Magnification is the first Yes album on which the band uses a real orchestra since Time and a Word. Most of the band members did some interesting orchestral experiments on their solo projects, so I was quite curious to hear this new album. After I gave this album several spins, I must conclude that - in this case - the use of an orchestra was not a successful experiment.
From the start of the album, the role of the orchestra becomes quite clear. There is no overwhelming overture. The orchestra stays very much in the background, and this appears to be the case on the whole album.
The combination of band and orchestra works fine only occasionally. But the band fails to create a continuous level of integration of the two. The main reason for this might be the lack of suitable song material, as the songs just don't seem to be right for an orchestral approach.
The band should have written more heavy and progressive material, in epic style. Unfortunately they did not. The music is like a further continuation of The Ladder; a modern sounding and quite "poppy" interpretation of progressive styles. To successfully combine this modern Yes sound with the orchestra is very difficult, and I think the band fails to do so. I must admit the arrangements sometimes are very good and quite progressive, but with this song material the overall effect is unbalanced and directionless.
So, the use of an orchestra didn't really work. The next question: is Magnification a good Yes album? Composition-wise, this is not one of their strongest. The melody lines are not exceptionally good, and I hate to say it, but there are no real classics on this album. In fact, most songs are over before you know it.
But vocally, the band is in great shape. Jon Anderson's voice is as high and clear as always, and it's also good to hear Chris Squire singing lead on Can you Imagine.
Instrumentally, the band is also very good. The best parts are played by guitarist Steve Howe, who is in fact the only real soloist on the album. As it was recorded without keyboardist Igor Koroshev, there are only some minor keyboard parts, but the orchestra never really compensates for the lack of a keyboard player.
In a recent interview, Rick Wakeman said he was asked to play on the YesSymphonic tour.
He refused, as he didn't want to play on orchestral arrangements that he wasn't involved with, and that he preferred the orchestra to be much bigger. Being a great admirer of Wakeman's work with and outside Yes, I can only dream what this album could have been had he been involved in the project.
If you're not too familiar with the Yes stuff, Magnification is not the best album to start with, and it is certainly not a new classic prog rock album.
But if you like Yes music in general, it's absolutely safe to buy this album. I do realise my review is quite critical, but I love this band to death. However, this album is not one of their best. Still, I'm looking forward to hear them on their symphonic tour.
I always consider Yes a modern orchestra. With all five instruments (including the vocals) having their own specific role in Yes-compositions a balance is created, much in the same way as in many classical symphonic music. As a result of this view of mine, I wondered if a co-operation of a symphonic band with a symphonic orchestra could work. Maybe it would be a bit too much of it all. The Symphonic Music of Yes-album made by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe and Bill Bruford in 1993 made clear that beautiful arrangements could be created from Yes-music, but the loss of many of the original elements (mainly keyboard and guitar-parts) was the result.
To put it short, many of my fears did not turn into reality. Firstly, the balance of band and orchestra is right, unlike projects like the symphonic Metallica-album, where the orchestra mainly functions as background music, here it is an integral part of the compositions, almost in the way George Martin arranged string-quartets for The Beatles (think of Eleanor Rigby).
The album opens with the nice Magnification, which has a great 'drive' and Beatlesque harmonies in the choruses, and the even better Spirit of Survival, with its beautiful interludes with military drums and brass-section and great bass line, echoing ELP's rendition of Peter Gunn Theme.
Don't Go is a nice song on itself, but not my favourite of the album. Maybe because of its poppy nature, or the fact that there's not much progression in the song.
For me the album really starts with the beautiful orchestral introduction to Give Love Each Day. Maybe this should have been the opener of the album, since it creates a very special atmosphere, which reminded me of the Pepperland-suite the aforementioned George Martin wrote for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine album. But also the vocal melody and the combination of vocals are of stunning beauty. On top of that there's this classic, sing-a-long Yes-chorus.
This composition leads into Can You Imagine, which has its origin in the 1982-sessions of XYZ a project by Chris Squire and Jimmy Page (hence its name eX-Yes-Zeppelin). For the first time on a Yes-album Squire is responsible for the lead-vocals and he does it in a great way. Chris Squire is one of the revelations of this album in many suspects. In many of the compositions his bass has a prominent place and so have his vocals.
The acoustic guitar which introduces We Agree contrasts in a nice way with the much fuller sound of the previous songs. It must be clear that Howe doesn't have the sole lead-position on this album, he's sharing it with the orchestra. He also doesn't use heavy distorted sounds; these wouldn't match the overall sound. Nevertheless, his sound and style is very recognizable and enjoyable.
Anderson's voice still is great, especially when you consider he's closer to 60 than 50. Although he's not showing the aggressive side of his voice (as on Rock Gives Courage and Finally) on this album, it's remarkable what he's capable of on his age. Personally I think Anderson is more personal on this album than in the last years. Soft As A Dove and Time Is Time are beautiful, fragile songs of an almost lullaby nature.
The three piece In The Presence Of once again shows the diversity of possibilities of an orchestra and the strength of the musical twists and turns Yes always uses. Nevertheless, I don't think this is the strongest song on the album, but I cannot put my finger on the weak spot. Maybe it's just the fact that listening to an orchestra for an hour may be a bit of an overdose. The same effect occurs with acoustic albums. After a while you don't discover new sounds, highs and lows (in volume or aggression) anymore.
In sum; Yes deserve lots of credit for the courage of pushing their own boundaries, exploring new territories. Besides, they're one of the very few prog-o-saurs releasing proper album. Compositions of this quality, with Anderson's voice, Squire's bass and Howe's guitar, simply can't go wrong. As result of the arrangements the created a very special, at moments 'Beatlesque' album.
So, don't I have any criticism on this album? Well, I do. First, there is the worst cover-art since Big Generator. Second, I do miss Wakeman's (or Koroshev's) contribution, even though I realize that a combination of synths and orchestra might a bit too much of it all. The orchestra has replaced the keyboards on this album, which results in a good balance, but still...
Highlights: Give Love Each Day, Can You Imagine, Spirit of Survival.
Only very rarely have I disagreed more with a reviewer about an album than I do with Rob on this one. Whereas Rob finds the role of the orchestra disappointing I think this is an occasion where a rock band gets the balance exactly right. As JJ, I too have always been put off by Metallica's S&M album; what could have been a great experiment turned into an album that just isn't pleasant to listen too. As far as I'm concerned, Michael Kamen's approach of writing counter-melodies for the Metallica songs instead of using the orchestra to support the music has resulted in something that sounds like a Metallica live album while you neighbours are trying to out-volume it with their own classical records.
Yes have got it exactly right on Magnification. The orchestra does have it's 'solo' moments, like in the first 2 minutes of Give Love Each Day (which have the same feel as the first minutes of Alan Parsons Projects's Fall of the House of Usher) and in the last minutes of Dreamtime. Still, most of the time it fulfills the role that's normally taken by keyboards and support the melodies of the compositions with sweeping string sections, enchanting wind instruments or proud brass movements, while at other times the bombastic elements in the songs are further emphasized by the sheer orchestral power. Alan Parsons Project is indeed a very good comparison; not as far as the style of the songs are concerned, but regarding the role of the orchestra. Think Night of the Proms (Antwerp/Rotterdam version) if you will, but without the pathetic 'has-beens' element. I like this album much better than The Symphonic Music of Yes, which was quite enjoyable but on that record the orchestra replaced the band instead of complementing it.
Rob also mentions the lack of good long epics. I personally don't mind at all. As I've said in many a review, I like long tracks but quite often I rather have 3 good songs than one epic that falls flat. Take Mindrive of the Keys to Ascension 2 album. It's one of the most popular songs the band did in the past years. Personally I like it as well, but I do think that the band has said everything in the first half and the second one is just a repetition of the first. Therefore, I was delighted to hear some brilliant short tunes on Yes' previous album The Ladder, while they still stayed far away from worthless poppy fluff like the stuff they dared to put out on Close Your Ears ... err ... Open Your Eyes (the worst Yes album ever as far as I'm concerned).
There have been so many different styles and forms of the entity called Yes that it's hard to tell if fans will like this album or not. When comparing this album to the back catalogue of the band, I find many styles of the band's past mingled in one album. Some songs would have fitted well on the Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe album (the title song features lyrical references to Brother of Mine), while other could have come straight from Going for the One or Tormato. The bass playing is absolutely brilliant on this album, probably the best bass since Drama (which is considered one of the less interesting Yes albums by many fans but has always been a favourite of mine). Other songs are as catchy as the material on The Ladder and a song like Can You Imagine echoes the atmosphere of songs of the mid 80s albums.
Many people have praised Steve Howe's guitar playing, but I personally have always find his guitar solos rather dubious. He can make some excellent sounds to support the music and some great melodies, but he rarely plays a decent solo. To me it just sounds to much like the uncontrolled twanging of some kid (like the solo in Spirit of Survival). I have really missed Trevor Rabin's great solos in the last couple of years. They are of course also missing on this album, but the melodic power of the orchestra makes up for a lot. On the other hand, I neither miss Wakeman (who's solo material doesn't do anything for me) or Igor Khoroshev for even one second. The lead vocals by Anderson and Squire are absolutely brilliant and the vocal melodies really make me feel good !
As far as the songs are concerned, (for me) this might well be one of the best Yes albums in a long time. Certainly the best one since Talk, and I wouldn't be surprised if I would eventually like it even better. The only songs that do not do a lot for me are Soft as a Dove (much too sweet for my taste) and Time is Time (nothing special). Fortunately they make up for less than 5 minutes in the total hour playing time. The Death of Ego section in In The Presence Of also fails to impress me since it sounds too much like a forced attempt to sound like 70s Yes while the words don't seem to flow quite right. It almost spoils an otherwise fine song. But besides these minor flaws I consider Magnification to be a magnificent album.
I probably like the more accessible compositions in the album's first half slightly better than the more complex approach of the second half. Dreamtime and We Agree are fine gems, but the first five songs are plain brilliant songwriting. Spirit of Survival, possibly one of the heaviest stomping things Yes has done in a long while, needs to get a special mention here.