FOR a variety of reasons – some of them laid out in chapter 14 of my book, Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes – the ‘progressive rock’ label is always one I have entertained with a degree of suspicion. When thought of as a specific genre, its tendency to be backward-loading and backward-looking is overwhelming. Whatever craving the past is (and it could be a perfectly legitimate desire to preserve a particular musical moment), it does not conjure up the fresh directions and risk-taking that the term ‘progressive’ is designed to provoke.
What exactly could ‘progression’ in music be any more in the twenty-first century? Everyone from the serialist disciples of Schoenberg and Boulez through to the rule-breakers of free jazz and the technicians of electronica has already attempted to reinvent the language of music in the past 100 years. They have been both followed and ignored. In a digital age where no sonic possibility is theoretically off limits, where on earth do we go next? Of course, every time we think that there is ‘nothing new under the sonar’, something unexpected turns up. But the path of whatever might be called ‘musical progress’ is neither obvious, nor linear, nor smooth.
A variety of questions of the kind we have just outlined might reasonably be posed to the remaining exemplars of what became known as the first wave of progressive rock, dating back to the late 1960s and 1970s. Of the musicians and bands that stand in this lineage, Yes – now in their 52nd year – are likely to be at the forefront of such interrogation. With the sad passing of bassist and founder-member Chris Squire in 2015, the sense of an ending came into sharp focus. But the band continued, with Billy Sherwood tackling the amazing bassman’s legacy with aplomb, just as Jon Davison did with Jon Anderson’s soaring vocals, and Jay Schellen has gone on to do in sharing the greater part of the drum riser with Alan White. Meanwhile, guitarist Steve Howe embodies those ‘classic Yes’ heydays and keyboard player Geoff Downes harks back to the band’s turn to the 1980s, covering the twists and turns both beyond and before.
So where next? The Yes plan for 2021 (if it is not further thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic) is to bring the 1974 masterwork ‘Relayer’ to life on the road, taking it to past, present and future generations through the ministrations of the latest Yes incarnation. Some might see that as little more than a ‘legacy act’ or a gesture towards a lost era. There are also a few lurking concerns about whether this particular line-up will be able really to do justice to such fast, energetic and technically challenging music while some of them tip towards their 70s or beyond. But I am among those prepared to suspend my doubts, because this music (along with a huge portion of the band’s 21-album catalogue) remains substantial, definitive, and wholly worthwhile encountering live, as well as in its recorded forms. Besides, who else is going to perform the task of keeping this living musical tradition going, if not Yes in some shape or form? The answer to that question in recent years has included the Circa project (established in 2006), the short-lived and less notable Yoso spin-off (2009-2011) and a number of other performers who have been prepared to tackle Yes music in its more demanding forms – not least alumnus Tom Brislin and Spiraling, who tore into “Sound Chaser” both faithfully and imaginatively at the 2005 CalProg Festival.
Next in line for the Yes spin-out label is a new band called Arc of Life, first discussed (by Jon Davison, among others) earlier this year, and hinted at by Dave Kerzner back in 2019. They will arrive more fully on the scene later in December 2020 we are told, with an album released and promoted by Frontiers Records, due on 12 February 2021 and available for pre-order now. At first sight, Arc of Life might seem to be Circa in a new guise. But that is still an ongoing Billy Sherwood/Tony Kaye concern. No, what we have here is a fresh band featuring the three youngest members of the current Yes line-up – Sherwood, Davison and Schellen – plus guitarist Jimmy Haun (guitar parts on Yes’s 1991 ‘Union’ album, Chris Squire’s Conspiracy, and stints in Circa and Yoso) and keyboardist and sound designer Dave Kerzner (who produced the 2018 ‘Yesterday and Today: A 50th Anniversary Tribute to Yes’ album and has worked with Jon Anderson). In short, this is arguably the most Yes-shaped spin-out to date, and they have come together and recorded an album (much of which was written around 18 months ago, apparently) at the very time when Yes itself has been making painfully slow progress on its next recorded statement, which is still not entirely certain to arrive in 2021.
To complete the circle of possibility, it might be noted that the first publicity shot for Arc of Life is reminiscent of the 1983 Yes “Leave It” video, and that ‘Life’ was one of the options considered for what was eventually named ‘Yes’ (strictly speaking ‘Yes!’ at first) back in 1968 – though that is probably quite incidental. Kerzner, meanwhile, noted last year that he was “working with Jon and Billy on a new album/project [that] they’re recording themselves remotely with me on their ikmultimedia iRig Pro IO and AXE IO set-ups while on tour with Yes this Summer”. He has also told the ProgressiveEars message board that he will be playing keyboards for Arc of Life, that “there’s a great vibe and brotherhood to it” and that “I see a lot of potential in how it can evolve”.
There can be little doubt that all the members of Arc of Life have enormous respect for Yes and will not be seeking to displace that band in any way. But it cannot be ignored that the links they have to the mothership (if that is the right way of putting it) are considerable, that they have evolved precisely at a time when Yes has been subdued, and that if there is going to be a ‘next generation Yes’ of any kind, this is the type of project which poses interesting questions about what shape it might take, who might be involved, and what musical territory it might seek to occupy or define – other than the rather worn track of ‘classic rock’.
Earlier this year, Kevin Mulryne and Mark Anthony K of the weekly Yes Music Podcast, which has been running since 2011 now, were brave and bold enough to ask the question as to who – if anyone – might replace Howe, Downes and White in Yes when their time came to step down. They did so without any sleight to those august musicians, but recognising that it is a perfectly fair issue to explore. For those who strongly resist the idea of the band continuing in any form (especially without Jon Anderson or Rick Wakeman, or after Chris Squire) this is an un-askable question. But for those who care about the future of Yes music and who are willing to entertain fresh possibilities, it remains an intriguing one. Back in 1991, in an interview for the ‘YesYears’ documentary, it was Wakeman himself who speculated on this issue. He said:
“It is the musicians who are there at the time who, for want of a better word, have the honour of continuing making the Yes music… I have a strange suspicion that there could be a Yes in existence way after I’m gone. That might sound crazy. But in the same way that there will be a New York Philharmonic or a Boston Symphony Orchestra, I really feel that there will be a Yes way into the twenty-first century; and way after we’re dead and gone, we might just be part of the history books.”
The irony of those words today is that it has been Rick Wakeman who has been among the most critical of Yes continuing without him or Jon Anderson, even when his son Oliver was in the band. His sojourn in Anderson Rabin Wakeman (ARW) was in part an attempt to claim back the legacy. Interestingly, Chris Squire also mused briefly on “Yes in a hundred years’ time” at one point, and when he fell victim to a serious (and eventually fatal) illness was keen that Billy Sherwood should pick up his bass and keep the group going. That is what happened, through to the band’s 50th anniversary in 2018 and beyond.
In the end it is probably Steve Howe who will determine how and whether Yes continues, and he has remained quiet on that subject. At present, he and the other members amount to a content and cohesive unit, and Howe has not contemplated stopping his musical career, releasing his latest solo album, ‘Love Is’, this year. His enthusiasm and dedication remains, even if the pace and energy of his playing has – unsurprisingly – not quite kept pace with his younger ambitions. Undoubtedly, on account of of his eclectic and distinctive guitar style, he would be the most difficult person to replace (though it has happened before, with the remarkably different Trevor Rabin). Alan White’s struggle with health most likely means that he will eventually allow Schellen to replace him fully, while continuing to offer a guiding spirit. Geoff Downes is now 68, and there would surely be no shortage of players who would be willing and able to step into his shoes should he decide to step down.
The larger issue might be one of purpose rather than possibility, however. Why would or should Yes continue? Would it not be more in keeping with a progressive approach to music to let go and to allow a different future to emerge? Is it not just aficionados, wanting to cling on to their memories of a once ground-breaking group, who refuse to give up on the faded dream and who insist it must somehow continue? These are important questions. Personally, I would be happy for Yes to go on with a fresh line-up (under that name, or under another) if what they desired musically was genuinely creative, and if they could resist getting trapped by their own shadow, or the limiting expectations of their followers, while also keeping the Yes heritage alive by injecting new energy and fresh arrangements into the mix. I can think of a number of ways in which that could be done. It might include reworking material from the first two albums, ‘Yes’ and ‘Time and a Word’, for a new era, plus rediscovering some of the lost material from 1996 to 2001, while at the same time presenting new music which does more than simply emulate what has come before in a repackaged form. Steven Wilson has been brave like that, shocking Porcupine Tree purists with new music that breaks the boundaries of expectation set by his days in that band. If the word ‘progressive’ means anything in rock and allied musics anymore, it is this. “Let’s make some music to really shake things up” should surely be the motto.
With the right musicians and attitude that is entirely possible with a next generation Yes. Whether it is likely, and whether there are people out there who would be both willing and acknowledged in that role is an entirely different matter. But Arc of Life certainly adds a potential twist to such an intriguing possibility. Of course, the new band’s line-up is still not young. Jon Davison will be 50 next year, Dave Kerzner will be 53, Billy Sherwood 56, Jay Schellen 61 and Jimmy Haun 63. Should they end up taking on the Yes inheritance (and there is no reason to suppose that this has been in their minds) it might only postpone the end for a little longer. But the combination of three Yes members working together in a different musical context – one that has chosen not to be Circa, and which Kerzner says sounds different from his In Continuum project – may either give impetus to a possible re-energising of Yes for one (last?) recorded fling, or point towards fresh pastures with a Yes afterglow, so to speak.
A possible lesson could be learned from Soft Machine here. The proto-prog/psych/experimental/jazz-rock masters from the Canterbury scene began life in 1966. After 1984 they spawned a series of alternative groups (Soft Heap / Soft Head, Soft Ware, Soft Mountain, Soft Bounds and Soft Works) before relaunching as Soft Machine Legacy (2004–2015). Soft Machine per se (now guitarist John Etheridge, drummer John Marshall, bass player Roy Babbington and sax, flute and keyboard player Theo Travis) re-emerged in 2015/16 and performed most recently only last week from the Cambridge Jazz Festival online. They are showing themselves to be fresh and vibrant in their new music, plus capable of exercising elements of an extensive catalogue stretching back an incredible six decades. Of course this is considerably aided by the more instrumentally-based, experimental and improvisationally-rendered nature of the music they play, which also seems to attract listeners who are more open to change and less likely to fixate on particular personalities – while having full respect for a tradition of music-making which is far from exhausted and which has clearly not reached the kind of dead-end that requires a fond farewell.
Could Yes head in a similar direction, re-evolving the band in different stages? As one of my interlocutors on social media remarked earlier: “For any band to stay creative they have to almost see losing a percentage of their fans with each album as a sign they’re doing something right.” That is the level of risk required to demonstrate that you are alive and kicking, and not simply living on your back catalogue. Whether we will ever see that from Yes again, or whether a musical ensemble will emerge that can rightfully own the Yes moniker and be accepted as such remains an unresolved question. Certainly the business form the band has developed is not one which looks easy to unravel or re-shape for such purposes.
It may well be (and at this juncture seems most likely) that Yes will continue for a few more years in a perfectly honourable curatorial form, gathering and re-presenting shining slithers of its glorious past, and perhaps producing a final recorded statement which all involved can feel satisfied with, even if it does not really break any new ground. The 2019 ‘From a Page’ mini-album brought together by Oliver Wakeman, and featuring past vocalist Benoit David, might have given us a flavour of what that would be like.
The grand re-union that some still dream of appears increasingly unlikely, though a final series of concerts gathering at least part of the existing Yes tribe for a last bow is perhaps not quite as impossible as some of the overheated rhetoric around the band suggests. Alongside all of that we shall see what Arc of Life brings forth. Could it indeed be the bridge to some kind of ‘next generation Yes’? I would not place odds on it, I would imagine those involved would disavow that possibility at this stage, but the fact of who is involved (and that it was not planned this way) is more hopeful in the topsy-turvy world of Yes than anything intentional would ever likely be. For those who want to hope, that is. Other may prefer the marking of a Yes closure sometime this decade. In the meantime, we should let Arc of Life be Arc of Life, and see what emerges.
[** More on Arc of Life here, following the release of their new single**]
Photo credits: The Arc of Life photo image is a social media, fan-generated one – reproduced here with huge apologies to Erik, whose works this pawns.
If you enjoyed this article, please see my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2018). And the other articles on this site, too.