Style: Progressive Rock
Release Date: 16 May 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook
I have a love/hate relationship with tribute bands. I understand the draw of being able to see the equivalent of bands live at a fraction of the cost of the real thing and in a much smaller venue, especially when the originals no longer exist, at least in the form that we might want. AC/DC with Bon Scott in your local club for ten bucks? A tribute band's your only option. My big problem is that many of these bands nowadays feature musicians who are damn good at what they do and I'd love to hear their own music instead of another take on someone else's.
Case in point: Fragile, who have evolved from their origins as a Yes tribute band to be an "original band paying tribute to Yes in our own unique way". I see that they've been around since 1998 but this is their debut release with original music and I'm really happy that they've evolved to that point, even if it also means that they're no longer playing live.
These musicians also aren't nobodies. For instance, the female vocals come courtesy of Claire Hamill, who's sung for Fragile since 2013. She may not be a household name, but she's guested on albums by Wishbone Ash, Steve Howe and Jon and Vangelis. As a solo artist, she was signed by Ray Davies of the Kinks as far back as 1973 and her solo career has lasted just as many years as I've been alive. Eva Cassidy covered her.
The others may not have Wikipedia pages of their own, but they're clearly as able as they'd need to be to play in a Yes tribute band. There are also some guest vocals from Clive Bayley, who formed Mabel Greer's Toyshop way back in 1966, the band which gradually hired Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Jon Anderson and the other musicians who would soon rename the band to Yes.
While this is clearly music inspired by Yes, mostly from the classic era you might expect from the band's name, Fragile have found their own sound too. I believe having a female lead vocalist helps, especially given that her voice is mostly pitched a little lower than Jon Anderson's. With both Bayley and a regular male vocalist, Max Hunt, of course, even lower, there's little fear of us mistaking the bands.
The Yes influence does extend to the structure of many of these songs. Four of seven are actually pairs of songs that last for up to twelve minutes and change, with a wide use of dynamics and an even wider profusion of lengthy instrumental passages. The closest song to Yes may be Time to Dream/Now We are Sunlight, but aspects of the Yes style can be found throughout, whether through quiet guitar interludes like Open Space or fullblown imagination in musical form like the second half of Surely All I Need.
The latter is itself the second half of a song pair with When are Wars Won? and it opens the album in very lively form. At its most imaginative, it's an instrumental attempt to take us into a landscape such as the cover art might hint at. Put yourself in that position with that point of view and then turn around 360° and imagine what you see. That's Surely All I Need, even if the delightful lyrics suggest at a different vista, and it's easily my favourite piece of music on this album.
While Hamill sings the first two pairs of songs, Five Senses shifts Hunt up to the mike to sing lead and it's telling that the song doesn't feel at all like a different band. Sure, Hunt's voice is in an echoey lower register and his songs hint at space rock, but Fragile never turn into Hawkwind, even on Heaven's Core. The earlier songs are all exuberant pieces of music, with the band building layers of sound until they're unstoppable forces.
I listened to this a lot because it's highly immersive stuff and I came to a few realisations. The obvious one is that, while the guitar of Oliver Day is notable, this is driven a lot more by its keyboards than it is guitars and those are a further contribution by Max Hunt. As he also plays the bass and dabbles in guitar and percussion, along with being the primary male voice, I assume that he's the band's driving force nowadays, even though I don't see his name listed as a founding member.
Others are less obvious. The album, which runs a decent fifty minutes, moves throughout from exuberance to introspection, so that we're initially caught up by the rush of it all and conditioned to that by the time Open Space and Time to Dream come around and the folky vibe of Old Worlds and Kingdoms. I love Claire Hamill's vocals but only gradually realised that, while she's an outstanding lead vocalist, she's also an outstanding backing vocalist, which I ought to have assumed once I realised where I've heard her before. Now I'm intrigued as to where she is on The Friends of Mr. Cairo.
I know this isn't the first tribute band to release a strong studio album of original music, because I reviewed Stripwired last year and I'm sure they were far from the first, but I do wonder how prevalent the approach is nowadays. I hope I see it more.