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On The Silent Wings of Freedom
Let's start a song with a bass solo and see where it goes
I’ve taken a brief departure from my steady diet of jam bands to go back to some classic Yes albums: Drama, Relayer, Tormato and of course Yessongs. Each of them had some profound effect on my musical education: Yessongs as one of the first and best live albums that I listened through high school and college; Drama as the realization that things change (released just as I was moving away from home for the first time); Relayer as the masterclass in long form composition and and Alan White’s first show case with the band.
Tormato holds a unique place within that small cohort, released nearly 45 years ago as I started my junior year of high school. The band had been touring the album “in the round” and I had a $5 concert tee purchased by a marching band friend at one of those Madison Square Garden shows — the glitter survived perhaps three washings; the shirt perhaps ten wearings and then it was banished to the garage. I had something of the same relationship with the album: it was the second consecutive release that didn’t feature a Roger Dean cover, instead opting for the Hipgnosis treatment (The Yes Album, Going For the One, and almost all of Pink Floyd’s work were in that equivalent class). Two years later it would prove to the be the last of the “classic” Yes albums as Wakeman and Anderson departed the band (a true shock to my system). Without the internet, and absent the knowledge that a “Tor” is a hill in the UK, the pun of the cover with its splashed tomato, the liner showing the tor-pography and the guy with divining rods simply were confusing.
That trepidation — is this weird or just tongue in cheek funny — carries over to the musical content. There is a song about UFOs that veers into “Childhood’s End” territory; there is an ecological protest song (“Don’t Kill The Whale”) that charted and was played incessantly on our high school jukebox; there is a political protest song (“Release, Release”) that is one of Yes’s best all-out rockers; there’s a metaphorical circus bordering on acid trip.
“On The Silent Wings of Freedom” is the closing song, rounding out side two (when we physically had to flip over the record, like acts in a play). It is, almost five decades later, one of my favorite Yes songs, and after listening to it a few times this week I decided to pick up my bass and try to learn it. By ear. It does, after all, start with a bass solo — not the usual audio cue to take a bathroom break but heralding the grand finale of a remarkably accessible prog rock album.
It is a true Yes sampler in seven minutes: spiraling, fiercely attacked bass parts, keyboard solos including one of the only recordings of of a Birotron (there were only four made and Wakeman owned two), Steve Howe’s guitar work that floats between major and minor modes, and Alan White pushing through tempo changes while hammering the bells during the last slow section.
Figuring out that “Silent Wings” is in A (moving between major and minor) wasn’t too hard. Decoding the introductory bass lines and early solo follows from that base as it’s an A major scale and many of Squire’s bass runs followed these diatonic routes. What is remarkable — triumphant, really — is his phrasing, his attack, the use of phase shifting and a little delay to create this swirling, slightly echo-y tone that is trademark Squire.
Then you hear Squire is playing all of this up an octave — with today’s 5- and 6-string basses that’s not as technically difficult, but he is way up there on the 4-string neck, attacking those strings and getting the full resonance out of his Rickenbacker bass. I learned those parts down an octave where I didn’t feel like I was about to tumble bass over G-string into chorus pedal.
I spent about half an hour working through 90 seconds of music. I was a bit sad, thinking that Squire and White have played their last gigs on Earth, and knowing I won’t hear “Silent Wings” again with its original force and intent. I was a bit happy that there is so much film from the 1976-1980 Yes touring and recording eras showing up on YouTube so I can post-high school edit what physics and chemistry homework conspired to keep me from appreciating at the time. And I’m doubling down on seeing live music so that I can catch another band’s seven minutes of absolute creativity to power through a few more decades.
Kevin Mulryne’s “Yes: The Tormato Story” is incredibly detailed and covers everything from the working relationship with Hipgnosis to Wakeman’s Birotrons and Squire’s EvenTide pedals. As part of my exhaustive, graph-closure of all things Yes related I bought a pre-press copy and that restarted my fascination with the album.
A “making of” video with a few alternate takes on YouTube. It features a bit of band banter about those takes, and you hear alternate takes with different keyboard and guitar parts; a few of which are less muddy and even more driving than what made it to vinyl.
Video from a 2006 performance in Lugano where Squire has a field day with the solo section; it’s how I remember him with the big white Rickenbacker (that later graced the stage, solo, while “Onward” from Tormato was played as his memorial). Alan White is also in top form here; his back began to interfere with him drumming shortly after.
The birotron Wikipedia page shares even stranger backstories than Mullryne’s book: it was co-funded by Pepperidge Farm/Campbell’s Soup. Future times indeed.