Gonzo 2013


The Mars Tapes

Ex-YES guitarist’s last major group gear up for a record and round up the best of their oeuvre.

It was 1979 when the latest – and the last – of Peter Banks’ collective endeavors entered the Mars Studios in LA to hone the material for their next record, “Empire III,” and, as the band’s new records had to contain a fresh version of a previously released song, to play older tracks. “Not sure why Peter liked doing that. But it could have been because he was basically an instrumentalist at heart,” says singer Sydney Foxx, better known as Sidonie Jordan now. They never toured yet the ensemble could have been great in a live situation, given the vigor of these soundboard recordings that capture the band going through their repertoire and developing the pieces along the way.

And 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 take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming,” an early YES’ concert staple, without showing an iota of regular rehearsal noodling. Such a vivacity on the otherwise overtly artsy compositions comes from Foxx, whose bluesy pipes shine on the likes of “Out Of Our Hands” before Banks starts rocking and Paul Delph engages his synthesizers in a duel with guitar. More so, there’s humor – something most people don’t associate with Peter in particular and prog rock as a whole – 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, and the groovy “Do What You Want” only ups the playfulness of the performance.

It’s the instrumental interplay, though, that creates a multicolored canvas from the segueing, out of the new album, of proggy “Foundation” with a disco of “Destiny” and the soulful “Far Away” for the voice to embroider, which waves the magic and waives the quality warts. “Peter famously would have preferred not to have worked with lead singers, but they were necessary to procuring record deals!” adds Sidonie. Without voice, “Off With The King’s Head” sounds rather undercooked, 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 piece that marries sharp riffs to lyrical runs.

“It was also a challenge to him musically and production-wise to recreate something in the studio It was very difficult and we were not successful in that. For example, ‘The Sky At Night’ was brilliant on the first album. On the second it was lackluster,” points out Jordan. But this double-CD set offers the earliest, most delicate version of the song as a bonus track: laid down with Phil Collins on drums and Sam Gopal on tabla for the ZOK AND THE RADAR BOYS project which never got off the ground, it’s still a brilliant jazz ballad, while the whole collection is a testament to EMPIRE’s grandness.


February 2, 2015

Category(s): Reviews
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