 5 speakers that blends as well as stereo does in 2 speakers). I’ve had friends who don’t have surround setups inquire why I would want to listen to something that wasn’t intended in the first place, some even claiming that “these albums weren’t recorded in surround sound.” What I try to explain to them is that this is a new way of hearing beloved records in a different (and often eye-opening) setting. But your post isn’t about 5.1 mixes so I won’t continue on that subject.

    Ironically, I’ve never played Mr. Wilson’s stereo mixes from those sets. Anytime I’ve chosen to play a stereo mix (usually at the gym or on my commute) I select one of the earlier CD versions. This is why I’ve considered picking up this box set, which would force me to play those stereo mixes in an environment (couch, big speakers, no distractions) conducive to absorbing them the way they were intended…and I can decide if they sound different/better/worse than the original mixes. I also haven’t owned these all-time classics in the original format I purchased them for decades, and the “remastered” artwork is another (relatively minor) selling point. Your post hasn’t swayed me in any particular direction, so this would likely be an impulse buy if, as stated above, the price is right.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interested to read your thoughts on the 5.1 system, Rich. It’s not something I’ve investigated. But certainly the expanded sound stage is very audible in SW’s remixes.

    Anything that lures us to the couch for a distraction-free listen is a good thing, isn’t it? And as you say, a different version can (for some, at least) really add spice to enjoyment of an old favourite.

    Hope you find a box at the right price!

    Like

  6. As you know, there are 3 Yes albums on the 1001, and I’ve wondered about the optimal starting point.
    Encouraging to read there’s not really a wrong answer, as long as the answer is Yes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Correct!
      (Although for the less Yes-familiar, I’d probably recommend chronological order; CthE is the most complex, suggesting a warm-up process might be helpful!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. For my 1001 purposes, it sounds like I’ll go chronological, starting at album #3 – looks like they had quite a productive 71/72!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Rewrote the book on what could be popular. Look forward to your unique perspective Geoff!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Nothing against the concept of changing or adding whatever you want, but personally I prefer my good old classics to be just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect I’m in that category too, tamijo. Good of them to warn us by changing the covers, I reckon!

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