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25 Years Ago: Yes’ ‘Big Generator’ Album Released

Yes
Atco

In the history of progressive rock, only three bands — Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson — have truly been able to survive and even thrive past the genre’s critical fall-out in the ’70s. For Yes, the more focused, radio-driven ’80s were a time of new beginnings, which resulted in some excellent sonic reinventions, along with a few awkward missteps. The band’s 12th studio album, 1987′s ‘Big Generator’ (which turns 25 this month), is a prime example of both.

For many Yes diehards, the group’s discography can be lumped into two distinct camps: the pre-Trevor Rabin era and the post-Trevor Rabin era. The South African guitarist-songwriter first brought his crunchy, riff-y brand of polished prog-pop to the band’s repertoire on 1983′s Trevor Horn-produced ’90125.’ That album was a commercial goldmine, spawning the #1 US hit ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart,’ along with a slew of other singles (‘Leave It,’ ‘Changes,’ and ‘It Can Happen’) that helped the band capture a younger, MTV-driven audience.

Rabin’s more pop-driven style and Horn’s colorful production had meshed beautifully with the trademark Yes sound. ’90125′ was a commercial success, but it also had quality songwriting on its side, never downplaying the group’s instrumental strengths in the process. Following up that landmark album was no easy task, and, perhaps inevitably, 1987′s ‘Big Generator’ was both a critical and commercial disappointment.

Overall, ‘Big Generator’ lacks the inventive spark that made ’90125′ such an intriguing listen. On that previous album, Yes sounded invigorated, exploring brighter textures and flirting with electronics and samples, incorporating those more streamlined ideas into songs that still had technical prowess. ‘Big Generator,’ meanwhile, isn’t as technically sharp or inventive. The title track is essentially a muted, bluesy reworking of ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart,’ using the same bold brass samples and ridiculously crunchy riffs–but the hook still feels half-formed 25 years later.

Still, ‘Big Generator’ has some sorely overlooked gems. The moody epic ‘Shoot High Aim Low‘ finds a sweet-spot between Jon Anderson‘s mysticism and Rabin’s rock attack, with spacey guitar riffs swirling over Chris Squire’s churning bass and Alan White’s arena-sized drums. Lead single ‘Rhythm of Love’ (a mild hit, landing at No. 40 on the Billboard charts) was another example of Yes functioning well as a pop act, utilizing a belted Jon Anderson vocal and a layered attack of vocal harmonies.

The next few years in Yes history would be shaky at best. Anderson departed after this album to record with the alternate-Yes line-up ‘Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe,’ and the next proper Yes album, 1991′s ‘Union,’ was a bloated, scattershot effort that found the Anderson and Rabin camps (along with hired session players) combined into a mega-lineup that could hardly fit onto a single stage.

“The danger was ‘Big Generator’ was chasing that dream again, chasing that crazy hit record,” Anderson told ‘Music Players’ in a 2010 interview. “It never happens if you chase it — it should come very naturally.”

In retrospect, ‘Big Generator’ is much less of a disaster than it’s often made out to be. While it may pale in comparison to what came before (and what would follow in the band’s late ’90s return-to-form), it remains a fascinating snapshot of a band attempting — and failing — to strike gold twice.

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