“It’s like adding maple syrup to caramel.” So said a friend upon learning that former Yes front man and solo artist Jon Anderson had teamed up with “the magic genie,” Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings, for a brand new recording entitled Invention of Knowledge. Both men have established themselves as the gurus of spiritually-minded, positivity-promoting prog, and a collaboration was sure to bring the mystical meditations right up to eleven.
I have always considered The Flower Kings to be the logical heirs to Yes’ legacy in the twenty-first century. Though straying often toward jazz-fusion and sonic dissonance, thematically and lyrically the band is a near facsimile of their 1970’s forebear, and when they’ve done symphonic prog (The World of Adventures, Stardust We Are), The Flower Kings compel the same soaring sense of wonder and grandeur as Yes did with outings like Tales from Topographic Oceans. Stolt’s lyrics consistently remind the listener to love, to embrace peace, and seek deeper understanding in spiritual practice. Consider the final segment of Adam & Eve‘s grand opener, “Love Supreme”:
See life reinventing itself, starting over, time and time again
A new time of understanding begins, see yourself as a link in the chain reaction
This world couldn’t do without you, this world couldn’t be without you
It’s perfect because you are, it’s perfect because you are.
So it’s a natural and – for me – much welcome pairing to have the masterminds of these two bands produce a work together.
Before I delve into Invention properly, let me make the obvious caveat: if you find Yes a bit twee, bloated, and pompous you might as well get your hat now. If, on the other hand, you like long-form symphonic rock with an uplifting angle, read on.
The disc kicks off with “Knowing,” an 18-minute suite that begins as slowly rising chants and distant guitar harmonics, then launches into a near-martial beat set to Anderson’s unmistakable sky-high tenor. “Some may say the positive in life is always, always growing,” he sings, accented by a chorus of counterpoints and harmonies (ably provided by a beautiful backing vocal section that includes Daniel Gildenlöw of Pain of Salvation). The song really takes flight, however, in its second movement, “We Are Truth,” a ballad with strong similarity to Yes’ “And You And I.” Stolt carries the initial verses with playful acoustic guitar as Anderson avers: “We will not break down and let/the darkness call our names.” The song closes with “Knowledge,” and here the potential and payoff of the collaboration comes into clear focus: Stolt has always displayed a genius for powerful finales that send his listeners soaring into the heavens, and with appropriate gravity added by a mighty pipe organ and angelic choir, “Knowing” comes to a trademark glorious Flower Kings conclusion.
European reviews of the CD have remarked on the Yes-like character of the music, with some saying this is the music Yes should have been making for the past few decades. (Let’s be honest: Heaven and Earth was, ahem, Hell.) I think that to a Yes fan unfamiliar with The Flower Kings, that’s true: this music is far more like Yes than most of what the band itself has released since possibly Keys to Ascension in ’96. To my ears, however, the music is distinctly in Roine Stolt’s style. So steeped in The Flower King’s music am I that I knew, in most cases, what chord was next in the progression and when the guitar solo would begin. (Flower Kings bassist Jonas Reingold and former bassist Michael Stolt also play on the CD, adding their fretless bass and funk-inspired rhythm lines to the music, which adds to the Flower Kings sound.) On the other hand, The Flower Kings are very much the progeny of seventies-era Yes, and so perhaps it’s equally fair to say that this is “YesMusic.” The bands are so similar, it may be hard to say where one ends and the other begins.
Track two, “Knowing,” is lighter fare, largely comprised of impressionistic lyrics that work like poetry rather than realism. The second movement, however, features some tastefully restrained Roland piano from Tom Brislin, who provided keys on the Yes Symphonic tour. The song’s final minutes are reminiscent of “The Truth Shall Set You Free,” the marvelous opening track to The Flower King’s 2003 double CD Unfold the Future.
In the third track,”Everybody Heals,” Yes fans will hear echoes of both “The Remembering: High the Memory” and “Ritual: Nous Sommes du Soleil.” The piece makes several key and tempo changes, and on first listen it can appear indistinct, almost uniform in composition. Careful attention brings out the changes between light and shadow, as once again majesty is exchanged with contemplative passages which allow the headier content to settle a bit.
The last track, “Know…,” begins with a gentle shuffle and some Rhodes, vocal scat, and vibes – all in lovely major seventh/ninth chords that, as always, evoke wistfulness and longing. As the bass and percussion take a bit of a backseat, the feeling here is more acoustic and intimate; appropriately doting on Anderson’s voice and soft-spoken words of love. About halfway through the track, we return to some of the earlier themes and melodies from the album, and once again leap from earth to sky. The repetition of themes is nice, but seems tacked on and unnecessary. A shuffle of the tracks to end on a more majestic note would have been nice – perhaps this would have made a nice third movement, with “Invention of Knowledge” being a stronger and more memorable close to the disc.
But that’s picayune when the music itself is so rich and textured, and brilliantly executed by all of the artists involved. Sure, there are no long instrumental passages or curry-worthy keyboard solos, and the rhythm section is virtuoso but not flamboyant about it (a real shock if you’ve seen Reingold play live). But Invention of Knowledge radiates enthusiasm and joy, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. By Anderson’s own admission, this is the music he’s been longing to play for many years. Here is a fortuitous union of two exceptional talents, and fans of both Yes and The Flower King will find this a glut of ear candy – though I’m certain that listeners who know and enjoy both groups well will be doubly rewarded. It’s not daring, but it’s sublime, and for fans of symphonic progressive rock like me, that’s all we need to know.