On not looking away…

trevor rabinTWO Trevors have made a deep and lasting imprint on the story of Yes since the tail end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. One is Trevor Horn, who joined the ‘Drama’ line up, toured with the band, helped mastermind its global relaunch with ‘90125’, and came back in 2011 for ‘Fly From Here’ and 2018 with ‘Return Trip’. The other is Trevor Rabin — guitarist, singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, arranger, musical technician, producer and award-winning film composer.

Rabin defined the ’80s and early ’90s Yes sound, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others. He played an absolutely pivotal role in the three albums that define that era (‘Big Generator’ and ‘Talk’, alongside the aforementioned ‘90125’), penned the band’s biggest selling single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, contributed what many regard as the most successful elements of ‘Union’, and then re-emerged between 2016 and 2018 with the now-parked Anderson Rabin Wakeman (ARW) project.

While his guitar hero image and sometimes heavily scalar, bluesy, wailing sound — laced with a little fusion, metallic overtones, and bursts of harmonic intensity — is not to everyone’s taste, it is hard to deny either his immense talent or his impact. Since one of the things I appreciate most about early Yes is that their diverse influences move well beyond the rock orbit, there was a lot of me that resisted Trevor Rabin’s allure when he first appeared with them. But keeping open ears and an open mind, I have grown to appreciate his contribution more and more over the years, even if it has gone over the edge at times.

For example, on the successful 1991/2 ‘Union’ tour, Rabin was able to lift an eight-musician version of “Awaken” to preposterous but somehow irresistible heights. His live solo on “Yours Is No Disgrace” (which Steve Howe refers to disdainfully in his autobiography) was a masterpiece of overwrought dissonance and showmanship, even if it did blow a huge hole in a song extended from a little over nine minutes to well over 14 in concert. On the other hand, his solo slot, “Solly’s Beard”, segueing into a clipped version of “Duelling Banjos”, was not entirely unfairly described by at least one critic as an exhibitionist display of super-fast scales signifying little.

RabinJacarandaIn other words, while Trevor Rabin can undoubtedly create music of great ingenuity and interest, and while his multifaceted gifts remain can only be admired, these crowd-pleasing leanings can also push the boundaries of taste in ways that play right into the hands of those ever-willing to dismiss progressive rock and anything in its sphere of influence. That said, I absolutely adored both his 1989 fourth solo record, ‘Can’t Look Away’ (Elektra, re-issued by Voiceprint in 2011) and the 2012 follow-up, ‘Jacaranda’ (Varèse Sarabande). The latter fits comfortably into my broad listening parameters. It is instrumental, complex, at times frenetic and superbly realised. It pushes the boundaries of fusion by filtering jazz, rock, contemporary classical, blues, country, Latin, African, funk and bluegrass influences through Rabin’s guitaristic writing and arranging. An overlooked album of immense quality and imagination, with nods in the direction of John McLaughlin and other key jazz/art rock influences. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer rightly described it as an “artistic and challenging achievement” and a “richly varied and multi-dimensional musical soundscape.”

‘Can’t Look Away’, which I will concentrate on for the rest of this article, because it is a current focus of Yes Music Podcast (episodes 433 and 434), is a different kind of proposition, though no less impressive in its own, quite different way. Conceived and written in the 1988 and released right at the end of the decade, two years after Yes’s ‘Big Generator’, the ‘Can’t Look Away’ album brings to bear the perspective of a singer/songwriter and guitar-led multi-instrumentalist to his most formative experiences in apartheid-era South Africa. As Matthew C. Haslip points out, its popular appeal is propelled by the fact that it also features signature Trevor Rabin chord progressions, which push all the emotional buttons.

By way of backstory, Rabin was born in Johannesburg in 1954. His family were strong opponents of the racist regime, and activist/journalist Donald Woods was his cousin. After conducting a successful musical career in the land of his birth, the 34-year-old Trevor left in 1978, moving first to London and then to Los Angeles. But the struggles of his homeland remained close to his heart, and the title of this album reflects both the pull of its travails and also his ability to turn them into a musical statement which is at once broad (in its appeal) and deep (in reaching into a range of cultural influences and crafting a message of hope out of what could easily have been despair.)

So although the overall tenor of the album could be characterised as mainstream rock — albeit of an extremely finessed kind, and with progressive as well as arena influences — it works for me on two levels. First, it is a strong declaration of commitment to his beloved South Africa, with elements both of open embrace and of ‘letting go’ arising from that. Second, it is a powerful musical statement in its own right, flavoured by cultural references to the continent, and balancing the different instrumental and vocal elements really well.

Rabin Can't Look AwayWe all have our particular associations with albums, of course. Mine is of London in the summer of 1989. Not long after ‘Can’t Look Away’ was released I was working part-time at a small University of London college, and the album accompanied me on a number of sunny walks to and from the underground station as part of my commute. This particular choice of music was partly influenced by the fact that it was a bold, loud record. The filigree detail of classical music or chamber jazz can easily get lost in the throb and bustle of the city. There was little danger of that happening with most of  this record, though there are also plenty of tender moments too.

The opening track, just one letter away from being identical to the title of the record, is both powerfully anthemic and heartfelt. The first-person singular in its name, “I Can’t Look Away” is entirely conscious, and the 7′ 22″ song (the longest on the album) ends with a definitive, repeated declaration: “I won’t look away” [emphasis added]. Lyrically it is evocative of the growing turbulence and violence within South Africa in the late 1980s. But it also reflects the tension between feeling, simultaneously, close to home and far removed from it. The use of vocoder-like vocal effects, which adds distance at crucial moments, is a technique that Rabin would reprise for the second section of “Endless Dream”, on Yes’s ‘Talk’ album, five years later. Overall, this is a track which, like much of its creator’s work, tells a story while retaining a certain metaphoric distance from the narrative details. It is musically stirring, but there is also a brooding, darker undertow. The sparks of hope fly with the guitar solo towards the end, but the fade-out suggests unfinished business. As on most of the rest of the album, Trevor Rabin handles lead vocals, guitar, guitar synthesizer, keyboards, electronics and bass on this song, along with engineering and production. Lou Molino III (who has also worked with Billy Sherwood, and who featured as part of ARW recently) play drums on this and four other tracks.

“Something to Hold On To” (5′ 07″) was evidently designed to be the album’s hit, at least in edited form. Its hooky chorus betrays that, but it also features a variety of textures redolent of African township vibes, which points it in a different direction at times. The song went high in the Billboard rock charts, and the accompanying video (very much of its time) received a nomination for Best Video, Short Form at the 1990 Grammy Awards. But other than that, ‘Can’t Look Away’ did not achieve the commercial success which the A&R people at Elektra Records (part of the Warner Music Group) might have worked and hoped for. Talking to Anil Prasad in 2004, Rabin explained:

“Initially, there was a feeling that it was going to do well. I was a little disappointed because I thought it could have done better than it did. Having said that, I wish I could say the record company didn’t do their job, but in fact, they actually did a spectacular job in trying to promote it. I really felt they believed in it and got it onto AOR radio in America. It was doing really well. “Something to Hold On To” was number one for three or four weeks. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing it. So, I was quite puzzled that it wasn’t translating into sales, but they thought it would pick up and that we should just carry on. I’m glad we did. The video was nominated for a Grammy, not that it means anything creatively, but it meant something from a point of view of momentum. It seemed to definitely be one thing which led to us doing the tour, which is one of my favourite tours. Yeah, it’s a little confusing the album didn’t do better than it did.”

RabinLiveInLANext up on the 12-track album is “Sorrow (Your Heart)” (4′ 29″), which revolves around an extended chorus that is, at one and the same time, anthemic (sorry, it’s hard to avoid that word), pleading and achingly beautiful. It gnaws at the heartstrings and reminds you that Rabin’s songcraft can indeed be truly exceptional. His South African roots also come through powerfully, both in the subject matter — the abject lives of forced migrant workers and displaced people, not least mothers and children left at home — and in the musical language, choral effects and vocabulary, derived in part from that of Bantu peoples living in poor, racially segregated urban areas. Along with the title track, this is probably the most emotionally resonant song on the record, and one that never fails to move me. It also has a delightfully quixotic sign-off. In this and other tracks there are hints of mbaqanga, kwela, and marabi music.

Somewhat by contrast, “Cover Up” (5′ 17″, co-credited to Trevor’s father Godfrey Rabin, and lyricist Anthony Moore) has a rather more predictable rock sound, sharply syncopated, and this time utilising massive samples, a drum machine and Yes man Alan White to drive another strong melody home percussively. Like its lyrical theme, the music has something of unsettled feeling about it. “The more you learn, the more you hide,” sings Rabin. Yet he is not finally hiding, but is instead looking for something that will “Take me back to the land I love”. Even so, the gathering gloom cannot be pushed away glibly:

The changes of pattern
Timing, concrete distinctions
In the presence of danger
Nightfall, darkness, be alert.

Moore also contributed lyrics to “I Can’t Look Away”, incidentally. In that sense, and in terms of their musical and thematic sensibility, the two songs belong together.

Different in tone again is the fifth track, “Promises” (5′ 57″). After an intriguing, atmospheric opening, this settles into a gentle, funk-driven groove which turns out to be altogether less memorable than a number of the preceding tracks — for me, at least. Here Rabin is operating more in ‘soft rock’ gear than anywhere else. That said, “Don’t give me promises when all you do is lie” seems as starkly appropriate to our political and social times as those from which he is writing.

“Etoile Noir” (Dark Star, 1′ 03″) is the first of three short instrumentals which are among the highlights of this album for me, and in a certain way presage what was to come in more extended and intricate form on ‘Jacaranda’.  It makes sense to consider them together. “Etoile Noir” is a teasing little tune resting on a shifting rhythmic base and several overlaid guitar parts. In its setting it works as a contrasting, subtle prelude to the hard-kicking introduction of “Eyes of Love”, and may therefore not immediately strike someone playing the album through from beginning to end as a separate track at all. “Sludge”, on the other hand, is definitely its own creature — a prog-metal-fusion epic condensed and distilled down to 2′ 26″. Apart from drums, Trevor Rabin again plays all the instruments in this guitar/keys tour de force, moving seamlessly through several gear changes and time signatures, accompanied by soaring melodic riffs and searing dissonance. Marvellous stuff. “The Cape” which rounds of the album as a whole, is the longest of these three short pieces. With its rich harmony, delicate arrangement and carefully considered tone colours, it is an almost three-minute (2′ 56″) love letter to South Africa. The piece is built around a simple, beautiful tune. It conjures up indigenous reed pipes and other vivid, quasi-orchestral  sounds to deliver a glorious, sun-soaked panorama. Gorgeous and cinematic.

In between these mini-gems are four more songs.  The heavy riff opening “Eyes of Love” (6′ 24″) is ferocious in its bite. Several other reviewers have noted the similarity to Van Halen’s “Baluchitherium” (an instrumental on the 1995 CD edition of ‘Balance’).  Then the song settles into a cleverly crafted, augmented ballad, before lurching back to its steely chorus,  which includes a pleasing touch of organ. The lyrical theme here is more personal, though with intimations of a wider horizon: “Are you looking towards the border? Hold out for something new…” Another strong offering, co-written with legendary producer, engineer and keyboard player Bob Ezrin — whose more left-field credits include Lou Reed, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Andrea Bocelli and Phish.

Rabin SquireIndeed, Ezrin’s contribution to the overall shaping and sound of this album cannot be overlooked. He also co-wrote “I Didn’t Think It Would Last” (4′ 08″), which concerns a working woman of the Promenade — delving further into the social underbelly of apartheid. There’s another wicked backbeat on this one, an appropriately sleazy and funked-up melody, ’80s synth slices, an interesting chord progression in the chorus, and a good hooky tune. A kind of souped-up and less overtly grinding or repetitive “City of Love” (Yes, ‘90125’), you could say… but without Chris Squire.

Hold On To Me” (written with Patric van Blerk) draws on Trevor Rabin’s past catalogue with his first band, Rabbit. An earlier version appears as “Hold On To Love” on the 1977 album, ‘A Croak and a Grunt in the Night’, produced by van Blerk. It was originally slated as a possible title for ‘Can’t Look Away’ as a whole, and shares its name with a track on Jon Anderson’s 1988 album, ‘In the City of Angels’, which I examined hereAn arena style rock song alternating between a gentler theme and an insistently thumping one, it is perhaps the least original track on the album. But it is notable for referencing “the wind(s) of change” — the key soundbite from a famous speech  by UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the South African Parliament in Cape Town on 3rd February 1960. In it he declared: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” Even so, decolonisation and the end of apartheid was a long and painful time coming.

“I Miss You Now” (5′ 38″), with its sliding guitar, unfolding keyboard textures, synthesized percussion, layered backing vocals and Yes’s Alan White on drums, returns once again to fertile South African musical soil. It ends abruptly, but the echo of that sharp final chord leads beautifully into “The Cape”. The preoccupation here is longing and loss, and the sublime instrumental denouement forms a suitably wordless answer to the call of the heart.

I never ever thought these times would go
I never really thought we’d drift so far
Now oceans part our contact
Misty eyes of memory.

Rabin ChangesAll-in-all, a fine album — one whose accessibility and drive does not disguise or lose its accompanying variety, invention, touching sincerity, and real moments of delicacy. There are perhaps four standout tracks for me, but the rest is not to be dismissed. The singing (both Rabin’s and the extremely important background vocals, in KwaZulu style) is a vital ingredient to the overall mix.  Trevor Rabin himself said in 2004, prior to the release of ‘Jacaranda’, that ‘Can’t Look Away “is by far my best solo album and the one I’m happiest with.”

He followed the album up with a tour, and another disc from those concerts, entitled ‘Live in L.A.’,was recorded at the Roxy Theatre, Los Angeles, California, in 1994. It was eventually released by Voiceprint Records in 2003, and re-issued in 2014. Rabin subsequently commented: “I think [the live album] puts ‘Can’t Look Away’ material in its best light. We had a lot of fun at each and every show during that tour. There was only one show where it didn’t go well or sound very good.”

For those wishing to explore the full panorama of Trevor Rabin’s work, ‘Changes’ is a 10-disc set featuring solo albums, Yes outtakes, film scores and more. It was released in January 2020. The independent website Rabin-esque is also thoroughly recommended.

Photo credits: © Varèse Sarabande, Elektra Records, Voiceprint Records. Lyrics © Trevor Rabin and collaborators. Rabin’s own website is at https://www.trevorrabinmusic.com.  If you enjoyed this article, please see my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2018). 

 

 

 

 

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