Prolific prog musician Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree, has carved out an unusual second career as a remixer of progressive-rock albums. Taking the original (and deteriorating) analog multi-track tapes and transferring them to computer files, he’s been able to create new versions of the records he grew up listening to, including those by King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Hawkwind, and XTC. Wilson’s become the go-to guy among music nerds who go in for this kind of revisionist history, having earned a reputation for clear, powerful mixes that do the originals justice.
Wilson’s remixes of five Yes albums have made their way into a new vinyl box set, with each disc bearing reworked artwork from Roger Dean. These mixes were originally released on deluxe Blu-ray editions, for which Wilson rejiggered—in both stereo and 5.1 surround—the English band’s best-loved work, including 1971’s The Yes Album, 1971’s Fragile, 1972’s Close to the Edge, 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans, and 1974’s Relayer. This run of albums found Yes becoming one of the most successful prog bands of the era, as their song lengths swelled to 20-plus minutes and their lyrics embraced abstract and cosmic conceits. Close to the Edge is frequently lauded as the high-water mark for prog rock; the double album Tales from Topographic Oceans is often laughed at as its indulgent nadir.
Wilson’s reinterpretations probably won’t change the historical record. By and large, he’s faithful to the originals, adding greater separation between instruments, clarifying the sound (particularly the drums), thickening the bass, and tossing in a few Easter eggs along the way. There’s a layer of gloss that some will find preferable, and there’s no denying the thrill of hearing these familiar works in clearer focus. I find that some of the pixie dust from those original recordings—which were technical marvels of their era—has disappeared, but this is more an emotional response than a critical one.
The earlier stuff fares best. The Yes Album and Fragile contained the sound of an ambitious, creative band gaining confidence. In Wilson’s hands, the soaring finale of “Starship Trooper” sounds massive and great, and the muddled, distorted mix of “South Side of the Sky” is given a welcome tune-up. Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans were complicated productions, with every inch of tape taken up by one instrument or another. “Close to the Edge” and “And You and I” are not robbed of any of their lush loveliness, although in a side-by-side shootout with the originals, it’s probably a draw. The overblown Tales is made more coherent, although no remixing can alter the fact that there are some boring stretches within its four massive epics. (To be fair, there’s some wonderful stuff, too.)
Relayer is the coarsest-sounding album in the bunch, and it’s probably the least regarded, but it contains the best, rawest, and most beautiful music of Yes’ career. With “The Gates of Delirium,” the band constructs their most powerful epic, featuring an extended instrumental section that evokes the violence of war and the ghostly aftermath of an empty battlefield. “To Be Over” is their sweetest hymn, highlighted by Steve Howe’s remarkable guitar. Wilson’s remix tidies some of Relayer’s gnarlier sounds, but I think it sterilizes it, too.
Remixing a well-known album is a thorny prospect, and I suppose I land on the “purist” end of the spectrum. But Wilson’s remixes of Yes provide a fun point of comparison to the originals, while brightening up some of their murkier corners. The vinyl pressings are exceptionally well done, too (although Relayer is mastered at a noticeably low level). As long as the original mixes remain in print, there’s nothing for casual fans to complain about—and plenty for diehards to sink their teeth into.