Here’s the scene.
It’s 1987. I am eighteen years old, having graduated from high school a few months prior. I’m in a basement with my dwindling circle of friends, knowing we’re about to start our journeys away from each other and onto whatever dangers the real world had in store for us. It’s dark. I may have indulged in some recreational inhalants. Blaring through the speakers of a monstrous portable stereo is the title track of the new Yes album, Big Generator. And I am dancing.
There is no graceful way to dance to a Yes song, but by the gods, I was doing it. I have no doubt I looked foolish, but it didn’t matter. Big Generator was the soundtrack of new beginnings and I was ready for whatever life could throw at me.
[Spoiler: I was not ready. Nobody is.]
More than 35 years later, I still look at Big Generator as a triumphant album. It is a gloriously heavy thing that did more to embrace the band’s past and look towards the future than its more popular predecessor, 90125. Lush and curvy, Big Generator is my favourite Yes album of that era.
For a band that famously built songs around cosmos-centric lyrics, “Rhythm of Love” may be the horniest song Yes ever recorded. After a dreamy intro of keyboards and layered harmonies, the song kicks into full-bore rock. Jon Anderson sings about “morning daydreams” and “midnight fever,” his voice redolent with refined lust. Trevor Rabin’s guitar tracks build upon themselves like sentient LEGO. Chris Squire’s staccato bass line perforates the tune like steam vents. It’s aural sex for music nerds.
Discordant and unstable, “Big Generator” is a standout track. Rabin’s guitar tone, nastier than usual, helps push the chorus into the singalong zone. Alan White’s drums sound forceful, present, the pistons of the titular object. Unexpected shifts away from the song’s main riff, including one wild bass run from Squire, make “Big Generator” a primer on how to present a nearly perfect pop-prog song in fewer than five minutes.
Fan favorite “Shoot High, Aim Low” takes a slower tempo, but steers away from Anderson’s standard lyrical lines about cosmic siblinghood. Dueling vocals between Anderson and Rabin tell a story about guns and mercenaries, maybe some human trafficking thrown in for measure. While the lyrics are obtuse, the song is spot-on musically. It’s all about the spaces, nothing crammed together to overwhelm the listener. “Shoot High, Aim Low” grows, breathes, and becomes its own strange creature.
Anderson’s propensity for spiritual lyrics returns in full force on “Almost Like Love.” Within the first 65 seconds, Anderson references God, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, brotherly love, and Shakespeare. Anderson’s fast vocal delivery takes him close to rapping and the band tones things down to let him take the spotlight. That chorus though, with White’s snare drum pounding like a jackhammer, is enough to make one pogo about the room.
Guitarist/vocalist Trevor Rabin claimed sole songwriting credit for “Love Will Find A Way,” which became the lead-off single from the album. Polished to an MTV-friendly sheen, “Love Will Find A Way” features dual vocals from Rabin and Anderson. Rabin’s simple guitar riff is clever enough to carry the mid-tempo song along. It’s a pop single, not quite out of place on Big Generator as a whole, but notable for its lack of Yesness.
“Final Eyes” begins with an acoustic guitar section that comes dangerously close to overstaying its welcome. When that ends, and the song revs up, it begins to vibrate at a higher intensity. There’s an intense plaintiveness to Anderson’s voice with lyrics about longing and decay. “Whenever I needed someone,” Anderson sings, “you were there when I needed you.” At the time, that was the perfect line for me. I was watching all of my support systems crumble like rural infrastructure, remembering when things were simple and friends were close and true.
“I’m Running” clocks in at over seven minutes, making it the longest song on Big Generator. This is where the band’s prog influences are showcased, from the Latin influence that hurls the song into play like a slingshot to the subtle shifts in time signatures and tempos. The loud/soft dynamic is vital to the song’s success as musical tension is built up and barely resolved. It’s a consistently fascinating piece of work, falling in line with some of Yes’ best music.
Album closer “Holy Lamb (Theme for Harmonic Convergence)” is a twelve-string four-chord modern day psalm, a plea for peace and love to envelop the planet and its denizens. It’s sweet, filled with sentiments that may not be practical or feasible, but hope is always there. “The future is a friend of yours and mine,” Anderson sings.
[Spoiler: that was not always the case. It never is.]
I needed Big Generator back in those unsure times. I craved the hope it provided, the musical whirlwind that set my brainwaves to their proper frequency. Years later, I still listen to Big Generator. In many ways, this is a foundational album for me, music to return to when I need a reminder that things will be all right.
Take away my personal attachment and Big Generator stands as the best recording by the YesWest roster. More focused and resistant to the song sprawl that inhabited 90125, Big Generator presents eight tight tunes of hope and vitality. It marries pop and prog in a solid, satisfying way with relatively little schmaltz. An overlooked entry into the Yes catalog, Big Generator deserves a revisit from listeners with open ears and soft hearts.