Arista, 1991


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Awhile back I called Yes’s 1994 disc Talk the low point of the group’s now 40-plus year career.  I was wrong, and listening to this album for the first time in 15 years reminded me of why. 

How bad is UnionUnion is so bad that its four not-entirely-embarrassing tracks only lift this 14-song turdbucket from an irredeemable F to an abysmal D-.

But please, don’t just take it from me, take it from longtime Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, quoted in the book I’ve just finished reading, Tim Morse’s Yesstories:  “I call it the Onion album, because every time I hear it, it brings tears to my eyes.”

The story of how this Frankenstein monster of a release came to pass is frankly a lot more interesting than the music itself, so bear with me a moment if you will.

After the tremendously difficult recording experience that was 1987’s Big Generator, founding lead vocalist Jon Anderson exited the “YesWest” eighties version of the band dominated by guitarist-vocalist Trevor Rabin with the thought of starting over and building a new group more to his liking... which turned out to be an old group of his liking.  His first call was to founding Yes drummer Bill Bruford (who’s also done time in King Crimson and toured with Genesis), and the next two were to seventies-era Yes stalwarts Steve Howe (guitar) and Wakeman.

The eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe -- four-fifths of the group that recorded Fragile and Close To The Edge -- became a virtual YesEast, issuing a moderately successful studio album and touring as “An Evening of Yes Music Plus,” much to the consternation of the remaining official Yes lineup of Rabin, founding bassist-vocalist Chris Squire, founding keyboardist Tony Kaye, and longtime drummer Alan White.

This inherently competitive dynamic might have led the two camps to some interesting places musically -- might have, if the parties at the center of the ensuing mess had focused on the music rather than listening to the cries and whispers of managers and agents.  Meanwhile, however, the second ABWH album arrived at Arista and was declared DOA by a business team that was looking for another “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and didn’t hear one.  In a move that smacks of desperation, Anderson called “Owner” songwriter Rabin and asked if he could spare a song for ABWH.  Rabin generously offered him his choice of three, all leftovers from his recent solo album.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

In the wake of this rapprochement, though, the two groups’ business teams quickly spied the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  And so, suddenly, three tracks that Rabin would later describe as “demos that… Jon came in and sang on top of” became both the lifeline for the stillborn second ABWH album and the catalyst for a new “mega-Yes” -- the joining of the two camps into the eight-man lineup that toured to considerable acclaim behind the Union album.

The tour was obviously a climactic moment in the band’s tangled history, and by most accounts the shows ranged from interesting right up to superb, depending on the night.  (Personally, just the idea of “Awaken” being done with eight musicians on stage gives me goosebumps.)  But the mostly fictitious Union album, the original catalyst for this lucrative tour and the accompanying retrospective box set YesYears?  The ink hadn’t dried on the contracts before Arista was pressing the newly-recast band to send it to duplication.

In the meantime, Anderson and producer Jonathan Elias had been monkeying steadily with the ABWH tracks, erasing most of Wakeman’s work and replacing it with no less than 11 other studio keyboardists’ sterile, anonymous synth washes.  Howe’s playing was similarly tampered with, though they at least managed to hire an avowed Howe fan in Jimmy Haun (Circa:, the Chris Squire Experiment) to record over his parts.  Bruford wasn’t immune either -- two other percussionists are credited in the liner notes.

The end result was ten ABWH tracks that only occasionally sound like anything other than a third-rate Anderson solo album.  Seven of the ten ABWH tracks – almost all co-compositions by Anderson and producer Jonathan Elias -- rank among the most contrived, insipid and impact-free music the band has ever allowed to see the light of day.  Two exceptions, “I Would Have Waited Forever” and “Silent Talking,” at least uncover a little drive in those moments when Howe steps up – and we can be pretty confident it’s him, since the riffs in question are borrowed from his same-era solo album Turbulence.  The other not-completely-embarrassing track isn’t even truly an ABWH track – “Masquerade” is a pretty Howe solo for which he won a typically 20-years-late-and-for-the-wrong-thing Grammy.

Three of the four YesWest cuts are basically castoff Rabin solo tracks with Anderson vocals added – the pompous yet insubstantial “Lift Me Up,” the limp reggae pastiche “Saving My Heart,” and the driving but over-programmed “The Miracle Of Life.”  “The More We Live – Let Go” is a swirling, atmospheric track Squire and future Yes member Billy Sherwood worked up together that’s almost certainly both the best and the most proggy thing here.

You would hope and expect that an album featuring the collective talents of Anderson, Brufurd, Howe, Kaye, Rabin, Squire, Wakeman and White would be tremendous, a cathedral of progressive rock greatness with a bit of ’80s Yes sheen to buff it out.  Instead, fans were lulled by the promise of that lineup into buying an album that rarely features more than three or four of the principals at a time, an album whose interminable song credits read like the legal contracts that “inspired” it, an album that Trevor Rabin himself has called “a black mark on the band.”

For the final word, though, let’s return to Yesstories and the ever-quotable Mr. Wakeman for his advice on the proper reaction to finding a copy of Union in one’s hand:

“To be honest, it took me a long time to play Union all the way through.  The first cassette I received from Arista went out the limo window after about fifteen minutes.  The next one went out of a hotel window.”

Enough said.

Rating: D+

User Rating: B



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