The quality of being airborne is a motif throughout Fly From Here, a long-awaited collection from one of rock’s most revered groups, YES. The new album begins with the titular suite, which, at 20-minutes-plus, marks YES’ return to a truly epic method of record-making. All the imagery about prop planes and lonely airfields and sudden flight isn’t just loftiness for its own sake. It’s a reflection of—or maybe mission statement for—the band being reborn yet again.
“I think there is something to read into the lyrics,” acknowledges keyboard player Geoff Downes, “as far as this being another takeoff point for YES. ‘I want to fly from here’ means you want to do something else, something positive. And that’s an important sentiment when you’re looking at the fact that there hasn’t been a YES album for over 10 years. It’s very forward looking, that YES can move on to another chapter. For a band that’s been going 43 years, it’s pretty amazing that there’s still the positivity to push it forward.”
Now that he mentions it, something else has been flying since the group last entered the recording studio: time. “It’s surprising how quickly 10 years slips away between doing a couple of studio albums,” laughs bassist Chris Squire, a founding member. But as anyone who ever looked at a summer concert calendar can attest, it’s not as if they were twiddling their thumbs. “YES was operational,” Squire points out. “YES has been very active, doing live shows. But boy, I’m glad we got in to do another record.”
The foundational trio driving YES continues to be Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, and drummer Alan White. The singer is Benoit David, who joined three years ago. Fly From Here is David’s first album with the band. Meanwhile, it’s the first in over 30 years for Downes, who previously joined up for only one album, 1980’s highly regarded Drama. Downes has hardly been a stranger to the band in the intervening years, since he has continued to play with YES guitarist Steve Howe in the supergroup Asia. “I always explain it as like a kind of egg rolling down a hill that’s called YES music,” laughs White, talking about the comings and goings in the band over the years. “And sometimes a bit of the shell falls off and another bit comes back on. It’s a constant rolling situation! But we always seem to keep the feel of what the band’s all about together.”
Also returning to the fold after an absence of decades: producer Trevor Horn, who last helmed 90125, the album that reestablished Yes in the ‘80s and gave them their biggest radio hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” A few years earlier, Horn had actually stepped in as the lead singer of YES for one album, Drama. So, counting Horn as a core member of the creative team this time, even though he hasn’t officially rejoined, Fly From Here really marks a reunion of the 1980 version of the band, along with the addition of Benoit David.
So perhaps you’re wondering: Will the 2011 YES more closely resemble the prog-rock powerhouse that boggled minds in the era of free-range rock, or the version of the band that cranked out more compact radio favorites under Horn’s guidance?
Best not to frame that as an either/or question. The answer is… yes.
“I think that the album represents part of the YES of the ‘70s,” says Squire, “and also part of the ‘80s Yes as well, but with a current twist to the whole thing.” New singer Benoit, who has a unique fan-turned-insider’s perspective, agrees. “This album represents YES in whole—those more commercial songs and those more epic songs. ‘Fly From Here,’ the suite, is over 20 minutes long, but it’s not exactly like Close to the Edge or Tales from Topographic Oceans. There are some modern twists to it. And Trevor has worked with more commercial artists and there’s a more pop side to his music and the way he works. So it’s the best of both worlds, really.”
There is one piece of music here that hardcore fans will know dates back decades, in its original form. “Fly From Here,” the song, was demo-ed for the Drama album back in 1980 but never finished. It was performed on the road, however, and a concert recording was eventually released on a 2003 retrospective boxed set, The Word is Live. When the idea occurred to do a proper studio version in 2011, “we could have done a carbon copy,” Downes says, “but what we wanted to do was give it center stage and really turn it into a more highly developed piece, as we might have done had we had the time or inclination in the Drama period.”
“Originally we approached Trevor about doing just that one song,” says White. “But then once we started recording that, it developed into a major piece of music that has got many parts to it now.”
Working full-time with Horn involved scrapping some previous work they’d done in the studio by themselves. “There’s good musical combustion in this album, but we’ve come out with a terrific record. We’re still capable of doing great things, and certainly we do that nightly on stage. The test was whether we could do it on this record. The proof could be in the pudding, as we say in England, that maybe when they put this on, they’re gonna like it. And that will be a joy,” states Howe.
On tour for the last three years with YES, “Benoit’s been through a bit of a boot camp, really,” as Squire points out about the singer, who faces enormous vocal demands every night on the road. David has taken a humble attitude this whole time, even though he is quite literally center-stage. “I perceive my role as support, to allow YES to still tour and give the public a chance to see Chris, Steve, and Alan on stage.” But when it came time to go into the studio with Yes for the first time, he had to surrender a bit of that humility. “The band needed to basically give some seriousness to the new lineup and put down some new music,” says the Montreal-based singer. “But I thought the music should sound a little bit like the old YES records in certain ways.” Trevor said, ‘I don’t agree. And he convinced me I shouldn’t try to do anything other than be myself.”
Other voices get a moment to shine on Fly From Here, too. Howe is essentially dueting with David on the guitarist’s acoustically based “Hour of Need,” and Squire does the lead vocal on his own “The Man You Always Wanted Me to Be.”
So what’s the explanation for the band’s four-decade-plus survival?
“Obviously some young people haven’t seen the band live before, and the parents have told ‘em we’re coming to town, and they really want to see us do the things they’ve been listening to on a CD live,” figures White. “It feels sometimes like an education, because we’ve been called a band’s band, where we get a lot of musicians who come to see us play. What’s just playing through a normal song for us might seem like a real task for other people, But there are songs that are a task for us to play every single night, because if one person gets something wrong, everybody does!”
“We used to de-commercialize our music,” Howe laughs. “Somebody would say ‘I’ve got this song’ and we’d play it and say ‘I don’t know, that’s too commercial. Come on! We’re gonna stick some really nasty chords in that thing, we’re gonna take the 4/4 out, we’re gonna shorten it, and then we’re gonna rethink it.’ We had pleasure in distorting our music to be as original as possible but also not to be a cliché… This defiant attitude, in combination with the similar notions of his compatriots, “gave YES such an incredible sort of stamp of strangeness.”
Calculating “influence” is tough with this crew, who certainly inspired millions of people to pick up instruments over the years, yet never inspired sound-alike groups—just because, quite literally, no one else could ever aspire or threaten to actually sound like YES.
YES: not just a band, but really a genre unto themselves—one that stands both inside and out of rock & roll as we know it. Perhaps they merit their own singular hall of fame. With Fly From Here, that theoretical museum gets another wing… even as YES gets its own new set of wings.