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.


CHRIS SQUIRE: THE ULTIMATE YES MAN

(A heartfelt goodbye by KEVIN RENICK)

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

The “Fish” swims no more. Chris Squire, bassist and co-founder of legendary prog-rock band Yes, has passed away at age 67 from complications of leukemia. It’s an absolute shock how fast it happened, as we were only informed of his diagnosis this past May. But barely a month later, Squire is gone. As the only member of Yes to play on every single one of their albums, Squire achieved the ultimate in perfect “attendance,” and should’ve been given the opportunity to write a book about what it’s like to survive multiple incarnations of a mega-famous, influential band. The tall, lanky musician developed a signature pulsing, hypnotic style on bass that captivated millions of classic rock fans on Yes’ trifecta of ’70s masterpieces THE YES ALBUM, FRAGILE and CLOSE TO THE EDGE. While other bass players of note may have been more immediately engaging or melodic (Paul McCartney) or anchored their bands with more economy and finesse (John Entwistle of the Who, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin), it was arguably Squire who did the most to make the bass guitar a lead instrument in the ’70s, or to at least show that it could be one of the most prominent sonic elements in complex arrangements. Along with Jack Bruce of Cream and Les Claypool of Primus (who clearly took inspiration from Squire), the Yes visionary demonstrated new horizons for the bass guitar, new ways for lower frequencies and unexpected harmonics to provide dazzling depth and variety to what ultimately was still “rock” music. Squire was revered by fans, and certainly helped write a few new chapters in the book on what bass guitarists with imagination could achieve. It was easy to take his virtuosity for granted; he made it look easy. But it wasn’t. No way, or lots of guys would’ve done it.

A young Chris Squire, back row, center (uncredited photo)

A young Chris Squire, back row, center (uncredited photo)

Squire was born Christopher Russell Edward Squire in March 1948 in a northwest suburb of London called Kingsbury. He sang in choirs as a boy, and was greatly affected by the Beatles and Paul McCartney as a teenager. He dropped out of school in 1964, and soon formed his first group, the Selfs. A bad experience with LSD and subsequent recovery at his girlfriend’s apartment apparently led to Squire’s developing his unique style on the bass guitar. He purchased his signature Rickenbacker 4001 in 1965, and soon spent time in promising British bands the Syn and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, a kind of precursor to Yes featuring Peter Banks. Influenced by Jack Bruce, John Entwistle and Larry Graham (bassist for Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station), Squire had a fateful encounter with vocalist Jon Anderson at a Soho bar in early 1968. The two men shared a love for vocal harmonies and the melodic records of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the Fifth Dimension. Together with drummer Bill Bruford and keyboardist Tony Kaye, the band Yes was formed, releasing their self-titled debut in 1969. While the first two Yes albums hardly made the band superstars, interesting originals like “Beyond and Before,” “Survival” and “Time and a Word” complemented ambitious covers to reveal a band definitely aiming high and displaying a fearless attitude. THE YES ALBUM, their third effort (released in 1971), shot them to a whole new level as guitar genius Steve Howe joined and completed the “Anderson/Howe/Squire” co-composing credit that would grace many a classic at the time. “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” were all from this great album and remain staples of classic rock radio to this day. Squire’s inventive, riveting playing on these tracks was impossible to ignore, and by the time of 1972’s FRAGILE, on which keyboardist Rick Wakeman now completed a truly virtuoso lineup, Yes were one of the most popular bands on FM radio, and Chris Squire began topping magazine polls of beloved bassists. The band’s second release of the year, CLOSE TO THE EDGE then sealed the deal for the whole band, becoming one of the most enduring prog rock masterpieces of all time and greatly expanding the sonic palette for ambitious, large-scale rock music. It’s astounding, the distance the band traveled from covers of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield on their first two records, to the side-long “Close to the Edge” and dense, wildly ambitious pieces like “Siberian Khatru” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” The music sounds thrilling even today.

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

There will be many tributes to Yes and Chris Squire in the days ahead. It’s not necessary to talk about their many personnel changes and controversies, or the way the band (and prog rock as a genre) fell out of favor many times. Here’s what is worth mentioning: Chris Squire hung in there, like the most stalwart, dedicated musician imaginable, through ALL of the band’s 21 studio albums (this does not count all the live recordings). When Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman departed for 1980’s DRAMA, Squire spearheaded a new version of Yes, with a pair of Buggles in tow. When things really got bizarre between 1982 and 1983, with Steve Howe nowhere to be seen, and a group called Cinema featuring Squire and new guitarist Trevor Rabin somehow turning into yet another version of Yes, one that would invite Anderson back into the fold, ride the early wave of the MTV video era, and have their first top 10 single with the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” well, imagine how it must have felt to be Chris Squire at the time, enjoying a level of success that even he had to be surprised by. And thereafter, a whole series of members that came and went, came and went, sometimes old and sometimes new, with hugely controversial developments like beloved singer Jon Anderson being squeezed out of the band for having health problems that took too long to improve, and the lead singer of a Yes TRIBUTE band actually replacing him for a while. The Yes story kept changing and unfolding in real time, annoying many fans, earning begrudging admiration from others. But always, Mister Chris Squire was there, keeping the flame alive, talking about the value of the music, and showing immense respect for the fans around the world. Squire knew that this prog rock behemoth he’d helped invent was too special to let it die. And apparently even when he knew he could not be part of the band’s scheduled 2015 summer tour due to his illness, he made public statements that the show would go on, and that fans would still get the “Yes experience” they had come to expect. But, would it truly be Yes without THE MAN, the amazing bass player and singer who’d been on every album in the band’s considerable canon? Isn’t a Squire-less YES more of a MAYBE, a true question mark when the chief anchoring force has gone to rock heaven? Let the debate begin. But honestly, I just can’t imagine Yes without Chris Squire. I go back too far with him. I met Chris Squire twice, after legendary shows in the late ’70s in Saint Louis. Dapper, charismatic, and unfailingly polite, Squire was amiable at signing autographs, and never anything less than dignified and attentive when it came to answering questions and talking up the legacy of his band. To be a musician of such stature, doing what you do throughout changing decades and shifting musical tastes, requires a level of resolve and confidence that not all possess, to say the least. Squire’s achievements in Yes and on the bass are staggering; he was unarguably one of the best musicians in the history of prog, and one of the most unflappable. Few fans would say that Yes were still making indispensable music in recent years, and Squire, who only released one solo album (1975’s excellent FISH OUT OF WATER), didn’t seem that set on adding much more solo work to his legacy. Instead, he seemed content to keep changing and adapting Yes to every new challenge that came along. But his illness was one challenge he could not overcome, and now millions of fans will be reeling from the loss of this singular musician. The records will always be there to listen to and rediscover, however. And even if Yes are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as they should be, Chris Squire belongs in any bass player hall of fame, as well as on ANY listing of musicians who proved what dedication, discipline and adaptability are all about through a lifelong body of work. Rest in peace, Mister Squire. You got “close to the edge” throughout your work and life many times, and now you have crossed over. Thanks for “going for the one” in almost every recording you made. It’s a legacy that is anything but “fragile,” for sure. High vibration, go on…

FIVE NOTABLE CHRIS SQUIRE PERFORMANCES:

1. YOURS IS NO DISGRACE – This 1971 fan favorite was a surging, soaring piece of prog rock bliss that featured shifting tempos, dynamic breaks and a stellar early example of Chris Squire’s throbbing, upfront bass playing. The medium had to accommodate a NEW message from here on.

2. LONG DISTANCE RUNAROUND/THE FISH (SHINDLERIA PRAEMATURUS) – Without a doubt, 1972 was the year of YES. These days, it would be hard to imagine an artist putting out two all-time classics in one year, but imagine putting out two gems like FRAGILE and CLOSE TO THE EDGE within mere months of each other. Squire’s supercharged ascending lines on “Runaround” coupled with his 4- and 5-note punctuation phrases while Jon Anderson sings, comprise some of the best bass playing ever recorded. Then couple THAT with his harmonics-laden, experimental solo segue “The Fish,” which becomes transfixing in a short time, and you’ve got, well, six minutes of Squire showing why he’s a legend on his instrument.

3. CLOSE TO THE EDGE – Much has been written about this side-long thematic epic; it is arguably one of the all-time high points of progressive rock performance and arrangement. Squire’s bass becomes a lumbering, wandering beast that stomps its way right through every formula or “template” ever made for the instrument, like a brainy, determined dinosaur. Electrifying in every sense of the word, from the famous opening chords that follow the slow ambient fade-in, to the riveting climax and fade-out. Yes belong in the Hall of Fame for this album alone, damn it.

Chris Squire (photo credit: GLENN GOTTLIEB)

Chris Squire (photo credit: GLENN GOTTLIEB)

4. ON THE SILENT WINGS OF FREEDOM – The 1978 album TORMATO was not a classic by any means, but this amazing song WAS. Co-written by Squire, it’s a propulsive, uplifting gem seemingly about potential and pushing past limitations, something Squire could write the book on. His bass playing is magnificent throughout, featuring a dynamic, repeating 7-note plus sequence that is killer, and some gorgeous, haunting overtones later in the piece. Absolute splendor from their sometimes maligned late ’70s period.

5. OWNER OF A LONELY HEART – One of the most unlikely hit singles in rock history, the epitome of Yes reinventing themselves in the early ’80s after punk and new wave changed all the rules, and after that thing called MTV forced artists to adapt and think of new ways to showcase/present themselves. Chris Squire, Trevor Rabin and Jon Anderson proved they were up to such daunting challenges, and delivered something fresh, sassy, melodic and -gulp – even danceable. WTF? And yeah, Squire’s awesome bass playing still shone through, albeit in a wildly new context.

A FINAL NOTE:

Squire had a pleasant voice, high and slightly reedy, and it blended amazingly well with the even higher-voiced Jon Anderson. Those stellar Yes harmonies were generally the result of the tightness of Anderson and Squire’s vocals offset in an interesting way by the lower, edgier voice of Steve Howe. Subsequent band members changed things a bit, of course, but most Yes classics feature this threesome. Squire’s lone solo album, FISH OUT OF WATER, has some wonderful singing from him and a fresh showcase of his songwriting and arranging talents. “Hold Out Your Hand” is a catchy single, and “Safe” has moments of epic, soulful beauty and more lumbering bass from the master.


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!