In 1989, four key members of Yes aimed to restore the band’s classic sound to its original glory under a new name
English progressive rock pioneers Yes spent much of the 1980s embracing a more commercial and accessible formula.
Specifically, singles like “Run Through the Light,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “It Can Happen,” and “Love Will Find a Way” saw the troupe streamlining their sound for mainstream appeal alongside fellow genre forefathers like ELP, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Rush, Kansas, and to some extent, even King Crimson. In addition, members of Yes had already spawned offshoots like Cinema (which included drummer Alan White and bassist/backing vocalist Chris Squire) and the far more celebrated and continuous Asia (which included guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes). It’s not too surprising, then, that 1989 saw the lone release of yet another supergroup, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.
But how and why did the quartet officially get going? Well, as the story goes, Anderson was growing weary of the hyper commercial direction Yes had chosen since guitarist Trevor Rabin (who was also in Cinema), keyboardist Tony Kaye, and vocalist/bassist/producer Trevor Horn became involved. Always one to stick to his intuition and heart, Anderson departed Yes for the second time and began a new project with three former bandmates—drummer Bill Bruford (who left in 1972), keyboardist Rick Wakeman (who left in 1980) and guitarist Steve How (who left in 1981)—as well as revered bassist Tony Levin. Alongside producer Chris Kimsey and a handful of additional musicians, such as arranger/keyboardist Matt Clifford and guitarist Milton McDonald, they spent several weeks creating and/or finalizing Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe at La Frette Studios in France, AIR Studios in England, and other places.
Surprisingly (given that ABWH needed to distance themselves from Yes), Roger Dean was chosen to do the artwork. In its full form, the LP contrasts two paintings—“Blue Desert” and “Red Desert”—to great effect. Upon release in June 1989, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe peaked at #14 in the UK and at #30 in America. It was later certified gold by the RIAA and it went on to sell close to a million copies over the ensuring thirty years. Its main single, “Brother of Mine,” even got a music video directed by another legendary progressive rock cover artist, Storm Thorgerson.
Of course, a tour ensued, and predictably, so did a lawsuit. After advertising the concerts as “An Evening of Yes Music”, they were sued for using the name and causing possible confusion over which group is the real Yes. Eventually, the quartet—with help from McDonald, keyboardist Julian Colbeck, and bassist Jeff Berlin—spent 1989 and 1990 touring as “An Evening of Yes Music Plus.” (Their September 9th, 1989 show at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in California was released on CD in 1993.) By 1991, ABWH had planned to release a sophomore effort, Dialogue, but it was ultimately decided to scrap that idea in favor of merging AWBH into Yes for 1991’s Union. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, how does Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe hold up today? As with a lot of progressive rock material from back then, it’s a mixed bag, and it’s likely that many listeners who were there when it was new enjoy it more than I do. For sure, though, there are some colorful retro strengths that still hold up. For instance, “Brother of Mine” is typically catchy, triumphant, and luscious. Anderson’s voice and words soar with purity and life-affirmation—including powerfully stacked harmonies—while the other musicians decorate his spirituality with sophisticated yet accessible styles and dynamic changes (such as lovely pianowork). The trickier deviations during the second half work well, too, and while the clap-along chorus near the end is a bit corny, it’s attractively joyous all the same. Elsewhere, “Birthright” is earthily atmospheric and grand, with a great dynamic evolution throughout; “The Meeting” is a short but sweet lavish piano ballad; “Quartet” sounds like a classic Yes take on an early Mike Oldfield epic (complete with on-the-nose self-references); and closer “Let’s Pretend” is an equally majestic acoustic guitar ode.
That said, the tinny production and hackneyed timbres that plagued several other albums of the era (Jethro Tull’s Under Wraps, anyone?) somewhat tarnishes the core splendor of those tracks. Sadly, other pieces fare even worse due to a lack of instrumental and/or songwriting substance in conjunction with those issues. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic to be humorous, both opener “Themes” and “Fist of Fire” are what would happen if a squirrel inhaled helium and then sang over the prerecorded samples on an entry-level Casio keyboard. There are good performances here, obviously, but the melodies, arrangements, and textures are either forgettable or irritating. Although artists should be diverse and boundless, the Creole celebration of “Teakbois” is just too atypically cheesy (even Wakeman dislikes it). As for the penultimate “Order of the Universe,” its shrill instrumental madness feels advanced and aimless at once for the most part.
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe has aged as well as many of its 1980s pseudo prog brethren, and your level of fondness or disdain for it almost certainly depends on your how much nostalgia it sparks. By no means a bad album, it’s certainly not great, either, so it sits comfortably in the middle of the Yes et al. catalog. There are some lovely moments scattered around that remind you of why these guys are so important and enduring, but there are just as many—if not more—that seem beneath them as players and writers. Add to that the overarching dated production and you have a fragile balance indeed.