The end of 1974 marked a few classic releases for major progressive rock bands. It was the sunset of the golden age for a genre that saw an amazing output of creative music during the previous five years. As if realizing the looming end, three of the guiding lights of Prog released great records within a few weeks of each other, all three adding a rougher edge to their sound. In October that year King Crimson, shrinking down to a trio, released Red. In mid November Genesis released their last album with Peter Gabriel, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. And on the 28th of November Yes completed that great streak with one of their most challenging albums, the sonic extravaganza that is called Relayer.
Relayer is the odd one out in the Yes albums catalog of their classic years. It’s not as if their music in prior recordings was not challenging, but Relayer takes it one notch up towards jazz rock and fusion, genres that were very popular and at their peak around that time. In the previous months John Mclaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra released Apocalypse with the London Symphony Orchestra and Return to Forever were joined by 20-year-old virtuoso Al Di Meola and released Where Have I Known You Before. Steve Howe’s playing on his 1955 Fender Telecaster is aggressive and attacking like in no other Yes album, and the telepathic synchronization between Alan White and Chris Squire reaches new heights. White said: “People always ask me what my favorite Yes album is. From the perspective of where the rhythm section is coming from, I always single out the Relayer album.”
But in my opinion the single biggest force behind the change in sound and direction on Relayer is the musical contribution of keyboard player Patrick Moraz. Influenced by Jazz in equal measure to Rock, Moraz was still in the band Refugee with vocalist and bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison, both ex-Nice, when he was invited to audition for the keyboard seat after Rick Wakeman’s departure. The band has been already trying different keyboard players, most recently Vangelis. The audition took place at a barn equipped as a studio in Chris Squire’s farm. Moraz on that first acquaintance with the band: “they played me just a part of the song, what they had of Sound Chaser, not the introduction, just a part of the song. They blew my mind. I was in the middle, and they started to do this riff, and Alan crashing with his drums and so on. They had just probably worked on this three-part harmony there – vocals. It was absolutely unbelievable. To experience that – I could say that was the truest surround experience I had ever encountered as an observer and listener. I was not in the middle of any keyboards at the time; I was just in the middle of the band. And they were playing for me, alone, the portion of Sound Chaser they had already come up with. And that was absolutely unbelievable. So Jon and Chris said, “We need an introduction to this. Can you come up with something?”
Vangelis left his keyboards in the barn to be picked up later. Moraz found a couple of Moogs, an electric piano, an organ, and a Fender Rhodes with some uneven keys. Buying time to come up with that intro to Sound Chaser, he started tuning the synths while feverishly thinking of a suitable opening to that maddening piece he just heard. Moraz continues: “They all came around the keyboards and they were watching me play. I said “How about this?” and I came up with what was to become the introduction of Sound Chaser. I composed it on the spot, it was actually recorded there and then and it was used on Relayer. I explained it to Chris and Alan, and they worked on their parts. The whole thing was recorded there in the next 30 minutes and that’s what came out on the record.” That opening is played on a Fender Rhodes, an instrument used heavily in Jazz and Fusion, much less in progressive rock.
Moraz brought more to Sound Chaser than just the opening. The strings sound different than those used previously on Yes records, as Moraz had a vast array of keyboards in his arsenal. He was one of the early adopters of the Orchestron, a somewhat obscure synth made by Vako. The instrument was not unlike the Mellotron in principle but used optical disks instead of tapes as the source of sounds. While typically a single keyboard instrument, Patrick Moraz had a three manual custom model created for him. He used it to a good measure on Relayer, and you can hear it right after Steve Howe’s solo, around the 3:30 mark on Sound Chaser. Moraz’s jazz fusion influences show well on his Mini Moog solo towards the end of the piece at the 7:45 mark. It reminds me more of Chick Corea or Jan Hammer than a Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson solo, adding to the Fusion-influenced adventure that Yes took with the Relayer album.
Sound Chaser showcases the band at their peak as far as musicianship goes. Alan White: “In the intro I play in a different tempo than the band, I play 4/4 and everyone else is in 5/4, and then we end up all together. A lot of Yes music from that era we worked out mathematically, where we’d say this number of bars at that tempo into this number of bars at this tempo and we’ll meet at this point. But what was the secret to some of those things was to have wild excursions by yourself musically and then end up at a point where you met everyone else.” Steve Howe also plays one of his most ambitious solos at the 3:00 mark, one that reminds me of John McLaughlin from that period of time, atonal and aggressive.
After the release of Relayer in November 1974, the band toured extensively with the album’s complex material plus favorites from their back catalog. Astonishing the crowds that came to see them, they opened the set with none other than Sound Chaser. Performing their most demanding piece right at the start had its downside for the band. Alan White: “We used to open the show with Sound Chaser, but unfortunately it would take two or three songs for the band to settle down to any good tempo to perform because it was so fast. You got on stage and that adrenaline you’ve got is usually let out in the first number. It’s a collective unit that is playing the tempo and if one guy is playing fast, then everyone has to keep up.”
Prog rock could still sell then, although these days were numbered. Relayer reached number 4 on the UK Albums Chart and number 5 on the Billboard 200 in the US. In a strange move by Atlantic, a company that never ceased to take risks with album releases over the years, in January 1975 Sound Chaser appeared on the B-side of a single that had the angelic Soon as it’s A-side.
This must be one of the most noncommercial pieces of music ever to appear on a single. Here it is, Sound Chaser.
A more recent review of the complete Relayer album is available here:
Faster moment spent spread tales of change within the sound
Counting form through rhythm electric freedom
Moves to counter-balance stars expound our conscience
All to know and see
The look in your eyes
Passing time will reach as nature relays to set the scene
New encounters spark a true fruition
Guiding lines we touch them
Our bodies balance out the waves
As we accelerate our days
To the look in your eyes
From the moment I reached out to hold
I felt a sound
And what touches our soul slowly moves as touch rebounds
And to know that tempo will continue lost in trance of dances
As rhythm takes another turn
As is my want I only reach
To look in your eyes
Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha
Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha
Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha