A series of essays wherein I explore the numerous musical identities of my favorite musician: from child prodigy to teen idol to guitar hero to singer/songwriter to award-winning in-demand film composer.
Featuring news/updates and commentary/analysis of Trevor's career and associated projects.
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Monday, March 21, 2016

Talk and the modern sound of YesWest

In the beginning is the future
and the future is at hand.

"The next album, this Talk album, we really went into doing seriously, to do something that hopefully we could say, twenty years time, that's one of the things we did that we're really proud of."
- Trevor Rabin, 1994

Today marks the 22-year anniversary of the release of Talk, an album which seems to garner equal parts respect and derision in Yes fandom even after two decades.  This indicates to me that, love it or hate it, you can't ignore its' impact in the overall history of the band's recordings.

In the period following the release of Union and the Around the World in Eighty Dates tour, Yes fandom expectation was high in regards to an actual union of either the two ensembles (i.e. YesWest and ABWH) or some combination of individuals thereof from those eight musicians.  There was hope, at least on the part of some of those people, that such a thing would actually occur.  It's interesting to realize, when considering interviews of the period, how expectations differed for the principles themselves.

Strange bandfellows: the Union collective in a cheeky moment.

When Trevor and Jon were interviewed by journalist Tesshi Ichikawa in 1992, they offered nearly opposing views of what might occur in the following year(s).  Interestingly these were incredibly candid interviews, likely figuring their cohorts would not read the subsequent articles which would, after all, be translated into Japanese.

"The group is eight people, and that's it, that's the story.  And if we do an album together I'll be very happy.  So I need everybody in the group.  It's a question of ego, because everybody has to give a little bit more because there's more people.(...)We have created a very wonderful musical vehicle on stage and now we have to transfer that to a good record."

"As far as I'm concerned, the tour was just something where, you know, the album happened the way it happened and, uh, as far as this going somewhere further, -a- if it's gonna be kind of a thing where it's still a retrospective looking at the past - and something which the Union album is as well - it's not something which is gonna try and break new ground and be vulnerable enough to take a chance and make a fool of yourself trying to do something new.  Then, you know, it's silly to even try and continue.  And the other thing is, as a 8-piece thing it's kind of, we've got it to work live, and it's a lot of fun, otherwise we wouldn't be here.  But as far as a future project, you know, I mean the way it happened was so peculiar, it would be contrived to make it happen in that way again, and as far as eight of us getting together in a room and rehearsing, we've never done it before, for something new or writing new stuff so as far as doing it with eight people, you know, I'm skeptical as to whether that's gonna happen."

There's a very good reason why all the surnames are listed on the back cover of Talk...to make it entirely clear as to who was involved in the album.

Setting aside the eternal political machinations of various Yes factions, what did result from the interim period - with what would be the final release of the YesWest lineup - is actually the most modern-sounding record of their entire discography, even more so than 90125 a decade earlier.  The philosophy of ever looking ahead, over the horizon, at whatever might be the next musical landscape which has been attributed to the band as a whole, was fulfilled by this work, whatever its critical profile might have been then and now.

To quote Jon Anderson again: "Change we must."

But "modern" does not mean "contemporary" in terms of my aesthetic argument.  When I say Talk is modern-sounding I mean that it resides outside of temporal considerations.  The only track I would say is somewhat dated is "State Of Play," but on the other hand its' stylistic meldings were audacious for the time, when crossovers between rock, pop and hip-hop weren't yet a matter of course in popular music...but more on that later.  There is something fresh, exciting and vital about this album even 22 years later.  It has a big sound - which some have characterized as cold or harsh - with complex arrangements, layering and sound placement which engages the listener on more than one level with a sense of crisp immediacy as well as strong songwriting and musical performances.  And it is a technological landmark, using recording methodology which was in its' developmental infancy but within the next decade would become standard procedure across the entire industry.  Lyrically the album addresses a true planetary consciousness: from the way in which our perceptions of other cultures are shaped/warped by the media (a decade before pundits would begin debating "The Fox Effect"), the inherent corruption of evangelical fervor, all the way to universal considerations of cosmology.

What is important to remember is that YesWest was its' own stylistic entity as musicians, composers and arrangers, and every album reflects that dynamic with suitable progression and development.  Though the core values of constantly striving for innovation and excellence is something attributable to the history of Yes as a whole, those three albums are studies in how that particular group of musicians sought to encompass the history and their own unique talents.

Even as I'm grateful I had the opportunity to personally express to Trevor that I believe Talk has always been unfairly maligned, it's difficult to write about this album, it's a lot of work to explain its' importance and overall value.  To critically assess Talk means taking on a whole host of bad feelings from the fanbase as well as biases which have hardened within the bedrock of twenty-two years' worth of opinion.  Those myths about Talk prevent it from being considered for the Yes canon at all, let alone the YesWest era, and I'm going to address some of them in terms of my own impressions and critical assessment.
It was great doing an album and at the same time kicking the boundaries of technology.
- Trevor Rabin, 1994
When we did Talk it was a journey into the unknown.  People get misled.  It wasn't done on computer, it was just done non-linear on hard drive which meant things could be manipulated in a different way.  There were proper instruments - real guitars and drums and stuff - but no recording tape was used.
- Trevor Rabin, 1998
Talk sounds too cold and harsh because of how it was recorded.
There is one particular aspect of Trevor's acumen and insight I believe has never received its' proper due in either historical or fandom discussion: Trevor Rabin accurately predicted the future, specifically the method in which albums would be recorded, long before most musicians and industry executives had even considered a direction.  As far back as 1987, when asked about trends in the 1990s, Trevor stated that recording technology would soon be accessible to any musician and therefore "the facility of recording well and having access to a lot of different equipment I think will be accessible to a lot of people who, at this point, don't have the money to get that."

So basically Trevor predicted the emergence of independent digital-based "bedroom recordings" which would cause an entire paradigm shift in the music business.

I can understand why many people believe the advent of digital technology did not serve the industry well but the fact remains that the way in which Talk was recorded was revolutionary.  No one had ever used MOTU's Digital Performer for the purposes of recording an entire album prior to this project.  Trevor was the beta tester of the technology.  But the actual methodology of capturing the music remained the same as regards the use of amplification, mic'ing, outboard equipment and signal paths/chains into the mixing board for the purposes of recording.  However, I believe that a reflexive prejudice regarding this technology has resulted in opinions which are inherently biased against the record without the benefit of closely-considered listening.  I would declare the overall sound is the farthest thing from "cold and harsh."  It's a brand-new widescreen landscape of possibilities which yet retains the emotion and humanity of its' creators.

When Trevor's instructional video was filmed in 1992, it was shortly before the redesign of The Jacaranda Room in order to embark upon Talk, but we are afforded a glimpse of the future: Trevor using Digital Performer to record himself in real time with a backing track (which then ended up being used - twenty years later - in "Market Street").

The drums don't sound like the way Alan White plays.
Trevor made a very interesting observation regarding Alan's playing in a 1989 interview:
Alan works exceptionally well with machines.  He's also not bad on his own.  But he knows how to work with a machine, he's very good at playing absolutely in time with a machine without any flams.
(A "flam" is a type of drum rudiment consisting of a grace note and a primary note played with both hands to sound like a single broader note.)

Trevor was referring to the tracks "Cover Up" and "I Miss You Now" on Can't Look Away. which featured Alan playing along with Basil the drum machine.  And few was the traditional rock drummer who could play to a click track, so Alan was unique in that regard and his tight, almost robotic, grooves all through Talk are no surprise to me given Trevor's assessment of his abilities.

The bass doesn't sound like the way Chris Squire plays.
Considering that Chris' sound on YesWest recordings had changed overall since their debut in 1983, it really amazes me when this aspect is raised as an objection.  And there has been speculation regarding the amount of bass he played, even suggesting that Billy Sherwood's involvement began with playing bass on the album (a claim Sherwood has denied) or that Trevor played most of it himself.  Trevor has stated it is Chris, though perhaps Chris' commitment and/or focus was mitigated by the use of the technology, as he noted in his 2002 (published in 2003) interview with Mike Tiano:
I don't think Chris came to the album with the same energy that he did on 90125, and it must have been frustrating for the band because it was this whole new format where everything you looked at, ear-wise as well, was through this little screen, which was a whole new ballgame.[...]but I think Chris got somewhat frustrated, although I think he played some of his best playing on that album. I think some of his playings are tremendous on that album;
In further support of this assertion, Chris stated in a 1994 interview with Bass Player magazine that "Real Love" is "proof of the evolution of my style" in that it contains "a really basic bass part" yet acknowledging that if he hadn't written it he probably wouldn't have wanted to play it.

Chris and Alan are barely on the record.
You know who's actually "barely" on the record?  Tony Kaye.  Why does no one ever bring that up?

It's really a Trevor Rabin solo album.
I understand that Trevor's primary involvement in this record is not to certain fans' liking, but not only as a principle songwriter and performer but also arranger, engineer and producer, it was pretty much a necessity.  But one which - people seem to forget - was agreed upon by both the band and management.  However, the additional central involvement of Jon Anderson does, at the very least, debunk this particular assertion from the outset.

All of the objections can be boiled down and answered by this comment (author unknown) - which I believe was published around the time of the release of the Collector's Edition reissue version in 2002.
Yes, Rabin was the producer of Talk, but the label asked him to be. Yes, Rabin recorded the entire album direct to a hard drive, allowing him to manipulate the music and shuffle parts around, but this was no different from an engineer splicing tapes up to assemble a finished product out of bits and pieces (hello, Eddie Offord)--it just made the job a lot less messy. And as for the rumors that Rabin reworked some of Chris Squire’s bass lines--even if true, Squire’s presence is still strongly felt and nothing is detracted from the album’s bass work.

"Someone asked me the other day about where Yes fits in with today's music.  I told him, `I don't think it does.' We're like a pair of Levis. We're never in fashion, but we're also never out of fashion."
- Trevor Rabin, 1994

I read a comment a few years back describing the arrangements of the songs on Talk as "sonic scenery" and I wholly agree.  The landscape Trevor creates in the mix features an amazing use of headspace which is why I heartily recommend listening to the album on headphones - a wealth of detail is revealed.  Talk is the album which should be considered for a 5.1 Surround remix, it was literally created for the multichannel experience.

Side One

"The Calling" is, in my opinion, the best album opener of the YesWest oeuvre, a thoroughly uplifting song with beautiful full harmonies, an immediately catchy riff, interestingly dynamic aural textures (including an incredibly low bass part at the end which Trevor noted was the result of using compression on Chris' take to bring the sound even lower), resulting in a global anthem with an irrepressible sense of hope.  As well as one of Trevor's most directly political-minded lyrical contributions:
I'll be calling voices of Africa, 
be the rhythm to the plan.
From the Congo to Lenasia, 
be the writing on the wall.
...speaking directly to his homeland's struggle with putting an end to apartheid, even as South Africa had experienced a shift in leadership and policy in that era.

There were four different versions of "The Calling" which were released on a special promo EP with the track listing thus:
1. Radio Edit (5:58)
2. Single Edit (4:39)
3. Album Edit (6:55)
4. Original Version (8:06)
As we know, the original version also appeared on the Japanese version of the album, and then as a bonus track on later reissues.  There was even a German release which included both the single edit and the original version coupled with the "Silent Spring" section of "Endless Dream."  The original version of the track features a quieter ambient-sounding instrumental break around 3:45 which lasts for roughly a minute and 15 seconds.  I am in favor of either version - I believe the album edit is as interesting and "complete" as the original version.

"I Am Waiting" melds a pedal steel-type texture and melodic rock in an interesting fashion, the tension between the slide figure and Jon's proclamations of longing shifting between gentle verses and a booming chorus.  The purposely dissonant bridge at 3:31 (taking the place of an instrumental break) has often been criticized by fans, but I think it's an interesting way in which to introduce another voice, and one which was meant to provoke surprise in listeners.  Trevor noted in my interview with him that, as an admirer of Schoenberg, he believes atonal music can be beautiful.

At the album premiere party, Trevor described "Real Love" thus:
"It’s a song that one should listen to late at night, with headphones on, in a certain frame of mind."

And I'll take the liberty of quoting myself as well (from my essay "something Fishy"):
On an album which is largely defined by the efforts of Trevor and Jon, choosing to make their own collaboration the core of the production, this is a moment in which Trevor does his best once again to take Chris' idea and expand and elaborate upon it until it is something epic in the realization. Their harmonies on the bridge refrain before the chorus are absolutely wonderful, and the groove and growl and power with touches of a more mysterious atmosphere of the song entire is something yet again unique in their catalog while also a perfect expression of what YesWest was meant to be as an ensemble.
In what I believe is the very best couplet, the song moves from considerations of the macro:
Far away, in depths of Hawking's mind
to the micro:
to the animal, the primalistic grind.
From the vastness of the universe to the tiny fraction of space between two coupling bodies: Trevor not only drawing inspiration from his reading of A Brief History of Time, but also the way in which he tended to juxtapose Jon's more cosmic concerns with those of the physical world, invoking the marriage of Earth and Air.  And the multiple layers and textures, the dynamic movement of the arrangement, the way Trevor makes Jon's vocal sound like he's literally floating out in space, then suddenly moving right in front of us, and the wild panning of the end solo (shades of "Owner") complimented by the rumbling waves of Kaye's Hammond organ - it's an amazing ride.

The phrase "state of play" originates in Cricket but can also refer to the ongoing status of a situation.  The song bearing that particular title similarly reflects a related immediacy in both its' subject and composition.  In a 1994 radio interview, Trevor and Jon noted that the then-ubiquitous influence of CNN motivated their social commentary outlook in the lyrics.  "Somebody selects it," Trevor observed, referring to the types of coverage injected into the public consciousness, "there are editors telling us what we should hear."  Inspired by the Doppler effect of a passing siren, Trevor composed the raucous hook and then married it to a swinging four-on-the-floor groove with a simpler acoustic texture in the verses, and this construction somewhat resembles the same sense of stylistic collision we previously encountered in "Big Generator."  An unexpected and adventurous blending of styles is, of course, a hallmark of Trevor's compositional discipline.  His most audacious solo can be heard in this song: rollicking slide alongside sounds which go beyond what one expects to hear on a guitar - also similar to what he accomplished with "Big Generator."  As someone who was thoroughly familiar with numerous subgenres, Trevor's addition of a funky breakdown and touches of New Jack swing throughout are in themselves as progressive as quoting baroque or jazz influences within other versions of the band.  In a detail which would be featured on each side, the final refrain features a callback to "I Am Waiting."

Side Two

It has long been a fandom complaint that "Walls" is much too poppy, but I believe it's actually less of a pop song than "Love Will Find A Way" for example, so it's difficult for me to view that aspect as a problem.  I believe the presence of Roger Hodgson - in a very close almost blood harmony-like duet with Trevor - is the very heart of the song, the way they shift from lower phrasing on the verses to a higher register in the bridge and chorus underscoring the emotional depth and nuance of the song's themes of alienation and longing for connection.  And "Walls" much like "Lift Me Up" - another song written in roughly the same timeframe - is one of Trevor's best songs overall in regard to its' memorable uplifting melody.

If I were to say that the album contains a weak spot, it's "Where Will You Be" if only because it's obviously an inclusion which didn't result from the other sessions.  If you compare the versions of the backing track on Talk and 90124, they're pretty much identical, just lengthened in spots, which is supported by a comment Trevor made in a 1994 interview stating that Jon didn't want to change anything about the track itself.   On the other hand, live versions of the song are quite lovely and I can certainly understand why Jon wanted to put a vocal on top of that track, which Trevor originally composed as the "signature tune" for an Australian film.

"Endless Dream" calls to mind other Yes epics like "Close To The Edge" and "Yours Is No Disgrace" in terms of arrangement, progression, and textures.  But it goes beyond these traditional structures to include a wholly three-dimensional experience which - especially on headphones - moves around you with adventurous sound placement and layering.  The "Talk" section of the song contains so many interesting passages, including the section where the listener is placed in the very center of the sonic image, with intricate harmonies, sound effects (created by guitar), rhythmic bass and percussion, and textured vocals.  The ambition and grandeur of the music is perfectly balanced with the emotion of Jon's performance, as the heart and conscience of the composition, as well as brilliant two-part and three-part harmonies from Jon, Chris and Trevor.  The contrast between the verses which Trevor and Jon sing is yet again that marriage of Earth and Air, even as each invoke philosophical and emotional import.  Trevor deliberately textures his voice to provide a particular mood, juxtaposed with Jon's clear natural register.  The song evokes the traditional values of Yes: progressive, far-reaching, complex and engaging long-form compositions, but rendered with the tools and taste of their current musical context.  Indeed, how else would we expect YesWest to create such a work?

This is just my theory, but the electronic synth element we hear at a couple points in the song - during what I refer to as the "celestial" passages - sounds nearly identical to a loop from Cybotron's "Clear" which was originally released in 1983.  The loop has been sampled numerous times over the years, including a few instances in the early 1990s, and was originally inspired by Kraftwerk's "Hall of Mirrors" from 1977.

As I mentioned there was a callback in "State Of Play" and I hear two in "Endless Dream" - one is the harp sound from the intro to "Rhythm Of Love" at approximately 8:06 and then the hook from "Where Will You Be" around 15:06.


Ain't no party like a YesWest party: the boys celebrating circa 1994.

When the band toured to support Talk in 1994 (including the entire album in the setlist save "State Of Play"), the technological innovations continued on with the live presentation: the production approaching near-Pink Floyd standards with the use of a tiered stage and elaborate lightning design, as well as quadraphonic sound and the ConcertSonics enhancement system - which Trevor referred to as "audio binoculars."  Attendees sitting in a particular section of the venue could tune into a simulcast of the show if they brought a Walkman-style radio and headphones.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel conducted during the tour, Trevor elaborated on how the system would enhance the listening experience:
''It's a slightly different mix to what comes out of the P.A. - there's just a different emphasis on different aspects,'' Rabin explained. ''If a solo is being played, it's far more vivid than when you listen to the P.A. And although we have very extensive P.A. on this tour - a monumental kind of quadraphonic sound that comes at you from all sides - if you put the headphones on, it gives you a very different perspective.''
The use of ConcertSonics allowed for far better-quality audio bootlegs than on previous tours, which Trevor fully expected it would:
"Our main concern is that they use good tape,'' he said. ''People do it anyway, so what are you going to do? We may as well have good quality (bootlegs).''
The development of ConcertSonics was an interesting sidenote in the history of YesWest, in that Trevor's original idea for isolating the FOH mix at a concert (inspired by attending his first baseball game and witnessing how others listened to the play-by-play on the radio while watching the game in real time) was then given to Clair Bros. Audio - with whom Yes had been working for nearly the whole of their career - for development.  Over the years the technology has led to related advancements in live event audio broadcast.

In the continuing spirit of innovation - although it was considered a somewhat strange choice at the time - rather than any kind of traditional music video, the Yes Active CD-Rom was released by Compton NewMedia to accompany the album, inviting viewers to "Experience Yes' latest album Talk - from the inside."  Trevor proclaimed at the Talk release party "for the reason we don't have videos is 'cause Phil Carson won't pay for them!"  But the clumsy navigation and functionality of the disc meant the release received probably as many negative reviews as the album itself.

The band made a promotional appearance on Late Show with David Letterman between early dates of the Talk tour, performing "Walls."  Seventeen years later Trevor's son Ryan would appear on that same stage with his band GROUPLOVE performing their first single "Colours" with lead vocalist Christian Zucconi playing Trevor's white Yairi DY-88.


As I said, I thought the band was just playing great on that tour. But I just felt that there was a kind of disillusionment, the disappointment of, 'God, this took so much energy to do this record, and now what?' In every band there's pulling and pushing politically, and emotionally, and it was just one of those albums where it was so intense, that you either go somewhere...where do you go next?
- Trevor Rabin, 2002

In a very real way, the artistic success of Talk rather than the commercial success is what doomed the enterprise entire.  Each album had been progressively more difficult to create and record - and none of them had been easy, for various reasons - and the heights of this hard-won victory meant the end result of poor sales and concert attendance ultimately undermined Trevor's confidence in the road ahead.  Despite the initial strong showing of the two singles ("The Calling" getting to number three and "Walls" to number 24 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart), the album itself peaked at number 33 on the Billboard 200 and Phil Carson noted Talk sold only about 300,000 copies worldwide.  Add to that the eternal interpersonal conflicts which define Yes as a whole, leading Trevor to decide to bow out of the organization and follow a different path which then renewed his sense of creative purpose and fulfilled a long-held ambition.  In the end it was likely the best outcome for all involved, even as many fans were devastated by Trevor's decision to step away from rock n'roll.  In my opinion, the world was just not ready for the future...and the band's decision to revive the Classic lineup in 1995 is proof that the fans and their admired personages equally craved the comfort of nostalgia over the adventure - and inherent risk - of innovation.

The longest trip you'll take is inside...