By: Greg Gargiulo
As if Yes, with their transcendental crescendos, awe-inspiring arrangements, fantastical otherworldliness and generally divine aura, needed further instrumentation to add depth to their naturally-celestial sound? No, just hearing sagas such as "Close to the Edge" or "Ritual" alone should be enough to send any listener into a sonic frenzy, comfortably overwhelmed by the massive outpourings of sound and constantly-shifting movements that don't merely allude to a sensation of traveling, they actually transport you. No, lack of elemental diversity or profound impact have never been Yes' weaknesses (if there are any, that is), but with Symphonic Live (CD released February 24 on Eagle Records), they throw the European Festival Orchestra into the mix and thus elevate their proverbial bar even higher, like building layers of rock to a mountaintop that already far surpasses the clouds.
Much of Yes' music, particularly their longer compositions, has a definitively cinematic quality about it. They write stories with powerful progressions and drastically contrasting time signatures, leaving you to be riding a griffin through an alternate realm one moment, dueling it out with a multi-headed beast the next, and finally stumbling onto the paradisiacal landscape of your salvation after that - prog rock, essentially, in its finest and fullest form. So, by integrating the European Festival Orchestra into a 2002 Amsterdam concert, they effectively increased the intensity of the dramatic peaks and sublime moments that make their journey so worth every second of the ride.
"The Gates of Delirium," an anti-war cry told through a medieval-based odyssey, is home to some of the strongest and most noticeable symphonic components. Without accompaniment, the introduction normally sets the landscape by use of Steve Howe's ascending guitar stabs and the swirling, atmospheric synthesizers. Here, the intro is supplemented by big brass blasts and a deep collection of strings that play in sync with the rises and falls of the synth. As the multi-segmented tale progresses, so too does the orchestral assistance, popping in with vigor at certain sections, but also holding off at parts better left exclusive to the band. Then, when they finally reach the plateau, the place where everything thins out and Jon Anderson's angelic voice stings the soul in ecstasy, a harp adds its own warming waterfall of sound, making a breathtaking passage somehow even more consuming. The equally complex "Close to the Edge" gets similar treatment, with a dramatic "Overture" to open things up and an especially powerful segment at its leveling off about halfway through, the strings beautifully calming the mood before launching back into another chaotic chapter in the ongoing story.
But, it's not only in the 20-minute-plus adventures that the orchestra comes to life. "Long Distance Runaround," a shorter piece relative to some of their mammoths, gets its own share of complimenting dabs and touches, with an entire cast of instruments supporting the main riff and a fluttering of flutes tossed in sparingly as well to contribute to the wild volatility of the number. Then, on "And You and I" the orchestra holds off for the first few minutes and lets things warm up, but completely takes over once the climax arrives, the string section beautifully playing Howe's solo before he does. There are moments found here and on a number of other tracks where the combination of the symphonic contributions and Yes' proficient musicianship - with one of the biggest shockers being newcomer Tom Brislin's tact on the keys - creates a barrage on sonic texture, an overpowering flow of sound where you're not even sure where to focus, but any direction will more than suffice.
With this sizable load of backing instrumentation, one might tend to wonder if any of Yes' purity suffers as a result. Fortunately, there's not an area to be found that the orchestral inclusion does not fit in precisely. Their careful selections of when to play, when to hold off, how strong or weak to jump in, and which sections to coordinate with those of the band make Symphonic Live a magical, innovative Yes trip, and an absolute must-pick-up for any respectable fan.
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