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Tormato by Yes (1978)

There's a reason why this column is called "Favorite Music" instead of "Greatest Music." Favorite music is not always great music. Sometimes we enjoy a CD in spite of bad lyrics, or dull, uninspired musical arrangements. Sometimes there's a couple of really good songs mixed in with a bunch of lukewarm filler. Or sometimes the music just lets us return to a carefree youth where our musical tastes were less refined.

Tormato by Yes is a prime example from the "favorite but not that great" category of albums. I listened to it on vinyl LP so many times as a teenager that the cover is worn and creased, the inner sleeve is falling apart, and music contained on it is probably encoded in my DNA. And yet, all those times I listened to it I instinctively knew that Tormato was not the band's best work. Even the band seemed to acknowledge this by putting a splattered tomato on the album cover.

Reasons for the not-goodness? The most glaring one is singer/lyricist Jon Anderson's unrelenting new-agey platitudes, which were starting to wear a little thin after nine albums. His trademark squeaky vocals were flanked by Steve Howe's wah-wah guitar noodling and a non-stop barrage of happy synth arpeggios courtesy of Rick Wakeman. There was a definite sense that the band was in a state of transition, and were feeling somewhat directionless in light of recent musical trends like disco, punk, and new wave. This, of course, was a predicament shared by all progressive rock bands which enjoyed popularity in the early seventies. The record buying public was no longer impressed with 20-minute-long excursions into a fusion of rock, classical, and experimental noise.

Some of these songs would make a good soundtrack for recent United States foreign policy. "On the Silent Wings of Freedom," a classic Yes jam session which ends the album, sports a title that could have been inspired by the recent political uprisings in Egypt and other countries. You could almost hear the song playing as U.S. warships park themselves majestically off the coast of Libya. On "Release, Release," another upbeat rocker, we are urged to "Further the right of all of creation." Sounds good to me. Hell, give fruit bats representation in congress for all I care. The most well-known song on the album is probably "Don't Kill the Whale," a decent rock tune with a blunt ecological message.

The second half of the album descends into unrestrained silliness with "Arriving UFO," which may have been inspired in part by the popular movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The extraterrestrials have arrived, according to Yes, equipped with guitars that can quack like a duck, on a mission to bring peace, love, and herbal tea to the people of Earth. "Circus of Heaven," a psychedelic envisioning of the rapture, describes events "on the very last day." After the parade of unicorns, elves, centaurs, and fairies, Anderson asks his son: "Was that something beautiful, amazing, wonderful, extraordinary, beautiful?" but the son isn't very impressed.

"Onward," the next-to-last song on the vinyl album (the remastered CD contains a generous amount of bonus material, none of which I have actually heard), is a beautiful ballad by Chris Squire which, I'm not afraid to admit, got me teary-eyed on more than one occasion in my younger days. This song could be a huge hit if it were covered by one of today's popular female vocalists. I don't think there's too many male artists in 2011 who are willing to sing as high as Jon Anderson did on this song. And that's probably for the best.

Despite this album's near collision with accidental self-parody, it features a top notch group of musicians, possessing the kind of skills that provoked jealous criticism from all corners of the music world. The virtuosity of the playing on this disc is, without a doubt, part of what makes it so enjoyable. Alan White's stylish drumming and Chris Squire's chunky Rickenbacker bass never fail to amaze.

If you like your hippified progressive rock with extra cheese, then Tormato is right up your alley.

Reviewed by Somebody 3/3/11

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