Welcome to the second installment of the Album Reclamation Project at Proglodytes! Again, we will revisit a maligned Album of the Past and discuss whether it’s really as bad as all that. As a reminder, we will be utilizing the soon to be copyrighted Official Proglodyte Dumpster Fire Scale. In this episode we see further evidence that the 80’s were unkind to progressive rock legends. Come, join us as we review Yes: Big Generator. A reminder of our patented scale:
- Dumpster Inferno
- Dumpster Conflagration
- Dumpster 3 Alarm
- Dumpster Controlled Burn
- Dumpster Embers
Big Generator is the twelfth studio album by seminal proggers Yes. The album was released in 1987—a four-year space after the commercially successful 90125. Released in the heart of the 80’s, Big Generator continued Yes’s stroll through a more pop-oriented and accessible sound. Jon Anderson, lead vocalist for the band, strained at the restrictions of the pop format imposed upon the album, and left the band to join up with former Yes-men Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe to release an album of more classic Yes-sounding tunes following the Big Generator tour. The album was commercially successful, going platinum in the United States.
Why People Hate It
When listening to Yes, there are a number of things that one expects to hear. Slick, rock guitar riffs isn’t generally one of them, and that’s why many Yes fans object to the Trevor Rabin era albums. Rabin, a South African guitarist of no mean talent, was replacing Steve Howe, whose unique approach to his instrument is one of the things that set Yes apart from other bands. Additionally, the album seems to consciously attempt to recreate the commercial success of the previous album, with the title track even being built off of a riff that has more than a passing semblance to ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’. But in trying to re-capture the previous success, the album generally is considered to not only fail to present ‘classic’ yes sounds, but it is also considered weak in comparison to 90125.
Let’s go track by track:
- Rhythm of Love: Opens with an almost Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonization, before the main guitar riff kicks in. The vocal harmony returns in the bridge to the chorus. The songs weakest moment is the chorus, which has an unimpressive hook. Rabin’s guitar solo is brief and flashy. All in all, the song is a solid 80’s pop hit.
- Big Generator: Again opens with interesting vocalizations before bringing in the aforementioned Owner of a Lonely Heart lite guitar riff. The main riff is punctuated by ‘orchestral’ hits. The song’s soundscapes feel particularly mechanical. The committee gives the song an eight for dancing, but it doesn’t appeal much otherwise. This song makes me miss Steve Howe.
- Shoot High Aim Low: This song turns the tempo way down and effectively establishes a reflective mood with subtle musical layering and melody. The song never breaks out of this mood but manages to avoid becoming boring by alternating vocal lines between Rabin and Anderson. The lyric’s hook is kind of silly, but silliness of lyric has always been part of Yes. The guitar solo has an almost flamenco feel to it, and is again brief.
- Almost Like Love: Orchestral hits were all the rage in the mid-80s. Despite hiring “Soul Lips” James Zavala and his friends to provide live brass, the mix manages to make them sound synthetic. Alan White’s drum line lacks all finesse and is shockingly boring to listen to. ‘Almost Like Love’ almost like puts me to sleep
- Love Will Find a Way: This song continues a pattern on this album of having a very intriguing introduction before turning to a rather straight forward pop song structure. ‘Love Will Find a Way’ was a legitimate hit single for the band, and presents as a good pop-song. The song was written solely by Rabin, who also handles the majority of the lead vocals.
- Final Eyes: Perhaps the track that most approaches classic Yes. The song begins with clean electric guitar over synth soundscapes. This provides the backdrop for a pleasant melody from Jon with Chris backing. This opening section recalls ‘And You And I’ with a dash of the Legend Soundtrack (Tangerine Dream) and is a nice listen. Once the opening is through, it settles into a steady medium rock groove, apropos of the era.
- I’m Running: From time to Yes has gone to the Caribbean (Teakbois, the Messenger, etc.). They go there again in this song, which includes marimba fills and Jon singing about a tropical plant. This song is the longest on the album and has a few musical shifts. It’s rather proggy, but never quite fulfills its promise as the chorus, instead of providing a climactic payoff, isn’t particularly interesting. The parts have value, but the sum is less than their combined total.
- Holy Lamb: A major shift from the frenetic ‘I’m Running’ is this subdued song of religious imagery and introspection. This song is essentially a solo composition by Jon Anderson and presents with the Andersonian sense of innocence and optimism, see the lyric: “All we need to know is that the future is a friend of yours and mine”. Melody and lyric are lovely, but the song doesn’t fit with the remainder of the album, and would have been much more at home on Anderson’s Song of Seven.
Is It as Bad as All That?
In my Drastic Measures review, I stated that Jon Elefante was Kansas’ Yoko Ono. Someone else pointed out to me that the more apropos comparison is Trevor Rabin in Yes. Elefante and Rabin are both fine and successful musicians who found themselves in the unenviable position of replacing a legendary band member. Rabin’s influence over the Yes sound was pervasive throughout Big Generator, and while the album has moments, all in all Rabin’s more straightforward pop and rock chops seem to overwhelm the contributions of the other band members.
Of course, Yes provided us in the 70s with a cornucopia of wonderful songs, but the purpose of this series is to take the album on its own, without comparing it to Fragile, Close to the Edge, Time and a Word, Going for the One, Relayer…dear heavens, those were some good albums! Alas! Poor Big Generator, to have followed in their footsteps. But even setting aside the comparisons to the band’s halcyon days, Big Generator fails to convince the listener that the band was ‘all-in’ on this one. There are some good hooks, and several musical ideas that show promise, but all in all, it’s a disappointment.
Interestingly, I tried listening to the album with the tracks rearranged: 1) Rhythm of Love; 2) Final Eyes; 3) Almost Like Love; 4) Holy Lamb; 5) Big Generator; 6) Shoot High, Aim Low; 7) Love Will Find A Way; 8) I’m Running. This song order balances the tracks better and made for a more pleasurable experience.
Proglodyte Dumpster Rating: Dumpster 3 Alarm