28 Years Ago: Yes Quickly Lose Momentum With ‘Big Generator’
In the history of progressive rock, only three bands — Yes, Genesis and King Crimson — managed to thrive past the genre’s ’70 heyday. 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. Big Generator, released on Sept. 17, 1987, as the band’s 12th studio album, is a prime example of both.
For many die-hard fans, Yes’ catalog is divided by Trevor Rabin. 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 No. 1 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” along with a slew of other singles that helped Yes capture a younger, MTV-driven audience.
Rabin’s more pop-driven style and Horn’s colorful production 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, Big Generator was both a critical and commercial disappointment.
Big Generator lacks the inventive spark that made 90125 such an intriguing listen. On the previous album, Yes had 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 just 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 decades later.
“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.”
That said, Big Generator boasts 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. “Rhythm of Love” (a small hit that landed at No. 40 on the Billboard chart) was another example of Yes functioning well as a pop act, utilizing a belted Jon Anderson vocal and a layered attack of vocal harmonies.
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.
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.
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