For some fickle mechanisms of the human mind and various other lunacies, first wave progressive rock acts as my personal, pesky Madeleine; a trigger of sickly sweet involuntary memories. Because of that I’m cursed: each riff by Gentle Giant, Camel or other bands that I encountered when first discovering everything progressive, now inundates me with inescapable, banal yet pleasurable nostalgia meshed with a remembrance of ages that I could have never lived through. Imagine my surprise, then, when a record from 2016 triggered the same response. Invention of Knowledge, the first collaborative release of two prog rock greats, vocalist Jon Anderson (Yes) and guitarist Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings, Transatlantic), acts as a hyperconductive tunnel for a pure stylistic form, an amplified hit of unbearable reminiscence. With dominantly ‘70s prog and Yes-infused threads running through the material, and steered by modern, third wave tendencies, it threatens to be almost too much of a good thing.
But as is true for all the best progressive rock, its essence thrives and quivers around that thin, thin line between gaudy and artistically accomplished movements, guiding the listener from feeling completely, uninhibitedly immersed and awed towards a sense of silliness. Luckily, Anderson and Stolt are master musicians and composers, and thus manage to keep Invention of Knowledge comfortably grandiose, but never tacky. Stolt’s guidance and interventions prove to be crucial as he channels and frames Anderson’s superficially platitudinous, but authentically hippie lyrics and concepts. And it takes but a few minutes of the opening title suite to introduce a strong spiritual vibe. The first part of that suite, “Invention,” prepares a stage that is equal parts fantastical, exuberant, and uncontainably optimistic. The atmosphere that these songs set for the rest of the record reminds me of Renaissance’s Scheherazade and Other Stories with its celebratory, naive, and pastoral feel. A hidden impression of mystical discovery lingers that seems lost nowadays, but that reigned supreme in Anderson’s heyday.
It’s only fitting that such a classic sounding album was created using modern tools and processes, in an asynchronous and displaced manner, with the musicians rarely interacting physically, exchanging bits and pieces over the internet instead. As a result, the record feels distilled and purified, a result of iterative growth and careful polishing. Over the four long suites, divided into nine tracks, Invention of Knowledge maintains a distinctly gentle and directed flow centered around Anderson’s near-falsetto, boyish, often harmonized and counterpointed vocals, and the transcendental lyrics they carry. There are no breathtaking convolutions, ex machina complexities, or distinct peaks, just a sense of freedom and elation. “We are truth, made in heaven, we are glorious” sings Anderson during “We Are Truth,” backed by horns, and his utmost joy seems irresistible in its infectivity. Elsewhere, one of the highlights of Invention of Knowledge comes on “Everybody Heals,” a tune close to The Flower Kings’ modernized approach, embellished with string progressions, and ingrained with passages of fusion and jazz.
Reaching beyond mere progressive rock, Anderson and Stolt stretch their influences throughout genres, flirting with jazz (“Everybody Heals”), oriental music forms (“Invention”), symphonic rock, and chansons. As Stolt himself writes, they knot, without restrictions, “modern and classical, rock and ethno, tribal and orchestrated, grooving and floating.” While it might be a structurally simple album, it’s undeniably a compositionally sound thing that stretches elegantly over its lengthy duration of an hour and five minutes. All the while, the concept of the record is supported by a layered sound and rich instrumentation that might even appear overwhelming at times. Besides Anderson’s voice, it’s expectedly Stolt’s guitar playing that shines here with recognizably rich tones, vibratos, and wah-wahs aplenty, all underlined by Jonas Reingold and Michael Stolt’s massive, but tamed bass. The latter a symptom of Anderson’s vocals being the focus and the rest of the instrumentarium noticeably pushed back, especially true of Felix Lehrmann’s drums and Jonas Reingold’s bass, while orchestrations, strings, and Lalle Larsson’s keyboards sound subdued and flattened. Not necessarily a bad thing.
This is a comforting and warm album of indelible spirit and inviting moods. A record that somehow stands outside of time, worthy on its own, even if it never eclipses nor reinvents the best in the genre. And it’s indeed better than anything that Yes have pushed out in a long, long while.