The end of 1974 saw a number of classic releases by major progressive rock bands. It was the sunset of the golden age for a genre that produced 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 new level of urgency and a rougher edge to their sound. In October that year King Crimson, now a trio, released the album Red and called it quits for the rest of the decade. In mid-November Genesis released their last album with Peter Gabriel, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Completing that great streak, on the 28th of November Yes released one of their most complex albums, the sonic extravaganza that is Relayer.
In June of 1974 Rick Wakeman announced that he was leaving Yes. Disenchanted by the band’s epic double album Tales from Topographic Oceans and the tour that followed it, Wakeman summarized his view of the album like only he can: “Tales From Topographic Oceans is like a woman’s padded bra. The cover looks good but when you peel off the padding, there’s not a lot there.” Wakeman went on to pursue his solo career that started a year earlier with the release of his first solo album The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and continued with Journey to the Centre of the Earth, recorded in January 1974. Yes were left with no keyboard player.
The band retired to Chris Squire’s farm house in Virginia Water in Surrey, where he built a home studio under the house. Eddie Offord, who engineered and co-produced their previous albums, brought his mobile recording equipment that he used when recording the band’s live performances. Steve Howe: “It was one of the first records I ever made that felt like a location record, because all of the others were made in London. I was looking out the window thinking this is a different way of recording. There’s nobody telling us the studio is about to close and it didn’t cost anything, we could take our time and get things done.” What the band started rehearsing sounded very different from the music they produced thus far. They were paying attention to virtuosic musicians playing jazz-rock and fusion pieces. In 1974 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, releasing their album Where Have I Known You Before. More than any other album in the band’s catalog, Relayer is influenced by that style of powerful electric jazz music that combines composition and improvisation, complex rhythms, odd time signatures, soaring electric guitars and analog synthesizers. A great blend that appealed to progressive rock ears. But music influences aside, the biggest force to push the band towards jazzier territories was the addition of keyboard player Patrick Moraz.
The quest for a new keyboard player brought a number of musicians into the studio for auditions. None of them stuck, including Vangelis, whose work with the then-defunct Greek band Aphrodite’s Child Jon Anderson admired. Steve Howe: “He was pretty overpowering. We could see the musical possibilities right from the beginning, but we were a bit confused at the time. He was very non-committal.” Vangelis went on to establish a stellar solo career that started a year earlier with his first solo album Earth, continued after his move to London with Heaven and Hell in 1975, and on to film scores including Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. Commenting in August 1974 about his short episode with Yes, Vangelis said: “I know all the records of Yes, and we don’t exactly have the same perception. We go in two different directions. If we have to be together, then this is a problem. I can say that Yes’ music is very interesting. In every record that they do there are some parts I like, some parts I don’t. I think Topographic Oceans is more of a ‘head’ work. I prefer ‘heart’ work.” Summarizing the chance of his joining yes: “It’s difficult. It’s a problem. Maybe we going to do things together. Maybe I’m going to make a solo album with Jon. This is more sure. But about Yes I can’t say.” That project with Jon took six more years to materialize, but the seed was planted during the audition for Relayer.
The members of Yes knew of Patrick Moraz since his days with the short-lived band Mainhorse in 1969: “I had met them in Montreux at the 1969 Golden Rose Festival which was a television festival that takes place months prior to the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was playing with my band and Yes was topping the bill. I had organized a party for them after the concert and that was our first meeting.” After his band’s demise and working on film scores for a few years, Moraz was asked by Lee Jackson, formerly of The Nice, to form a new trio with another ex-Nice member, drummer Brian Davison. The band was called Refugee, and they were signed by Charisma Records, a staple label for progressive rock in the early 1970s. Moraz wrote most of the music for the band’s self-titled debut album, which proved to also be their last. In an April 1974 interview Lee Jackson praised Moraz for his musicianship: “Well I used to think that Keith (Emerson) put me through hoops but the thing about Patrick is that he understands about singing and playing simultaneously and the difficulty in doing both. For instance he put me through scales before we started just to see how high I could sing so that he’d know what keys to write in. He’s really stretched my playing capacity.” The band toured to promote their album, and as they were preparing to go back into the studio again, Moraz got a call.
The caller was Brian Lane, manager of Yes between 1970 and 1980, inviting Moraz to audition for the band. Moraz was reluctant at first but relented and two days later was chauffeured by Lane to Chris Squire’s house. Moraz: “We arrived at this gorgeous property with a farm and it had several outbuildings, one of which was used by Yes for rehearsing. I was first introduced to the roadies in another outbuilding where they were making tea and rolling joints and so on. Everyone in the band started showing up. Alan came up in one of those fantastic, racing green, convertible Morgan sports cars, I’ll always remember that! Steve came with his chauffeur in a vintage metallic blue Alvis, which is a pretty rare car. Jon arrived in his dark red R type Bentley. And a good twenty minutes later, Chris arrived in his dark red Silver Cloud Rolls Royce.”
Fancy cars notwithstanding, Moraz was ushered into the studio to witness what the group has been working on: “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.” I can only imagine what a powerful experience it was having the band surround you and play Sound Chaser as a way of introduction. More from Moraz: “I was totally overwhelmed, because they played so fast and so precisely and so well. The swing was there. I had never heard such original music, except for what Mahavishnu Orchestra was doing at the time”. Nonchalantly, Jon and Chris said: “We need an introduction to this. Can you come up with something?”
Unfazed, Moraz proceeded to a set of keyboards left in the studio by Vangelis 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. It was usually manufactured with a single layer of keys, but Patrick Moraz had a three manual custom model created for him. a String Thing Synthesiser was also used, 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, a solid reminder of the Fusion-influenced adventure that Yes took with the Relayer album.
Sound Chaser opens the second side of the Relayer LP and 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 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. The band members realized they had a special piece of music on their hands. Steve Howe: “Sound Chaser is like this madman from hell, an indescribable mixture of Patrick’s jazzy keyboard and my weird sort of flamenco electric, which I’m sure has never been done before and will probably never be done again!”
How geeky the studio chatter could get is evident by this quote from Moraz, describing how Steve Howe explained the structure of Sound Chaser to him: “”Why don’t you do five bars of this and move up a tone and go this and digged-duh-la-da and seventeen bars of five and a half…”. Easy as pie.
The bass and drums chemistry on this piece and the whole album is unparalleled. Chris Squire: “I think what Alan and I played on Relayer was more to the point. Some of the bass and drums interaction on there is better than anything to be found on previous Yes LPs.” Alan White: “We were working in the studio and doing quite a lot of really crazy stuff. I had this rhythm that I’d been playing for a while and Chris came up with the initial lick to go with it. Then with Steve, the three of us started working on putting it all together. The idea of the speeding up and slowing down took a long time to get right. I mean it has to be done perfectly. But when you’ve been playing together for so long it’s quite easy to switch from one tempo to another tempo almost immediately. The idea behind it was the feeling of being in a car going down the freeway changing gears. We tried to do that with music, it was an interesting concept.”
The second side of the Relayer LP continues to the piece that closes the album, To Be Over. Written by Jon Anderson and Steve Howe, it is a great segue into calming waters after the sonic spectacle of Sound Chaser. Steve Howe: “It was one of my songs that Jon liked. It was quite a well-structured song. We had this abundance of rich ideas that weren’t simply knitted together in an abstract way. They were meant to be together. For me, this song has one of Yes’ best middle eights. I contributed the ‘After all’ line, but I never knew what should come after that. Jon liked that line, but he rewrote the other bits. He liked a different song I had written that started off with the lines ‘We’ll go sailing down the stream together’, and changed it to ‘calming stream’, which moved the song in a new direction.” Jon Anderson: “It’s about how you should look after yourself when things go wrong. Steve and I wrote the introduction. Steve wrote a very beautiful drifting lament, he’s got into using a steel guitar.” Calming is a relative term here, as the piece is still complex and at times quite energetic. Patrick Moraz adds a great solo: “I treated it exactly like a fugue, a classical fugue. Although it doesn’t sound as baroque as it could have, given less modern harmonies, it is really structured like a fugue. The ending solo, I remember having written it down that very night. Suddenly, they wanted to change the key. I had to rewrite the entire thing.”
I saved the best for last. Relayer, structured like the band’s 1972 magnum opus Close to the Edge, splitting the second side between two songs and dedicating its first side to one long track, opens with one of the most ambitious pieces of music I know. It is a band composition that was driven mostly by Jon Anderson and is loosely influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace. An epic novel deserves epic music, 22 minutes of it, called The Gates of Delirium. Anderson: “Its a war song, a battle scene, but it’s not to explain war or denounce it. It’s an emotional description with the slight feeling at the end of ‘Do we have to go through this forever?’ There’s a prelude, a charge, a victory tune, and peace at the end, with hope for the future.” Howe: “Jon had a vision for it. He had lots of structure, and we were very impressed. A great deal of Gates was invented as a group, but from Jon’s ideas. He had some music for the beginning of the piece, which we turned into an overture. He was shaping The Gates of Delirium out of thin air and some basic structure and we would embellish those structures. Jon charged on and on and on. It is probably his most successful moment at leading the band towards a goal he had in mind.”
The instrumental battle scene deserves special attention, sounding nothing like the band ever attempted to this point. The musicianship in this section is truly stellar and unique even within Progressive Rock’s large repertoire of challenging music. Steve Howe’s 1955 Fender Telecaster, used exclusively throughout the album, is at its most aggressive level here. Starting at 8:00 into the piece, the alternating solos between Howe and Moraz are so intense you truly feel the horrors of war. Crank the volume up here for the full effect. Speaking of effects, there are plenty here. Moraz: “I brought this idea with the discussions of concrete music I had with Jon at his house. I explained to them that on my Refugee album I had worked on all the sounds, which accompany the music. I had also explained my experience with soundtracks and sound effects. Jon had also expressed his knowledge of Stockhausen and other music concrete composers at the time.” Alan White is at his creative peak with the group on this album: “We decided that the keyboards and the drums would have very physical, an audible battle with one another. I put in a lot of backwards drums. The piece builds and builds and builds until that beautiful melody at the end. I actually wrote those chords on guitar, which is funny, because I don’t really play the guitar. I wrote the chords and Patrick came up with the melody.” The battle got the band quite excited in the studio, sometimes pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable to their listeners. Howe: “There were some very difficult moments on The Gates of Delirium, were Jon was getting really excited and carried away with the battle. We were worrying about whether it was a bit too far gone or a bit too safe. It wasn’t like there was any middle ground to get the battle.”
White had more to contribute to The Gates of Delirium, including visits to junkyards: “Jon and I used to travel together to Chris’ home studio. We would stop at a junkyard along the way and pick up parts of cars. We’d just go there and bang on things. There were springs and pieces of metal, brake and clutch plates. We’d buy them and bring them back to the studio. We built a rack and hung all these things off it, and we’d bang on them. During the recording I pushed the whole thing over. That crash is what you hear on the album.” In those days if you wanted a sound effect you had to work for it, literally. Anderson: “We had all kinds of junk. We mic’d up one of those children’s toys – a slinky – and I jumped up and down on Alan’s old cymbals. It’s meant to represent the unearthly sound of chaos.” As you can imagine, putting the whole piece of music together was more than a single day’s worth of work. Moraz: “Although the whole piece of ‘Gates’ could be played in its entirety by all of us prior to the final recording sessions, with the exception of the special effects, it took however at least a good couple of weeks to record it in different sections. The best takes of each part would then be edited and assembled later, and then all kinds of overdubs, from guitars–lots of them–to vocals, keyboards, basses, and percussion were added to form a conceptual whole.”
As the battle music subsides, a completely different mood settles, bringing forth one of the band’s most melodic and emotional pieces of music, one that Trevor Horn later reminisced about watching it live: “I can remember when it got to the end and Jon sang Soon. I felt like crying, it got me so much.” Some criticize Anderson’s lyrics, and sometimes they do tend to wonder about incomprehensibly. Not here, though. Goosebumps mysteriously appear when he sings those lines as Howe creates magic with the lap steel guitar with Moraz on Mellotron:
Soon oh soon the light
Pass within and soothe the endless night
And wait here for you
Our reason to be here
Soon oh soon the time
All we move to gain will reach and calm
Our heart is open
Our reason to be here
Long ago, set into rhyme
Soon oh soon the light
Ours to shape for all time, ours the right
The sun will lead us
Our reason to be here
The sun will lead us
Our reason to be here
Huge credit is due to sound engineer Eddie Offord who also co-produced their previous albums The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), Close To the Edge (1972), Yessongs (1973) and Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973). Relayer was his last 1970s album with Yes. Piecing up all the material that the band recorded for the album was no easy task: “The band would come in with ideas and bits, but songs were really developed in the studio. After we were done with an album, they’d have to learn everything so they could play it all live. There was lots of experimentation – and editing.” When you listen to the music on that album it sounds consistent and planned, with each musical note in its right place. In reality, during the recording phase there were fragments of ideas that were recorded and then chopped, sliced, edited and spliced together in the editing phase. Howe: “We used to think about making the ‘Record’. There was a very real fear that all this tape was very well, but how will it go on the record? What would Eddie have to do? He was like a magician, he sometimes sprinkled some fairy dust at the cutting of the record!”
Relayer was released in the UK on November 28, 1974 and a week later in the US. Challenging, complex music did not deter listeners in those days and the album reached number 4 on the UK Albums hart and number 5 on the US Billboard Top LPs chart. It received a gold certification for over 500,000 copies sold. Soon was released as a single, with Sound Chaser (!) as its B-side. I can think of many different ways to describe Sound Chaser, but single material is not one of them. Those were the days.
The iconic illustration adorning the album cover was created by Roger Dean, a name that became synonym with progressive rock fantasy-themed record sleeves. Of all his large portfolio of album covers he created for bands such as Gentle Giant, Uriah Heep, Greenslade and Asia, he singled out Relayer as his favorite, both for the cover (of course) and the music: “Relayer I would say was my masterpiece of drawing, a pencil drawing with thin, barely perceptible, watercolor washes, then ink drawing in the foreground. So that’s a highpoint of my draughtsmanship, if you like.”
Dean drew the sketch for the drawing in 1966: “My intention was to produce a giant Gothic cave. A sort of fortified city for military monks. I was playing with ideas of the ultimate castle, the ultimate wall of a fortified city. That was more of a fantastical idea. I was looking for the kinds of things the Knights Templar would have made or what you’d see in the movie Lord of the Rings. The curving, swirling cantilevers right into space.” The sketch was given to Donald Lehmkuhl, who wrote the matching poem on the album cover.
Leading to the release of the album, Yes went on a US tour that continued throughout the months of November and December of 1974, with Gryphon opening. The tour picked up in 1975 in England, US and Canada. More touring in the US with the same lineup continued in 1976. All in all, that makeup of the band performed about 150 shows. This was the heyday of Prog, with bands lugging massive equipment around the world in support of their tours. Moraz: “When we did the last three or four rehearsals at Shepperton Studios and were preparing to do our first tour of the United States, the band had around 192 flight cases and there were 53 roadies”. The stage set was a sight to behold, designed by Roger Dean and his brother Martyn. Multiple translucent fiberglass shapes were lit inside and out. British theaters, typically on the smallish side, could not fit all of them, so British audiences only saw a fraction of the set. The extensive work in the studio prepared the band for the live touring, a very different experience where the whole thing had to be played from beginning to end. Moraz: “It must be understood that we could play all the pieces in their entirety, live, as we were polishing them for the recordings, and even if we were recording them by sections which would later on be pieced together, like a movie, we could really play all the tunes, the arrangements and the solos at once, first and foremost!”
The concerts opened up with the speakers blasting out Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, after which astonished crowds saw the band starting with none other than Sound Chaser. Performing their most demanding piece right at the start had its downside. 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.”
In 1975, in between tours, members of Yes were busy working on solo albums. Steve Howe with Beginnings, Chris Squire with Fish Out of Water and Jon Anderson with Olias of Sunhillow. The band also started writing material for their next album along with Patrick Moraz, who remembers: “We had written, together, quite a lot of the material which ended up on Going For the One, Awaken, Wondrous Stories or even Parallels which were as much part my composition as anyone else in the band at that time.” Unfortunately for Moraz, Wakeman was inching back to take the helm at the keyboard seat. Yes roadie at the time, Michael Tait, felt that Moraz was an outsider in a tightly knitted band: “Patrick Moraz was a sweetheart, but he wasn’t a Yes man. He never had a chance to be fully accepted. He was too Foreign! Yes is an English band and that all there is to it.” And so came an end to the most adventurous lineup of Yes, in my opinion.
As unique as Relayer is in Yes’ catalog, and maybe because of that reason, it seldom appears as one of their top three albums in the multitude of rankings that rock publications so love to indulge in. The top spots, give or take, are usually reserved to Close to the Edge, Fragile and The Yes Album. All fantastic albums indeed. But Relayer still remains a favorite of the band members themselves:
Chris Squire: “It was a very different album. We were growing and experimenting and trying new things. There was definitely a bit of jazz/rock fusion going on.”
Alan White: “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.”
Steve Howe: “Well I’ve moved the goal post on that a few times. For a long time, I did say Relayer because of To Be Over and also The Gates of Delirium.”
Patrick Moraz summarized it well when he spoke about the music of Yes: “I always acquaint Yes with what Stravinsky would have done as a rock musician. Yes music has that kind of symphonic approach and arrangement. The sophistication of the orchestration is absolutely staggering.”
The following sources were used during the writing of this article:
Notes from the Edge website and Facebook page
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