Monday, February 13, 2012

Song #120 of 9999 - South Side of the Sky by Yes

Song #120 of 9999

Title: South Side of the Sky
Artist: Yes
Year: 1971
Album: Fragile
There are better-known songs from Yes's Fragile but I thought it would be fun to take on one of the secret gems tonight. Yes is known for its virtuosic playing and "South Side of the Sky" gives every man in the group and opportunity to shine. Steve Howe's lead guitar work on this track can almost go unnoticed since it primarily occupies the space between vocal lines during the verses, but those agitated little licks he throws in are pretty incredible and creative. Rick Wakeman is afforded a piano cadenza in the middle of the track which he relishes with extremes of  dynamics and range. Bill Bruford is given the freedom to exercise his penchant for hyperactive syncopation in the mixed meter section that follows and Chris Squire uses this same space to explore the range of his bass while keeping the harmonic progression clear and precise. Finally, Jon Anderson delivers a powerful vocal performance of his unusually coherent and intriguing lyrics.

What I really love about this track is the drive. The pentatonic riff penned by Squire propels the piece forward and Bruford wisely keeps the beat of the main sections straight-forward and uncluttered. The sonic environment created by these elements coincides nicely with the theme of endurance and persistence while climbing a mountain in harsh conditions. Squire takes full advantage of that giant bridge pickup on his Rickenbacker to deliver a buzzy rattle of a bass line. And by the fourth verse, Howe's guitar plays the kind of heavy chords that wouldn't find their way into a Yes song again until 1980's Drama.
The other notable thing about this track is that the band is playing like a band. Fragile is peppered with solo tracks hinting at a near-future Yes with fragmented performances and more solo albums than collaborations. This song retains a bit of the group dynamic much more present on earlier efforts like Time and a Word and The Yes Album. I think this is why Yes fans are so fond of Drama as it marked a return to the band playing together in a way that proves the sum is greater than its parts.

Clocking in at eight minutes, this song never seems long to me. I listened to it four times in a row just now and it was interesting every time.

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