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 Fragile. The 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 can 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.