When Yes Reached a Crossroads With the Murky ‘Tormato’
When Tormato, Yes' ninth studio album, arrived on Sept. 20, 1978, it represented both a reversal in commercial fortunes and the start of a particularly turbulent period that would led to some key departures.
A relatively concise collection of songs, Tormato found Yes largely avoiding the extended instrumental workouts that filled out best-selling records like Tales from Topographic Oceans in favor of shorter songs such as "Onward" (which clocked in at 4:05) and the minor hit single "Don't Kill the Whale" (3:56). The closing track, "On the Wings of Freedom," was the record's longest song at 7:47 – a relative blip in a catalog filled with lengthy compositions. Unfortunately, those abbreviated running times may have had more to do with a general lack of focus than anything else.
Quarrels between Yes members were nothing new, and members came and went on a regular basis, but things seemed particularly stormy during this period. Singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman both exited in the following months. Wakeman's displeasure became particularly evident during an infamous incident when he hurled a tomato at the artwork for the record, which was then titled Yes Tor, after a geological formation in southern England.
"We had paid a fortune for the artwork – which, when we were shown it, we all agreed we had been ripped off," he later recalled. "It was a pile of brown smelly stuff. I picked up a tomato and threw it at it. ... [The title] was hastily changed to Tormato."
Not that it provided much clarity for the troubled project. Bassist Chris Squire came to see Tormato as "a kind of a hodgepodge of different songs, so it was hard to figure out what was good on it and what wasn't, maybe," he said in 1996. "I don't know. ... I think it was hard for people to figure that album out. And there was lots of notes being played by Rick and Steve [Howe] on mostly every track on it."
Watch Yes' 'Don't Kill the Whale' Video
Howe echoed Squire's sentiments in a separate interview. "Rick and I had so many notes, and there’s not a lot of space in it," Howe said. "In the shortest sentence I can say, it was very overplayed and under-produced. Lots of notes! And some of it should have just cleared up, and I blame myself and everybody else in the band because everybody was guilty of that kind of thing."
Criticized by Howe as "too intense" and "[trying] too hard," Tormato is "not that satisfying to listen to, at least for myself," he said. "I can’t talk for everyone else. But there are some nice moments in it, and I think there should have been someone else there helping us with that one a little bit. We’d always had a really good engineer, and we were a bit lost at sea with actually the tonal landscape and the space."
As it turns out, Howe's comments about the band needing some extra help may have been more accurate than even he realized: Producer and engineer Brian Kehew, who was involved in sorting through the tapes for a 2004 reissue of Tormato reissue, discovered that the record's infamously murky sound was really just the result of a simple oversight. The problem started, Kehew told Tape Op, when the band parted ways mid-album with longtime producer Eddie Offord – leading to an unfortunate lack of communication.
"Offord had started the album," Brian Kehew said. "He had done most of the Yes records, and I know from working on his tracks that he used Dolby A a lot. These tapes don't say Dolby A, but Tormato is a famously bad-sounding record. They parted ways with him mid-course, and somebody else finished the record. So, I'm looking at the tapes and it doesn't say Dolby A anywhere on them. It's typical that they note that when encoded. But I said, 'Hold on a second, let me put Dolby on this.' And everything – except for some of the later overdubs – sounded amazing. I went, 'Aha!' I think we realized what happened. They went to somebody else, and the other person didn't see Dolby on the tapes."