Deep Music Criticism #17 – Yes – Survival

In one of my automated, web radio-driven music discovery jags I wound up on a string of songs from the early days of iconic English prog band Yes.

I took the opportunity to listen through their entire 1969 self-titled debut album. Most reviews correctly label it as the most significant album to bridge Beatles-esque melody of 60s pop with progressive tendencies to come in the 70s.

To me the best track is Survival. It really exemplifies the Beatles pop and prog mix in which the band was immersed. It starts with a long instrumental exposition, almost a fugue interplay between instruments, devolves into a quiet interlude before emerging into the first chorus.

There really is nothing like Jon Anderson’s scratchy, soulful but still-boyish counter-tenor voice. This song is the perfect vehicle for his unique instrument. But what is even greater her is the pairing of Anderson with bassist Chris Squire’s even higher alto voice. This bridge and chorus of the song feature the most thrilling vocal harmonies thanks to these two. Its a preview of that signature thick vocal texture was to come later in their career. Yes has always been a singer’s band, whether with the duet of Anderson-Squire, or the Trevor Horn/Squire/Anderson pop smashes of the early 1980s.

But aside from the vocal textures, the harmonic movement and emotional crescendo from verse to bridge to chorus is what makes this song so powerful. The verse harmonic progression is weird enough – moving back and forth from D Major to F# Major – a very unconventional key change.

But the power builds with the shift into the bridge – which brings (I think) E minor decorated by dissonant suspended chords, pivoting around the primary tonic chord. What is so unusual is to have the vocal harmonies voicing these complex and dissonant intervals. Normally a rock band is harmonizing ad-hoc, coming up with a voicing together by noodling around inside the chords until they find the pitches that are most comfortable for them. Even the Beatles never were too disciplined – or as artistic – in their choices as Yes obviously is. They make full use of the vocal texture by singing the entire chord, in as tightly-knit a performance as you’d hear in a Barber Shop.

Take a listen:

Brilliant moment that makes me come back to this song – and this great album – over and over again.