In these three album reviews we look at new bands who embrace Yes – either through their style of music or their personnel. All of these albums succeed in their own unique way, providing plenty of material while fans await the next album that Yes themselves have reportedly been working on, or perhaps even “1,000 Hands: Chapter 2” from Jon Anderson.
Trip The Witch
Trip the Witch is a new side project between Stone Temple Pilot’s guitarist and songwriter Dean DeLeo, and Nashville session ace Tom Bukovac. Over the course of ten tracks the duo weaves a mesmerizing flow of mostly-instrumentals that work their way into one’s psyche and don’t let go. Chill ambient vibes pervade throughout even as a multitude of styles are explored via laid-back transcendent guitar compositions and jams.
The Yes connection occurs right during the opening song, “Saturn We Miss You”, where Jon Anderson was invited to bring his voice into the project. DeLeo remarked, “Jon Anderson is a part of our DNA, he’s such a huge part of our musical upbringing.” They were delighted with the results as Bukovac shares, “What we really didn’t expect was that Jon came up with all these lyrics based around the title, too. Instead of just responding, ‘Yeah, boys, I’ll help you on this track…’ he wrote the lyrics, sang them, recorded it, sent it back and said, ‘What do you think of this, lads?’ ” It’s a groovy track for sure and Jon’s contribution, if unexpected, seems to fit right in, kicking off this cosmic recording in esteemed fashion.
Come for Jon but stay for the whole album. While Jon’s contribution is a welcome launch, the rest of the material dances in its own universe and is the true heart of the project. The carefully composed sections are so melodically strong that no singer is actually needed. “Dressed To Kill Myself” is the second track and one of the album’s best as one delicious progression gives way to the next. Intuitive playing abounds, subtly hitting ecstatic sweet spots as just the right notes are offered, no more and no less. Check out the understated but devastating brief guitar solo halfway through, so sensitive and sincere it could make you cry and then it’s gone like a cloud.
DeLeo’s laid back slide playing inhabits a number of pieces such as “Fell From The Floor”, while layers of Bukovac’s guitars support the overall flow. Steve Mackey lends the perfect feel with his bass support and a number of drummers are brought in to provide the rhythm but it’s these two guitarists who truly shine.
Textures are king for Trip The Witch, requiring relatively few proper guitar solos, but knocking it out of the park time and time again with their layered compositional magic. Other-worldly tracks like “Planet TD1” and “Space Wagon” elicit a buzz immediately upon hearing them, as the listener secretly wishes they could continue to float in this atmosphere for hours on end. Truly, the main shortcoming of the album is that most tracks are under 5 minutes long. They weave their spell and then are gone too soon.
The album is easy to find on Bandcamp, so check it out and don’t let this one slip away. This long-distance project promises to not be a one-off, so look for more ecstatic Trips to come.
Arc of Life – “Don’t Look Down”
When the Arc of Life project was announced a couple of years ago, some fans held the hope that they could prove to be the new torchbearers of Yes – a younger generation taking the baton from an aging legacy that had last cobbled together the poorly-received “Heaven & Earth”. The band themselves laughed off the comparison, insisting that they weren’t trying to be Yes, which on its face seemed disingenuous considering 3/5 of the band actually is in Yes, and a 4th member – guitarist Jimmy Haun – had played on a Yes album back in ’91.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the band was telling the truth: this was no Yes. It wasn’t even a collaborative band, it was simply just another Billy Sherwood project. After Circa:, Yoso, Citizen, The Prog Collective and many albums under his own name, did Sherwood really need overriding control of a new band that ends up sounding…just like all of those other projects? It almost felt disrespectful to the other talented musicians in the band to have such a Sherwood-sound permeating this new super-group. And if there were any similarities to Yes, it was towards being a much-inferior version of “Open Your Eyes”, an assessment which speaks for itself (and this is coming from someone who enjoys “Open Your Eyes” more than most).
Happily, second album “Don’t Look Down” is a considerable step forward and even suggests the hint of this actually being a band of equals. The material is much proggier and jam-oriented, the production & arrangements less cluttered. Songs are lengthier across the board and no longer does a hit single seem to be a primary focus of the songwriting approach. Keyboardist Dave Kerzner comes into the mix more with tasty textures and solos, guitarist Haun paints a colorful palette with a variety of guitars and inspired electric sitar, while drummer Jay Schellen sounds much better in the mix than on the debut (and not more than a little like Alan White!). Sherwood’s bass tone is full-on-Squire mode, while retaining Sherwood’s characteristic roaming bass line style of writing. And while Davison’s voice works well for much of the album, Sherwood claims a surprising amount of lead vocals for himself which for the most part is a good thing, such as on the title track.
Highlights include the warm “Colors Come Alive”, the Ladder-infused “Let Live”, the poppy “Don’t Look Down” and several sections of the 18-minute epic “Arc of Life”. More importantly, the whole album maintains an elevated sense of quality. If the band’s debut album hovered towards the bottom of the barrel for Sherwood projects, this sophomore attempt is clearly more towards the upper end. Their arc is improving.
Still, there is no question that Sherwood remains in the command position: it’s his production, songwriting and vocal arrangements that sound nearly identical to everything else he has put out, resulting in band members seeming somewhat interchangeable. Why even christen the band Arc of Life if they sound nearly identical to Circa: or The Prog Collective?
It seems that the only recent time Sherwood hasn’t dominated a project actually ended up being with Yes itself, as “The Quest” ultimately demonstrated. Steve Howe wisely took charge of production which resulted in a much cleaner sound, but also ironically supported Sherwood’s writing (along with Davison’s) to deliver some of the best material on the album. Sherwood’s pleasing contributions to the Bruce Fairbairn-produced “The Ladder” also suggests that perhaps he is most effective when he doesn’t have complete control but is more of a team player. Whether the Arc of Life band is allowed that kind of freedom in the future is yet to be seen. For now, as far as Billy Sherwood projects go, “Don’t Look Down” is one of the better ones and suggests that this Arc is headed up, without looking down.
Yesterdays – Exupery’s Dream
With the release of the fourth album by Hungarian band Yesterdays, we’re including “Exupery’s Dream” here to hopefully bring their Yes-influenced music to a wider audience. Unlike the other two albums reviewed above, there’s no direct connection to Yes other than an obvious love and inspiration…so much so that you can find a quote from “Close To The Edge” hidden in every Yesterday album. However, this is no copy-cat band (and honestly – how many bands successfully pull off duplicating such a diverse band as Yes anyway?) as they convincingly establish their own identity even if some of the ingredients – notably guitar and bass – have familiar characteristics.
This concept album is obviously dedicated to author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, not only regarding his classic book The Little Prince but also his short stories and the plane crash in the desert. There are likely layers upon layers of allegorical meanings in the lyrics but for the most part these are lost on English speakers. Oh yes, they are singing in Hungarian, which lends an elevated sense of lyricism to the music. Still, some English explanations in the liner notes go a long way and the bottom line is that the universal language of sincere music shines through.
“Rajzolj át (Draw Me Something)” opens the album with a guitar figure reminiscent of “Sound Chaser” and plenty of other quotable moments but immediately wields these familiar motifs into exciting, original new directions. All the key elements of Yesterdays are at hand: The lead female vocal of Stephanie Semeniuc carries the material superbly, supported vocally by Tarsoly Csenge; Gabor Kecskemeti’s soothing flute is omnipresent with Zsigo Laszlo ably covering the drums and Kosa David on percussion. But ultimately this is Ákos Bogáti-Bokor’s band, as he ably handles not only the fluid guitar and bass lines (aside from a couple of songs on bass where Francesco Faiulo brings in his Rickenbacker) but also the bulk of the piano, stabbing mellotron, keyboards of all kinds, vocals and additional percussion.
The material is complex and lengthy with many tracks passing the 8-minute mark and “Esőtánc (Raindance)” even clocking in at over 20 minutes. Although there are some repeated themes, multiple listenings are necessary for it all to come together and once it does, the rewards are multi-fold as with all worthy prog. They even take a left turn into power-pop territory with “Ma minden érdekel (Today I Want To Know Everything)”, eliciting more Jellyfish than Yes. The influence of Genesis also is in play, especially on “Engedj el (Let me go)” with some lovely Duke-era vibes.
Fortunately the shorter pieces are no less satisfying, such as the wonderful “Estekek”, a made-up word from Akos’ daughter and one of the album’s best. “A Méreg (The Venom)” pays tribute to the band’s late keyboardist Zsolt Enyedi, who died in 2020 before the album was recorded but this piece contains his recording from an earlier demo, a touching moment.
Pristinely recorded without compression and utilizing authentic analog instruments, the album sounds fantastic from start to finish sonically-speaking. Yesterdays may not be well-known up to this point but all of that could change with this dynamic and impressive piece of artistry. Track it down and enjoy!