Unlike other box sets from Yes, Essentially Yes isn’t essential Yes in the conventional sense, unless you feel the band can do no wrong, you’re a completist, or simply have nothing better to spend your money on. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the set. The packaging, as with most Yes releases, is stunning and colorful. It comes with a nice fat booklet so you can catch up on your Yes reading. And the price is right. The bone of contention for many, however, may be the music itself. The songs are not what seasoned Yes freaks would consider part of the classic arsenal. Therefore, it may not register with the stuffy Yes people you see on Friday nights at the pub, playing darts, and humming “Roundabout.”
Essentially Yes contains five discs, the bulk comprising the most recent and complete studio albums: Talk, Open Your Eyes, The Ladder, and Magnification from the last 13 years. The fifth CD is the golden ticket for classic Yes lovers: previously unreleased highlights from their live concert at Montreux in 2003. Some fans may cry wolf about the live CD, which you can only get if you buy the box. By and large, even you already have these CDs, it’s not a shabby set to own by any stretch.
Released in 1994, Talk was the final album Yes made with Trevor Rabin and Tony Kaye. It was somewhat misplaced in the aftermath of the Union album and tour, which reunited eight band members, past and present. Seriously, how could Yes expect to top that? But instead, they picked up from where they left off before Union, and attempted to carry on unabated. No such luck. Talk has all the same ingredients found on Yes albums from the 80s — tight arrangements and superb musicianship drowning in slick, high production. What it lacks are any real hits, which in 1994 weren’t about to come as easily as they did 10 years previous. Still, the epic “Endless Dream” makes the whole experience well worth the price of admission.
Perhaps because of Rabin’s last-ditch effort, 1997’s Open Your Eyes was anchored by two guitarists: Steve Howe, who rejoined the year before, and Billy Sherwood, an American who had somehow wiggled his way into the line-up. Howe’s return is somewhat subdued by the reconfiguration, but the record has its highpoints. "Universal Garden" is a modern spin that intermingles with bits and pieces of old school Yes. Whereas "Fortune Seller" and "Wonderlove" almost sound like leftovers from the 80s. If you like a little of everything that Yes has to offer, you might enjoy this one.
The Ladder was supposed to lift Yes out of their doldrums. It came close to succeeding, but by 1999 there wasn’t much the band hadn’t already accomplished. As one of his last albums, the late producer Bruce Fairburn certainly did his best to keep the group in check. ”Homeworld (The Ladder)" is pretty much on the mark, as are "Lightning Strikes" and “Face To Face.” Select Yes fans may have shuddered at the inclusion of horns, but when you’ve exhausted virtually all other possibilities, the most logical place to go is sideways.
For Magnification, Sherwood and keyboardist Igor Khoroshev are relieved of their duties as the band pushes forward as a four-piece (Anderson, Squire, White and Howe) that employs a lot of supporting players and a full orchestra. It's a nominally solid effort with some compelling tunes, especially the title track and the three-piece suite “In The Presence” — both of which lodged themselves into the set list as permanent residents. In a tribute to the foursome's restoration, Rick Wakeman rejoined to fill out the "classic five" line-up from the 70s and expressed a desire to have played on Magnification.
On Live At Montreux 2003, Wakeman gets his chance and then some. In addition to the newer material, the usual suspects are hauled out — “Siberian Khatru,” “And You And I,” “Awaken” and “I’ve Seen All Good People.” It's no Yessongs or Yesshows, but it's great for the car ride home. After spinning four discs of mostly mid-life experiments that yielded mixed results, adding a live disc featuring the most celebrated edition of the band is a nice touch. Whether it fits in with the demands of discriminating Yes fans is of no consequence. Forty years running, and Yes is still a work in progress, with more than enough firepower to counterbalance the duds — if and when they drop.
~ Shawn Perry