Blue Élan 2020
Art-rock avatar rearranges his universe with a little help from plethora of friends.
Despite his prog glory and the instant recognizability of his pipes, Jon Anderson is rarely given credit for the diversity of his oeuvre. A champion of world music whose work runs from Native American to Latin and Celtic cultures and beyond, the veteran embraced AOR on "In The City Of Angels" just as easily, yet he’s never released one album to rule them all – until “1000 Hands” came along to open a portal into the singer’s celestial, if often down-to-earth, realm of music.
It’s a project that’s been in the works for three decades – note the “Chapter One” subtitle – or reaching even further back in time, because Jon and Brian Chatton, his co-writer on half of the pieces here which set this song-cycle in motion, were part of THE WARRIORS as long ago as 1965, and his YES colleagues shared a lot of Anderson’s mindset when it all started. There’s plenty of stellar guests involved in this endeavor yet, however distinct their instrumental contributions are, everything is in the service of the mastermind’s vocals, phonetically-driven poetry and optimistic message, and although recurring melodic and lyrical lines and outstanding performances hold the album together, much praise must be heaped on producer Michael Franklin, as none of the numbers ever feels crowded.
Picking up where “Soon” left off and echoing in the course of the whole album, “Now” flows in on a soft strum, and the tinkling of a bell, to offer a restrained sense of urgency and infinite belief in the present, not only the future, before breaking into “Ramalama” with its effervescent polyphony of multiple Andersons’ a cappella that’s spiced with a steady beat from Carmine Appice and spiked with an Eastern ensemble’s swirl. Arguably less adventurous but fueled by Alan White’s drums, the infectiously soulful reggae of “First Born Leaders” unfurls an aural festival and, caressed with Larry Coryell’s six-string lace, land on spiritual terra firma for a new hope to reign supreme. The great late guitarist’s licks, alongside riffs from Steve Morse and Pat Travers, adorn the tenderly dramatic “Activate” – the record’s first epic, an intense prayer featuring another Anderson, Ian, on flute to help Jon’s assertive voice seek for the truth and do a tribal dance in the light, aided and abetted by Robbie Steinhardt’s violin while Chris Squire‘s rumble should bring the dream down to this mortal coil for a triumphant finale.
Not as solemn yet equally enthusiastic, “Makes Me Happy” emanates a honeyed Caribbean vibe that Rick Derringer’s bluesy lines anchor and TOWER OF POWER’s horns elevate to euphoric heights, whereas “I Found Myself” sees Jerry Goodman pour pining in its pulsing core which Tim Franklin’s supple bass will wrap in bliss and which will find Jon’s wife Jane share a chamber-like spotlight with him. Vice versa, the austere, bittersweet reverie of “Twice In A Lifetime” – a Gallic romance of sorts – proposes philosophic loneliness, hard-hitting but ushering in expectancy once shards of brass briefly check in.
To contrast this ballad, Anderson’s nicely layered, electronica-stricken vocals in “WDMCF” get high on a jungle groove, the refrain of “I believe” lingering on until silence dissolves the sound of Michael Franklin’s ivories. The sonic vacuum welcomes Chick Corea’s piano to ripple through the panoramic “Come Up” – a delicate, yet insistent, thanks to Billy Cobham’s thunder, anthem that’s fleshed out with fervent handclaps and Jean-Luc Ponty’s curlicues along the way, towards orchestral climax. The real ending, though, is “Now And Again” that’s supposed to link back to the beginning and, given an exquisite Steve Howe trill, suggest there’s sublime cyclicity to it all.
“Singers seem to find too many problems, never answers,” states Jon here, but the thing is, he does have answers, with “1000 Hands” the principal one, because it’s not the collective effort the veteran implies in this album’s title – it’s togetherness as a way of life. Suitably accessible, this album must become Anderson’s triumphal achievement.