Cherry Red 2017
Featuring Peter Banks and Sydney Foxx, the entire output – or, rather, input – of the most unfortunate, if enduring, offshoot of a prog institution.
With none of their albums landing a proper release and having a concert traction, this was a kingdom built on sand – but, as such, EMPIRE had a lot of grit. Some may attribute it to the restless spirit and stubbornness of Peter Banks who tried to adjust to the demands of times after FLASH had run their course and his solo project had shown the guitarist needed a collective framework to contribute to and to shine in; some may say it was an equally dual, silk-and-sandpaper quality of his then-wife, and their group’s principal, brilliant songwriter, Sydney Foxx’s voice. Whatever it could be, though, the three albums they fashioned together failed through the history cracks without losing the music’s allure – as demonstrated on these abundantly annotated three discs.
There were pomp and circumstance, too, in their quest for an immaculate delivery, which led to each subsequent LP – laid down in 1974, 1977 and 1979 – containing a new reading of a cut from a previous one. Not for nothing the disco-tinctured bombast of the original ensemble’s “Out Of Our Hands” reveals how significant had been the imprint that Peter had left on YES’ DNA, whereas the refined “Still Out Of Our Hands” from their sophomore longplay wraps basically the same performance into embossed sexiness, vocals making room for ivories to let rip and offset fretboard filigree on the superior former, while the latter is propelled by a six-string twang ‘n’ rumble. The first, tremulous, acoustic-to-electric approximation of “Sky At Night” also feels perfect, and not only because of Phil Collins guesting on it, but because of its more resolute dancing around flamenco melody and Syd’s barely bridled passion. Yet in a logical way, a prolonged take on “Destiny” – alternately vigorous and delicate – from the band’s final line-up fares better than the simpler, albeit punchier, Mark II version.
Veering away from chronological order on this set – with tracks divided into “The Best” and “The Rest” and transitional run-through recordings thrown onto a separate disc between the two – only serves to stress the group’s restless integrity. From the interstellar soul of “Faraway” to the otherworldly operatic awe of “More Than Words” whose cloth is rippled to produce a calypso-like coil in the middle before it’s bent to fit a traditional prog mold, it’s a joyride. “Do What You Want” may be the best example of marrying art-rock ambition to guilty pleasure and welding assault to caress, yet “Ain’t That Peculiar” dissolves its deliciously raw edge in pale production so typical for the ’80s. “I give up my rock ‘n’ roll for a rendezvous with a dancing man”: this line from a certain song is a great characteristic of the group’s attempt at harnessing that era, a blissful pop of “Hear My Voice On The Radio” sealing it all and focusing on the strength of their real weapon, Foxx’s pipes.
The quintet’s tentative magnum opus “Shooting Star” – a four-part cosmic romp through dance moves, baroque wigouts and bells’ tolling – seem to be an epitome of the ensemble’s method, but the epic “Everything Changes” is a reflection of Sydney’s theatrical persona that the instrumentalists fondle in their hands, and “Someone Who Cares” is essentially a show tune given an organ-abetted spirituality. If only the band brought it to the stage… They never toured, yet they could have been great in a concert situation, judging by the vigor of soundboard rehearsal recordings from 1979, known as “The Mars Tapes” – uncovered recently by drummer Mark Murdock to be remastered and put into context here – which capture the collective going through their repertoire and developing the pieces along the way.
It’s not just cuts from the EMPIRE lore, as Banks and his team rave and rage through a lot of unreleased melodies as well as a wild charge through Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming,” an early YES’ staple, with vivacity on these demo creations coming from Foxx. There’s also humor in the fusion of “Where Yes Means No” or sophisticated jamming of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow Bar And Grill” where effervescent funk rules the game, the groovy return to “Do What You Want” only upping the playfulness of the performance. Sans voice, “Off With The King’s Head” sounds rather undercooked even in its finished state, let alone in a live situation, unlike “When The Banks Overflow” which is filled with Peter’s trademark curlicues, and then there’s “The Fall Of The Empire” – short, if enchanting number that outlined the collective’s fate. Accessed decades latter, their legacy, deceptively feeble, still stands tall: some kingdoms are destined to become mythical, and this is one of those.