Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of Yes's "Topographic Drama - Live Across America"

I posted this review earlier today on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: This live album showcases some Yes material that hasn't always gotten the attention it deserves.

This is a double-length live album recorded from last year's tour by the current Yes lineup that includes Jon Davison on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Billy Sherwood on bass, Geoff Downes on keyboards and Alan White on drums (with Jay Schellen substituting for White on some tracks when White was laid up due to back surgery). The tour was focused on performances of Yes's 1980 Drama album, plus two sides of their 1973 double LP Tales From Topographic Oceans, "The Revealing Science of God" and "Ritual". The album also features performances of "Leaves of Green", an excerpt from one of the other pieces from Topographic Oceans, "The Ancient", plus live versions of other Yes classics such as "And You and I", "Heart of the Sunrise", Roundabout" and "Starship Trooper". Long-time Yes collaborator Roger Dean contributed the artwork throughout.

Although I know that many people consider this lineup to be little more than a Yes tribute band, this is actually a really satisfying album. Clocking in at a little over two-and-a-quarter hours, it has its ups and downs, but most of it is really solid. The band does a particularly good job on the Drama part of the album. Davison's voice is a good fit for the material there, and Downes, who was the keyboardist on the original Drama LP, is at his strongest here. It's great to hear the band focus on numbers such as "Machine Messiah", "Into the Lens", "Tempus Fugit" and "Run Through the Light", and hearing a live performance of a song snippet such as "White Car" is a rare treat.

The performance of the Topographic Oceans material is a little more problematic. Full disclosure here -- I'm not a big fan of the original album. Parts of it are exquisite, but other parts are very dense, and it's always been one of my least favorite Yes albums. I think that Davison holds his own reasonably well on the live version of this material, but as much as I like Geoff Downes as a pop keyboardist, he's not Rick Wakeman (or even Patrick Moraz or Igor Khoroshev, for that matter), and while Sherwood is a competent bass player, his bass doesn't punch through the sound the way the late, great Chris Squire's did. Consequently, while "Revealing Science" and "Ritual" both have their moments, there were also times during each number where I felt my attention start to drift.

One good thing does come from the absence of Wakeman and Squire on the album, though - it's a tour de force for Yes master guitarist Steve Howe. Throughout the performance, the band seems to back off to give Howe room to shine, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity. I don't remember another album where his guitar playing is so often pushed to the forefront, and it definitely makes the album more enjoyable.

Topographic Drama - Live Across America makes me sorry I didn't catch the band live on this tour, and at the same time makes me feel a little like I was there, which is about all you could ask from a live album. I won't claim it's the best live LP that Yes has ever released -- if you're new to the band, you're probably better off starting with 1973's Yessongs or 1980's Yesshows. However, it's certainly a worthy addition to any Yes fan's collection. 

Yes as a band has been in existence for nearly 50 years now, and has featured a variety of different rosters during that span. Topographic Drama - Live Across America is an impressive showcase for their most recent lineup, and does a good job of spotlighting some material from their back catalog that hasn't always gotten the attention it deserves. More importantly, it's simply a good listen.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars