BILLY SHERWOOD: CITIZEN

(Frontiers Music; 2015)

album_cover_CITIZEN_55f05293426d5

Billy Sherwood seems to be a guy who doesn’t rattle easily. A guy who can step in and handle enormous responsibilities without flinching. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he stepped in to some pretty big shoes, and helped a struggling Jon Anderson-fronted Yes continue their journey on both record and stage. Sherwood’s a big part of the sound on OPEN YOUR EYES and THE LADDER, both underrated. While releasing a series of solo albums and guesting on records all over the place, both proggy and not, Sherwood became a kind of go-to guy when a band needed not just a multi-instrumentalist, but an experienced engineer. Chris Squire, the legendary Yes bassist who succumbed to leukemia last year, initially picked Sherwood to replace him on bass for a huge 2015 Yes tour that Squire knew he couldn’t participate in. That’s no small thing and Sherwood, by all accounts, jumped in ready to go. But then, Squire left this mortal coil, and now, well, we have to assume Sherwood will continue with Yes, and might even be the point man for a brand new phase, one that none of us can anticipate yet. The guy is a fantastic, versatile musician, and he’s earned good karma a-plenty.

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Which brings us to CITIZEN, surprisingly Sherwood’s seventh or eighth solo album since 1999. It’s a solid platter, with appearances by Yes members both past and present, and the last song recorded by Chris Squire (he appears on the opening track, “The Citizen”). There’s a familiarity about the sound that you can’t deny, and it wouldn’t be fair to even think in terms of “Yes-lite” or something. These are muscular, strong compositions, and why not use musicians of the caliber of YES men such as Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman and Geoff Downes if you can? This is still a Sherwood album through and through, and he sings most of the lead vocals. Among standout tracks: “No Man’s Land,” a fizzy prog confection that alternates between memorably processed lead vocals, Yes-like harmonies, and a confidently anchored arrangement. “Age of the Atom” is a stirring piece that has a descending chord progression, a hooky chorus and some zippy keyboard playing… this one definitely sticks in the ear. By the way, this and “The Great Depression” may bring another progressive behemoth to mind – Genesis. Sherwood sounds a tad like Peter Gabriel at times, and it’s worth mentioning that Steve Hackett from that band is also featured on the record (on “Man and the Machine”). “Trail of Tears” is a tune Gabriel would love… it echoes his aesthetic about indigenous peoples and the subject matter definitely takes on the famed Native American death march of the 1800s. Some very airy, charming synth work is an interesting sonic counterpoint to the theme, and you can just enjoy this track musically without worrying about the history lesson. It’s really good, plain and simple. The aptly named “Escape Velocity” is suffused with Yes DNA… if you just heard this playing, especially during the chorus, you would guess it was likely the real YES, an unfamiliar track perhaps. This is really spirited stuff, and you will swear you can hear Squire on that chorus and bass (though it’s really Billy showing the world why he was Chris’ handpicked successor). Anyway, this is one of the album’s highlights. The ending really kicks ass. And so does the ending of the entire disc, “Written In the Centuries,” which finds current Yes lead singer Jon Davison outfront on vocals. Nice, tight harmonies, chiming guitars, mystical lyrics, tempo changes… why, YES, peeps, you’ll recognize this sound! But somehow it’s also… different. Fresh. It’s the Billy Sherwood approach to prog, and it’s plenty meaty!

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

The album has a story line, by the way, something about a lost soul being reincarnated into different historical periods. There’s a song about Galileo (featuring vocals from XTC’s Colin Moulding) and all sorts of references you’ll have fun trying to catch. But you don’t HAVE to know the theme or decipher the lyrics to appreciate this album. There’s a majesty about a lot of this stuff that shows the pedigree of the players. There are melodies, no song is all that long, and the sonics are nicely balanced between what all Yes fans might expect and fresher elements that Billy Sherwood, a thoughtful musician, took care to weave into the compositions. This CITIZEN is a reliable one indeed, and deserves to take its rightful place in the ever evolving community of Yes and related prog-dom. Nice job, Billy boy. I hope your pal Chris got to hear most of this before he said goodbye.


DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS: IN EXTREMIS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

Days Between Stations In Extrimis

IN EXTREMIS (a Latin phrase that means “at the point of death”) features some of the final recorded work of legendary Yes and Flash guitarist, Peter Banks. Given Banks’ resume, it isn’t in the least bit surprising to note that the music of the California-based duo of keyboardist Oscar Fuentes Bills and guitarist Sepand Samzadeh (performing under the odd moniker Days Between Stations, after the novel by Steve Erikson) is what could be classified as “neo-progressive.” There are eight tracks on the self-released IN EXTREMIS, with fully half of them clocking in at more than 10 minutes each. The title track, presented as a suite with six separate movements, is over 21 and a half minutes long. “In Extremis” features Peter Banks on lead and rhythm guitar, as well as “guitar textures.” He also features on the 12 minute “Eggshsell Man.”

Add to the mix uber-bass and stick man Tony Levin, drummer/vocalist Billy Sherwood, keyboard guru Rick Wakeman and XTC bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding and you’ve just turned an impressive progressive concept album into a formidable piece of progressive hero-worship. So, let’s look at this work track by track to learn why this is most certainly an album that you will want to add to your collection.

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

No Cause For Alarm (Overture),” led by Oscar Fuentes Bills’ militaristic piano and the very marshal-sounding drums of Billy Sherwood, leads into “In Utero,” which is more of a soundscape. It features some very ethereal keyboard and guitar washes by Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, as well as a cool, tinkling guitar effect and a nice Samzadeh solo. Chris Tedesco provides a long trumpet solo, adding to the Crimson-esque atmosphere of the piece.

Visionary” builds on the emotional feel of “In Utero” with more nice guitar work from Sepand. This is the first of the vocal tracks, with Sherwood’s voice reminding me of Trevor Horn’s work on DRAMA, his only album with Yes; they’re kinda hard to understand, but the power of this vocal stands more in the melody and feel. Sherwood’s drumming is rather subdued but features some very nice fills. Bills once again offers some great piano to the instrumental section. He is joined by Matt Bradford on dobro and, together, they offer one of the more emotionally charged pieces of the entire album. “Blackfoot” is a tasty piece of jazz-tinged progressive rock, especially the slower middle section. A nightmarish piano line repeats to start the song, then an equally nightmare-inducing guitar solo is added. There is a definite Mothers of Invention vibe to this song, with guitar parts that are very much Zappa influenced and drums that remind me of Chester Thompson or Ralph Humphrey and their work with the Mothers. “Blackfoot” ends with some quite nice Floydian guitar freak-outs, definitely reminiscent of the swirling, calamitous sounds of a cinematic death scene.

Colin Moulding appears on “The Man Who Died Two Times,” a song whose title sounds quite a bit like something that he would do within the confines of his band, XTC. The tune seems to be a song about revived hope – a very poppy, happy sounding song. Moulding’s voice adds just the right touch, as “The Man Who Died Two Times” is very much in the vein of mid-period XTC or early Genesis with Peter Gabriel.

Peter Banks (uncredited photo)

Peter Banks (photo credit: GLEN DICROCCO)

The Angel City String Quartet performs the short, quiet piece, “Waltz In E Minor,” which is dedicated to Peter Banks. A very fitting requiem for a major influence on the art form known as “progressive rock music.” “Eggshell Man” is a very folky sounding tune. The vocal melodies and phrasing remind one of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding’s XTC bandmate, though they are provided by Billy Sherwood. They add just the right emotional air to the tune, as a man once drawn from the brink of death has been walking on metaphoric eggshells and realizes that he is once again at death’s door. As the song progresses, Ali Nouri solos on the tar (a Central Asian stringed instrument), Rick Wakeman offers a mini-moog solo and Peter Banks adds great atmospheric guitar “textures,” all of which give the song a very Middle Eastern sound. “Eggshell Man,” along with “The Man Who Died Two Times,” are my favorites on an album of great tracks.

Finally, “In Extremis,” is Days Between Stations’ magnum opus, the centerpiece to a highly enjoyable album. The first movement is called “Mass” and, as should be expected, is an atmospheric mass for the dead. “On the Ground,” the second movement, is very much “funeral music,” with lyrics evoking either a life wasted or a life well-lived and much missed by those who loved the deceased. This section features great guitar and keyboard work and interaction by the core duo of Samzadeh and Bills, alongside Banks. The third movement, called “A Requiem,” is exactly that, with very dark lyrics set against an almost claustrophobic musical backing. Along with the instrumental fourth and fifth movements (called “Writing On Water” and “Overland”), “A Requiem” borders on schizophrenia, perhaps hinting at the soul’s departure from the mortal coil as a battle rages between Heaven and Hell to determine its eternal resting place. “It Never Ends,” the final movement, revisits lyrical themes from the entire album, offering, at times, a gloomy overview of life, but also a pastoral, restful triumph that ultimately comes with the end of life. Overall, “In Extremis” is a song cycle that leads you through just about every emotion that you would feel knowing that your birth certificate does, indeed, come with an expiration date.

IN EXTREMIS is an album that has a little something for everybody. Whether your musical tastes tend to run to progressive or classic rock; classical music; Gothic lyrics and motifs; or just darn good music, this is the record for you!