It’s hard for me to judge the music of Yes in any rational way — and even harder when it comes to this two-disc soundtrack from Eagle Records’ previous DVD release. This would have been a much different case had you caught me in the 1990s, as I frequently went back to those albums when I wanted to zone out on long blocks of prog rock goodness, but the band’s particular brand of lush, epic composition is now lodged in that “gotta be in a mood” category for me, perhaps permanently. While Symphonic Live is a novel way of representing some of those classics for the umpteenth time, it fails to really catch fire.
That alone caused me to think it over. What’s the matter? You have Messrs. Anderson, Howe, Squire and White playing their hearts out in front of an orchestra! This should be a home run, no debate, and yet there is a by-rote feel to the proceedings that relegates the performances to the “eh, whatever” pile. After a brief moment of detective work, I hit upon what it was and have come to the conclusion Rick Wakeman was the most important member of the band. Jon Anderson emoted about strange mysticism and phantasmagoria, Chris Squire plunked out that dirty low end, and Steve Howe played the guitar with possessed perfection, but they all stood still. They stayed in their cubicle and performed. Meanwhile, madman Wakeman, in his ridiculous spangled capes, flipped and fiddled about on multiple keyboards, pianos and what-not, providing the musical and visual acrobatics for the show.
You can surmise then that Wakeman had no part in this recording and his circus atmosphere is sorely missing. You’re still listening to these stellar musicians doing their best in front of a solid ensemble, but so what? Where’s the excitement? Perhaps this live outing truly needed the DVD’s visual aspect to put it across, but there’s zero danger in the audio edition. Bad enough that almost every track, from “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround” to “And You And I” and “Close To The Edge” has been done, and done, and done before (excepting the three songs from the Magnification album, which this 1997 tour promoted,) it’s more egregious that this neat gimmick of orchestral backing lends nothing to the songs. Actually, a well-versed Mellotron player could have done a lot more with a lot less (again, paging Dr. Wakeman) and kept the energy up. What we wind up with is nothing less than a PBS pledge drive special where the former act goes out there and tries to dredge former glories for the benefit of the millionth airing of Ken Burns’ Civil War and a box full of tote bags.
The biggest error of Yes’ Symphonic Live is that these long-form songs sound just that: long. In the original recordings and a few live CDs, if you actually had a tolerance for prog pomposity (I do) those songs didn’t feel so lengthy, but man, oh man, do they feel labored here. On paper, their run-through of “The Gates Of Delerium” from the Relayer album sounds like a good idea. Here, you’re counting down the minutes until the “Soon” coda and wondering if you just aren’t the marathon runner you used to be. Never fear; it’s not you or a lack of iron in your diet. Symphonic Live is pretty, but it’s also a drag.