If there is one band in this genre that seems to get very little respect from those in the 'mainstream' [and the quotes are there because it seems that definition has changed as often as the Chicago White Sox have changed uniform colors and insignia down through the years...currently up to 95 times] music media, it is Yes. One has to wonder why, if due to the fact that they were one of those that crossed boundaries from what was called 'jam band' music [the early early days] to longform rock [starting with the 'Fragile' album] to shorter epics [see 'Going For The One' and 'Tormato'] to street smart pieces ['90125's 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' and 'Big Generator's 'Rythm of Love']. However, not many understand that they have attempted to incorporate orchestras into their sound...with varying degrees of success. Such as the use of strings on 'Time and A Word' or the smaller chamber orchestra that was featured on such songs like 'Onward' from 'Tormato' [sidebar-A remix of this album is available through Rhino records which includes an alternate version of 'Onward' sans vocals. From what has been gleaned through some sites dedicated to Yes, many of their fans like to use this as well as 'And You And I' at weddings....and those are good choices!]. Now if one wants to hear what Yes's music can really sound like when there is an orchestra dedicated to the project and not just brought in to play 'filler', 'Symphonic Yes' and 'Magnification' are excellent pieces.
Let's take Symphonic on first. If you look at who produced and had their hands on the engineering console, you know that this is not going to be just a throwaway. Alan Parsons. As in The Alan Parsons Project, as in the man who produced Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon'. Plus the orchestra [in this case, the London Philharmonic] was conducted by David Palmer. Those of you who may not remember, he was the one who wrote the string and horn charts for Jethro Tull, as well as filled in on keyboards. With all of this power, plus some members of Yes sitting in: Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Steve Howe and even after repeated listenings, it is still special
Leading off is 'Roundabout' which comes off as a very very powerful piece. Much like the rest of the album, this is not some half-hearted attempt to add some orchestral punch to old material. No True Believers, this is a direct combination of the two forces and when this has Jon's vocals added, it can also make one wonder why did Yes did not do this more often.
The rest of the album is no different: 'Close to The Edge', 'Wonderous Stories' . 'I've Seen All Good People' all show an orchestra or even a small chamber same can not only enhance, but bring out nuances in these songs that were not present initially. For me the topper of this album is 'Owner of A Lonely Heart'. While it could almost seem to some this may come off as let's say Mantovanni and the 101 Strings does Yes, 'Owner' still sounds as fresh as the original to these ears. Still as hip, still as street-smart [which is what the original was called by some critics, as in they could not believe that this was Yes] and just as clean.
'Survival', 'Heart of the Sunrise' and 'Soon' are played with an artistry that not only is clsoe to the spirit of the originals, but just enhances the beauty of them. This in turn sets up the finale, 'Starship Trooper' which shows that Yes may have had an idea this would be turned into a full orchestral piece at a later date. It would not be out of place to hear this on let's say a classical music radio station or one that is into classic rock.
This leads into what I have learned from several playings of the last Yes studio album, 'Magnfication'. According to various sources, Yes did not have an official keyboardist for this project and with one thing leading to another, they decided to fill in those parts with a full orchestra. To these ears that was the right call. Right from the title, opening track, this is a major treat. When one does listen to this you hear a more relaxed Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White playing all their parts with an ease and expertise one does expect from Yes. The credit for how the orchestra adds to the mix goes to Larry Goupe'. While not known to rock fans as let's say, Lewis Clark [of ELO fame] he makes his mark with Yes here.
While there are other tunes on here that impress, when I have listened to this over the past few months, there are 3 others aside from the title track that stand out. 'Don't Go', 'Give Love Each Day' and what can be called the masterwork of the album, 'In The Precence Of'. Each of these left an impression that this is what Yes at their best can do. Contrast this with what some bands after many years of being together and multiple albums have done, i.e. recycling ideas and concepts to try to make a new sound and it puts this breath of fresh air from Yes in a different light.
Something else to consider: if you wanted to introduce someone to what Yes is about [and spare them the stories about the infighting, the multiple lawsuits, the number of people who at one time actually owned the Yes copyright or how many people have played keyboards for them down through the years], these two albums mentioned in this post, as well as 'Tormato', 'Going For The One', 'Fragile' , 'Close To The Edge' are the best representatives of what Yes's sound is. The orchestral work...that is just the frosting on the cake.