Album Review: Yes – ‘Fragile’

Fragile Album CoverI have in my hands an album that was produced in 1971.  I know because it says so inside the gate-fold sleeve.  This album has existed for forty two years.  I’ve touched upon the reasons why I own this album a number of times before. To cut a long story short it was rescued from a bin and given to me when I was a kid.  Therefore it is the first album I ever owned.  The sleeve is a little battered, and when opened, the cardboard is discoloured.  But it’s here, in all its glory.  The song lyrics set out on the left hand side.  A booklet in the middle.  The song titles and credits on the right hand side.  The image on the front cover is, for me, one of the most iconic pieces of album artwork ever.  The album is Fragile by Yes.  I sit here with a coffee.  This seems as appropriate a time as any to remove this well worn piece of vinyl from its sleeve and give it another listen.  I suggest you all make yourselves cups of coffee too!

I have probably lived with this album longer than any other.  It is kind of ingrained into my soul.  Let me make something completely clear from the outset.  I would not necessarily consider myself a Yes fan.  This is the only album I own by them.

Fragile Gatefold

This is a strange album.  You have two different things going on.  As you open the gate-fold sleeve you are presented, on the inside cover, with a list of song lyrics.  The songs:  Round-about, South Side of the Sky, Long Distance Run around and Heart of the Sunrise.  These songs are the core of the album.  They are the meat and potatoes.  Then you have the other tracks.  For some reason each member of the band basically recorded a solo song.  So you get a song to showcase the keyboards, a song to showcase the vocals… etc.  This is self-indulgence of the highest order.  But then this is Yes.  A band who went on to record albums where every song filled a side of vinyl.  Here, on Fragile, we catch them just before they lose themselves in their own sense of greatness.  I will say right now that the four solid songs on this album are so great as to make this album a classic on their own.  Anything else is a bonus.  There is more to the story, for although this is not a concept album it is tied together so delightfully that it almost becomes a concept album by default.

The album opens with a massive backwards piano chord.  I imagine Fragile would work well played immediately after Sgt Pepper‘s dying chord.  In fact, after that final chord on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band you get that weird piece of backwards nonsense in the run-out groove.  There are similarities in that nonsense to much of the music on Fragile.  Yes seem to have taken some of the essence of that flower-powered Beatles album and ramped up the complexity.  This is a frighteningly intricate album.  We have musicians at the very top of their game.  One of the all-time great guitar players in Steve Howe.  The phenomenal drumming of Bill Bruford.  The power and authority of Chris Squire’s bass.  Rick Wakeman… yes, the flamboyant and highly talented Rick Wakeman, on keyboards – has there ever been a better player?  All completed by Jon Anderson on vocals.  Anderson is certainly an acquired taste with his penchant for a permanent falsetto.  However, I think his voice is the best accompaniment to this music.  The perfect marriage.

If I could choose a few words to sum up this album, among them would have to be the word ‘dated’.  This album always sounded old fashioned to me, even when I was young.   I imagine it would have sounded dated even on its day of release.  Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely complex, adventurous and in many ways ground-breaking.  But it still sounds quaint and of another time.  I suppose you have to bear in mind that around this same era Led Zeppelin were singing about Gollum and Mordor.  It was a time of drugs and fantasy.

After that initial backwards piano chord you have a beautiful piece of acoustic guitar.  One of my favourite sections of guitar playing ever.  Very inspirational to me.  Then we are into the first song, Roundabout, or Round-about depending on the variety of ways it is written on the gate-fold sleeve.  I think this song is one of Yes‘ better known tracks.  It is certainly one of the only songs by Yes I hear played on the radio along with Owner of a Lonely Heart.  It is hard to reconcile the Yes on display on Fragile with the Yes that recorded Owner of a Lonely Heart.  Anyway, I do not have to try and do that.  I am here to review my one and only beloved Yes album.

Roundabout is supposed to be the big single on the album.   A single that is over eight minutes long and not particularly radio friendly.  But then nothing on this album is radio friendly.  This is prog rock.  It’s too ‘clever’ to appeal to the average man on the street.  This is music for Oxford and Cambridge students.  And me.

The lyrics throughout the album are often impenetrable.  But I love them.  They taught me that songs do not have to have simple lyrics about love.  To fully appreciate this album however you are going to have to get into a mindset that accepts mountains, eagles and snow storms.

So, the ‘single’ finishes.  We are then greeted by the first solo spot on the album.  The mighty Rick Wakeman guides us through his take on Brahms’ 4th Symphony in E minor (Third Movement).  This is Fragile‘s first wrong step.  The piece may well show off Wakeman’s skills, but it does not fit in with the overall theme and texture of the album.  If I could jump into a time machine and zip back to 1971 I would tell the young Wakeman to erase the bloody thing off the album.  It is not bad per se.  It is just unnecessary and spoils the flow of a side of vinyl that otherwise sounds completely together – completely as one – singing with one voice.

Bloody hell.   I need a Jack Daniels after that.  Screw the coffee.  Lots of ice, better make sure I don’t spill it over my computer!

In the wake of Wakeman’s solo spot we have Anderson’s.  A song built around the foibles of his unique voice.  A huge leap from Wakeman’s, this piece has a right to exist on this album.  We Have Heaven works perfectly in the context of the ‘strange’ atmosphere created by the main songs on the album.  Loop after loop of Anderson’s vocals.  Layers which become increasingly garbled to the point of noise.  Then…

A slammed door.  Footsteps between the speakers accentuating the S T E R E O.  Then a distant explosion.  The wind starts.  You begin to physically feel  cold.  The drums kick in.  A grindingly heavy riff churns and that unique vocal re-enters the scene of the crime to continue the unified sound of this great journey.  South Side of the Sky is a superb song.

“the moments seemed lost in all the noise

a snow storm a stimulating voice

of warmth of the sky of warmth when you die

were we ever warmer on that day a million miles away

we seemed from all of eternity”

After slating Mr Rick Wakeman I now have to applaud him.  Two minutes into South Side of the Sky Rick Wakeman comes into his own with some outstanding piano playing.  Piano and cold wind.  I defy anyone to listen to the middle section of South Side of the Sky and not want to grab Wakeman and give him a kiss.  Amazing melodies. Complex.  Then the drums enter.  Fabulous jazz drums.  And those silky smooth vocals.  The song becomes a tour de force of conceptual music and mathematical harmonies.  Moments on this album would fit perfectly with what Brian Wilson was doing around the time of Pet Sounds.  Then the song kicks back in with riffs so heavy they would have given Black Sabbath a run for their money.  South Side of the Sky is oh so good you just wonder how they will follow it.  And they don’t.  The side of vinyl ends.  I need to turn the record over.  Time for another swig of Jack Daniels.

Fragile Vinyl

Side 2 starts with another solo piece.  This time built around the whims of drummer Bill Bruford.  It’s okay.  I appreciate the skill.  But really, it’s thirty seven seconds of unnecessary sound.  It doesn’t help progress the album.  It stands out a bit and distracts.  However, having lived my whole life with that piece of music stuck there at the beginning of side 2 I suppose I might miss it if it were gone.  Or not…

Long Distance Runaround.  Another of the album’s proper songs.  More sensational lyrics.  Lyrics I didn’t really understand when I was younger.  I was used to ‘pop’ lyrics.  Fragile‘s lyrics sound ‘quaint’ in comparison.  A noticeable element of this album’s impact is just how powerful the ‘riffs’ are.  This is an album built on strong melody lines.  There are few thrashed chords.  Listen… especially to Long Distance Runaround, and you’ll hear what I mean.

I’m enjoying a JD with ice.  As we enter the realms of Fish, Chris Squire’s bass guitar song.  The song makes its entrance slowly – like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.  It works just fine in the context of the album and you would be hard pressed to notice that it is supposed to be a showcase of all the different sounds of the bass guitar.  That should never have been the purpose in the first place!  Talk about ways to spoil a classic album!

Fish is followed by the final solo spot, and the penultimate song, Mood for a Day.  This is an acoustic guitar piece played by Steve Howe.  It is stunning.  No more really needs to be said.  But I’ll say some anyway.  My favourite part is at 1:27 where Howe plays one of the most memorable guitar lines of all time.  Perfect.  Just perfect.  I love how I can hear Howe breathing as he plays.  The piece actually reminds me of Dee by Randy Rhoads, another fine guitar player.  There should always be room for a spot of acoustic guitar on an album.  Just lovely.

Then my fine people.  Then… oh my do we have a treat for you.  The final song.  The best song on the album.  Yes‘ best ever song?  I can’t really be the judge of that since I don’t have enough terms of reference.  But if they have written a better song it must be mind-blowing!!!

Heart of the Sunrise is one of my favourite songs of all time.  One of the most powerful intros you will ever hear.  It out ‘thrashes’ a thrash band.   It out ‘deaths’ Cannibal Corpse.  It out ‘metals’ Spinal Tap.  It just kills.  Then we fall off a cliff into another superb riff.  The time signatures mess with your brain.  Wakeman’s keyboards layer in heart-wrenching, cinematic agony.  Bruford plays some of the best drums I’ve ever heard.  He reminds me a little here of Bill Ward.  Solid and yet on a different planet.  The guitar lines weave back in.  We hit two minutes and our heads hurt!  That riff again!  Like a brick to your brain!  How the hell did they even play it?  Their fingers must have been on fire!  Yes, over the last forty years music has been progressed further.  Louder, stronger, faster, more difficult.  But this song still stands tall above all others.  I think a lot of bands have this song on their turntables… like an obelisk.  They pray.

Three and a half minutes in and the song takes a turn.  Anderson enters with his best vocals of the album.  Beautiful.  Windswept.  Epic.  How long did it take for me to say ‘epic’?!?  This song is the definition of EPIC.  I’ve mentioned it before.  I told you to listen to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son to hear EPIC.  Well… scrub that.  Listen to Heart of the Sunrise.  This song is so good it alone makes Fragile an essential purchase.  I don’t know that I can listen to any more Yes – because I’m pretty sure it will seem insignificant after my years of listening to Heart of the Sunrise.  I keep hearing new things.  Just when I think the drums are the best thing, I hear a new bit of bass guitar.  Or I hear a bit of guitar that I’d previously missed.  Then Wakeman plays something and reminds me that he’s there!  These musicians are so at the top of their game that it makes you feel absolutely inferior if you too are a musician.  Every musician except me that is!  I know I could take them! 😉

Towards the end of the song Jon Anderson soars.  He sings so high and so true he sounds like an angel.  You almost feel you are lifting off your chair.  (Or that you’ve drunk too much Jack Daniels.)

Fragile Rear CoverThe door opens again.  You know, the door that slammed closed earlier.  We Have Heaven is back again.  Just to complete the ‘theme’.  The concept album.

The classic album cover by Roger Dean just adds more fruit to the pie.  This is an album you could listen to before you die.

If I could knock off Wakeman’s Cans and Brahms and Bruford’s Five Percent for Nothing then this would be a ten out of ten album.  Perhaps it still is?  Look, I admit that Fragile might be a step too far for some of you.  Although it is an elegant, intelligent, thoughtful, precise, exceptionally played album – it is also a difficult listen.  Perhaps you just need to give it a chance?  Go on.  What’s the worst that could happen?

2 thoughts on “Album Review: Yes – ‘Fragile’

  1. I have read that Cans and Brahms was part of a contractual obligation that Wakeman had with A&M; he was not permitted to record an original solo composition on another label until his obligation to them was complete. As for Bruford’s solo “Five Percent For Nothing” I believe the title is rip on the fee charged by their agent- as for the song itself, I think it’s brilliant though I’ve never listened to the album on vinyl so that may change my opinion. Fragile is an essential piece of rock history and should put Yes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by itself.

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