Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review of Flash's "Flash"

This is a review I posted on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning:

Review Summary: Yes's AAA team hits a home run with its debut album.

Yes is one of those band's whose roster has included so many impressive musicians that at various times over the years, there have been what has amounted to competing versions of the band functioning at the same time. The current version of Yes that continued after the passing of Chris Squire found their 2016 tour in competition with that of Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman, who billed their live shows as "An Evening of Yes Music and More". In the late 1980s, the version of the band that legally owned the name "Yes", built around Chris Squire and Trevor Rabin, found themselves dealing with an alternate version of the band in Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (with Jon Anderson acting as lead vocalist for both groups). And all the way back in the early 1970s, Yes was challenged in the record charts by an upstart "Yes Lite" kind of band named Flash.

Flash had its beginnings back in 1970, shortly before the release of the Time and a Word album, when Yes fired their guitarist Peter Banks in favor of newcomer Steve Howe. Their next album, 1971's The Yes Album, was a huge leap forward both artistically and commercially, eventually going Silver in the UK and Platinum in the U.S. Not content to rest upon their laurels, however, they followed up this success by sacking keyboard player Tony Kaye in order to hire a musician more comfortable with playing synthesizers instead of just traditional keyboards, Rick Wakeman.

In August of 1971, while Wakeman and Yes were in the studio recording the Fragile album, Banks and vocalist Colin Carter decided to form a new band. Ray Bennett, a longtime friend of Banks, was recruited on bass (after being tipped off by Bill Bruford); and drummer Mike Hough, who answered an ad in Melody Maker, became the drummer. As for keyboards, it was only natural that the band recruited the recently-dismissed Yes keyboard player, Tony Kaye. In recent years, all parties involved have asserted that Kaye was never an official member of the band, and he did only play on their first album. But he was listed on the album cover as a band member, and that's how the radio stations and music writers of the time referred to him. Carter and Banks christened their new band Flash, and in 1972, they released their self-titled debut album.

Flash is an excellent album of progressive rock music. It's hard to believe now, because over the years, Flash has descended into relative obscurity (or at best, cult status), while Yes has gone on to a highly-successful almost-50-year career which resulted in them finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this coming April, but at the time the Flash album was released, there was some serious discussion among fans and musicians as to which was the better band. (Then Yes released Close to the Edge later in 1972, and blew that argument all to hell).

Flash on the Flash debut album sounds a lot like the band you might have expected the Yes band from Yes and Time and a Word to mature into. Carter isn't as great a vocalist as Jon Anderson -- he lacks some of Anderson's vocal beauty -- but taken on his own terms, he's actually quite good, with a voice that's warm and bright. Banks and Kaye, doubtlessly smarting from their respective sackings by the parent band, do some of their finest work here; Banks' guitar work dominates the album, and perhaps as a slap at his former bandmates, Kaye even throws in some synthesizer. Bennett's bass lines, while not as complex as some of Squire's, are strong and memorable. And Hough holds up his end nicely as well.

There are only 5 songs on this album, but in true prog rock tradition, only one of them is shorter than 5 minutes. Two of the songs are credited to Banks and Carter, one is credited solely to Carter, and the other two are attributed to Ray Bennett. You won't be surprised to learn that in terms of the songwriting, musically, it's similar to that of Yes from the Time and a Word/The Yes Album period. As for the lyrics, again like Yes, they're mostly upbeat and positive, although they're way less stream-of-consciousness than most of Jon Anderson's lyrics. And although I know it's kind of a cliche to say this, there really isn't a weak song on the album.

The two songs that got all the radio airplay are the album's first track, Carter's "Small Beginnings" (which actually charted #29 as a single on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart) and Bennett's "Children of Universe". Both songs deserved it. "Small Beginnings" starts things off with a flurry of intro notes, then kicks into the main body of the song. It's an upbeat number that serves as an encouragement to the harried working person: "Don't think you're getting nowhere/You know we all must start/From very small beginnings/Off to a better part." There's an extended bridge in the middle of the song, slowing things up considerably, until the chorus starts again and drives the song towards its conclusion. There's a little bit of vocal harmony going on in parts, though not nearly as much as Anderson and Squire typically provide for Yes.

"Children of the Universe" is probably my favorite song on the album. It's based on a 1927 prose poem by the American writer Max Ehrmann that was made into a fashionable wall poster in the '70s, "Desiderata". The verse that was particularly popular was "Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here." Bennett plays with the same notion in his lyrics: "Children of the universe/As much as sky and seaway/You have a right to be here." It's a sunny and life-affirming song that should be much better known today than it is, even with its nonsense lyric chorus: "La ouv ya ouv ya/La ouv ya ouv ya/La ohhhhhh ...".

Bennett's song "Morning Haze" is the shortest song on the album, clocking in at 4:37. The main feature of this track is Banks' excellent acoustic guitar work."Dreams of Heaven", on the other hand, is the longest song, at a healthy 12:55. This one is atypically gloomy in the beginning: "The sky is turning gray and/The bottom's dropping out of everything." But the song suddenly breaks into a fast instrumental bridge in the middle, keeping it from feeling too dire. The album closes with a slow, dreamy number called "The Time It Takes".

As stated earlier, member or not, Kaye left Flash after this album, and their subsequent two albums, 1972's In the Can and 1973's Out of Your Hands were nowhere near as popular as Flash.

I've noticed over the years that there's a lot of love among Yes fans for Peter Banks, especially considering he was only with the group for the first two albums, and there's even a bit of an outcry that he won't be joining the band at their R&RHoF induction. I would encourage all fans of Banks, and all fans of Yes, for that matter (especially fans of early Yes) to give Flash a listen. It's an album that deserves a place at the table in progressive rock history, and in the history of Yes. If I can use a baseball analogy, I've always kind of considered Flash to be Yes's AAA team. And on this album, they hit a home run.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars