Treading Lightly on Yes’s “Fragile”: Prog Review #10

Treading Lightly on Yes’s “Fragile”: Prog Review #10

Rounding out (roundabouting?) the top ten is another Yes album: Fragile (1972). Rolling Stone has this to say:

Pop radio had never heard anything like "Roundabout," Yes' mind-bogglingly unlikely breakout single. Built on Steve Howe's kaleidoscope of classical acoustic and electric guitars, Rick Wakeman's Jan-Hammer-in-an-Anglican-church organs and Bill Bruford's wild-ass polyvalent drumming (especially the galloping, bonkers midsection).

Sure, but for me it’s all about that bass. Right after the classical guitar intro, it’s the bass more than anything that sounds so different and complex. Then those keyboard runs start happening and you realize how good this band is at playing their instruments.

But what of the album as a whole? “Roundabout” is great of course, a bold statement of purpose for a band that would continue to produce music that defied pop structures, that would seamlessly blend rock with classical and other musical forms, making rock a matter of thoughtful artistry more than visceral enjoyment. One need only look to the album’s second track to understand how genre-bending the band was: “Cans and Brahm’s” is simply a rendition of an excerpt from Brahm’s 4th symphony (delivered, begrudgingly it seems, by Rick Wakeman).

Reading up on the album I see that each band member contributed one of the album’s shorter, filler tracks, that create an odd arrangement for the album. There are really only four serious songs, separated from each other by these solo-written tracks, none of which is really worth listening to on their own, except perhaps “The Fish”, which is a pretty cool instrumental piece. “Mood for a Day” is a mildly appealing, but ultimately uninteresting, classical guitar bit, and “We Have Heaven” is kind of annoying. The 35-second “Five Percent of Nothing” delivers exactly what it promises.

These nonsense songs and “Roundabout” aside, the remaining three tracks are all interesting in their own way. The album’s other surprise hit is “Long Distance Runaround”, a much simpler and shorter song than Yes is known for. It’s catchy but not all that substantial. I actually prefer “The Fish”, which is connected to the former track as a second movement.

“South Side of the Sky” is a much cooler, proggier piece. Opening with storm-like sound effects and a bracing drum roll, it is once again the heavy bass that sets the tone for the bookending sections of the song, followed by keyboard runs that once again show off Wakeman’s skill and creativity. If you cut out the middle section, this is another catchy tune, though with more meat to it than either “Roundabout” or “Long Distance Runaround”. But those three-and-a-half minutes in the middle of the song (total length is eight minutes) are what make it shine. From the heavy, aggressive sounds of the full band, the music cuts out but for a bright piano solo underpinned with more storming effects. From there it is a whirlwind of shifting tones and tempos as the other instruments, ethereal vocalizations included, gradually join back in and take their time to build up, only to once again cut out completely before restarting the main riff. This is cool stuff.

The real heart of the album, however, is, aptly, the closer, “Heart of the Sunrise”. Immediately aggressive and showing off how intense all the instruments can get, before, you guessed it, leading in with a distinctive bass riff. Atmospheric keys and impossibly complicated drum work set an ominous mood before shifting back to the explosions of sound from the start of the track. And then into a sparse moodiness. Once Jon Anderson finally starts singing more than three minutes in, it’s a completely different song: sparse, and otherworldly. From then on, it’s a lot more characteristic shifts in tone with abrupt changes leading into variations on the themes already established. I can take or leave the rest of Fragile, but “Heart of the Sunrise” is one of the most exciting, distinctive, and beautiful progressive songs.      

Fragile is not yet in touch with the brilliance of Close to the Edge, but it’s making the effort. With a lot of filler, and even a lot of dull moments in three of the major songs, the album never fully grabs my attention. Its power and complexity is apparent, but Fragile doesn’t reward close listening the way later Yes albums do.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Yes – Close to the Edge

  3. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  4. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  5. Rush - Moving Pictures

  6. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  7. Yes - Fragile

  8. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  9. Can - Future Days

  10. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here


Prog Highlights

Prog Highlights

Savouring Genesis's "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway": Prog Review #9

Savouring Genesis's "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway": Prog Review #9