Magnification ( 2001)
Possibly their best release since the 1970s classics (I don’t have “The Ladder”). This marks a return to using an orchestra, which probably accounts for the better songs. The second CD has live versions of songs from the 1970s.
Jon Anderson – vocal master magician, midi guitar, acoustic guitar
Chris Squire – bass, vocals
Steve Howe – acoustic and electric guitar, steel, mandolin, vocals
Alan White – drums, percussion, vocals, piano
Orchestra conducted by Larry Group´
Reviewed by: John “Bo Bo” Bollenberg, September 2001
More than thirty years before, on March 21st 1970 to be precise, Yes delivered one of the highlights of its career by combining their symphonic rock with a real classical orchestra. The Queen Elizabeth Hall therefore remains unique and has given the band the idea to once again combine their creative skills with the talent of a huge orchestra. This time around though the orchestra’s conductor has been involved in the writing, arranging, and producing of the actual album. None other than Emmy award-winning composer/conductor Larry Groupé raises his baton to steer the original Yes music through cascades of violins, violas and cellos. But can Yes’ music really work without a keyboard player? Has Groupé been able to replace the important, vacant spot of the keyboard player by means of lush arrangements? Has the fact that Alan White leaves his drum kit to play some piano been part of the solution to solve the difficulties regarding the situation of the keyboard player? Accompany us into exploring this brand new outing by one of the most important bands in prog history.
First of all let’s go back to 9th November 1966, to London’s Indica Gallery to be precise. It’s there and then that John Lennon meets Yoko Ono for the first time during one of her exhibitions. Called “one woman show or unfinished paintings and objects,” one of the installations is a white ladder leading towards a magnifying-glass which dangles from the ceiling (see pic). In order to live the experience, visitors have to climb the ladder, get hold of the magnifying glass, and then read the small word that has been written on the ceiling. When you reach the top of the ladder the word suddenly reads YES! That simple yet direct statement is exactly what Magnification is all about, going back to the acoustic simplicity of the composition, yet embraced by the power of the orchestra. Jon’s explanation sees Magnification as magnifying the good in people instead of the media magnifying everything that’s bad and evil (which, in case of the recent US tragedies, surely is no “magnification”!).
[This story can now be heard, told by John Lennon, as part of the interview that is on the remastered edition of Milk And Honey; his final interview recorded five hours before his death on December 8th, 1980 – JB]
It’s a miracle hearing how Jon Anderson’s voice sounds still as fresh and innocent, as if it were his very first recording. Whilst the new material on both Keys To Ascension sets showed great promise, the collaboration with the late Bruce Fairbairn on The Ladder certainly proved that Yes still had some good compositions inside of them. Whilst tracks like “Close To The Edge” and even “Ritual” became firm favourites during the new tours, it became obvious that Yes wanted to go back to its roots, delivering interesting, surprising music with a slight complex touch. Upon listening to Magnification one has to say it is one of the better Yes albums, yet for my liking I would have loved to hear the orchestra more prominently in the mix. The title track already holds all of the favourite ingredients, what with Jon’s unique voice blending with Steve’s stunning guitar sound and Squire’s murdering bass. Only Alan White chooses a more commercial beat. Steve is as his very best during the swinging “Spirit Of Survival,” which has the orchestra add extra power in those segments which really benefit from its inclusion. One of the focal points in “Don’t Go” is certainly the vocal harmonies, resulting in the kind of music which could easily have been recorded during the band’s peak in the seventies. About halfway through the song Jon switches his singing by means of studio magic, which has us think of the Trevor Horn period (he is even thanked in the credits!). We have to wait until “Give Love Each Day” before we really hear the orchestra shine in a solo spot. Because of the trumpet, it comes across as a film soundtrack mixed with After Crying. Once Jon integrates his singing into this song, it switches to some of the best Yes we have heard in years. In fact the spirit of the song takes you back to the Time And A Word period. The French horns of the orchestra really deliver the exclamation mark to an outstanding track.
Throughout this recording I get the feeling that the four remaining Yes men really enjoy the new direction they are taking, hence the fact they all lend their voices in order to deliver an even more diverse sounding album. “Can You Imagine” heavily features Chris Squire, yet it is in no way the kind of material that was delivered for the Squire/Sherwood project. Steve’s acoustic guitar in “We Agree” still has that same magic as during the Fragile days, delivering its distinctive sound as the ideal backing for Jon’s great voice. The violins really underline the majestic chorus, whilst the acoustic elements filter in and out of the song like the washing of the sea. With certain songs one could ask whether they are indeed Yes songs or Anderson solo compositions? “Soft As A Dove” is the best example of this, a joyful acoustic song adorned with harp and flute that would have fit perfectly on Song Of Seven. It even has some Celtic elements woven into it, referring to the band’s origins. Based around tribal drumming, “Dreamtime” maybe is the best example of incorporating contemporary music with the classical formula. There’s an outstanding part here that incorporates Mellotron in a very modern way, as opposed to approaching it as the obvious vintage “prog” instrument. Chris’s bass blends well with the powerful horns of the orchestra, whilst Alan injects the necessary rhythmic fuel. At the end of the song the orchestra gets a solo spot, reminding me of Deep Purple’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra. We are still waiting for some strong melodies though, and with “In The Presence” we get none other than just that. “If we were flowers, we would worship the sun” sings Jon, merging his romantic soul with an outstanding chorus, which is repeated towards the end by the orchestra, interspersed by Steve’s guitar playing. The album closes with “Time Is Time,” a song that could also have been sung by John Lennon, and with Alan White having been a member of the famous Plastic Ono Band, it perfectly closes the cycle Magnification has made.
With the new album, Yes has firmly re-established itself as one of the most important rock bands in the world. Nevertheless it doesn’t reach the quality of Close To The Edge, but then again it will never be the intention of the band to write a sequel to that epic anyway. Personally I think there are some very strong songs, but sadly a couple of weaker ones, too, and yes, I would’ve loved to hear the orchestra more prominent in the mix. I am however very pleased to hear Jon, Steve, Chris and Alan perform so well together, as it’s that “togetherness” that has always been the key to the band’s success. You can only produce the true Yes sound if you sit in the same room at the same time and compose from scratch, as opposed to the “jigsaw” technique that has been used so often over the years. Sadly, because Yes has always been THE band that featured loads of keyboards, there is no way the orchestral arrangement can compensate for the lack of keyboards. After all, which orchestra is able to reproduce the true identity of the Moog synthesizer or the holy sound of the Mellotron, even when the latter was, in fact, the world’s very first sampler based on classical instruments. The new album will certainly grow on you each time you listen to it, magnifying the name Yes into YES once again!