Steve Howe has been busy over the past twenty years. The celebrated guitarist took advantage of Yes’s tenuous lineup through the ’90s and released a flurry of solo material that easily outpaced his band. And as was par for the course, Howe was doing it all — classical, jazz, prog rock, and Travis-picking his way through compositions new and old. He even ventured into an area of a more ambient nature with new age composer Paul Sutin for two albums. In 2001 Yes released Magnification, an album that featured an orchestra on almost every track in lieu of the usual acrobatic keyboardist. Howe had mixed feelings about the results, believing that the orchestrations didn’t always compliment his guitar. So now more than ten years later, Steve Howe is attempting a similar yet different outing with appropriate results on Time.
First of all, Magnification was foremost a Yes album, White drums Squire bass and all. The full orchestra danced around the band’s preexisting songs, neither making nor breaking the whole ordeal. Time does not have the full orchestral sound; rather, Howe’s guitars are gently embedded in sounds acting as more of a chamber ensemble. It’s also completely instrumental, celebrating Howe’s knack for classical music rather than classically-inspired pop. And lastly, Howe insists in the liner notes that this is a collaborative album. After reading an interview with TV composer Paul K. Joyce, Howe decided to seek him out for help in developing some of his unfinished ideas (ah, the power of an interview!). As far as material goes, everything was on the table. Howe turned to his old partner Sutin for more atmospheric pieces, composed with and without Joyce on other numbers, snatched a piece from his son Virgil, and revisited the old dudes like Villa-Lobos, Bach and Vivaldi. The sound that pours from the 12 tracks is surprisingly consistent considering how many different composers you are looking at here, which if anything could be a feather in the cap of the collaborative spirit.
But this consistency holds Time at bay. It’s heavy on comfort and light on edge. It can be memorable, thanks more in part to texture and blend than any strong melodic ideas. There are strong themes at work here to be sure; they just tend to get muzzled by the album’s singular mood. One track that undoubtedly stands out is the Howe original “Orange”, a deftly woven fabric of bouncy banjo and soft woodwinds.
As usual, Howe sounds good on every instrument he touches — guitar, banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, autoharp, you name it. The newer compositions stand alongside the older ones with plenty of confidence to spare, reminiscent of Howe’s reading of Vivaldi’s “Concerto in D” on his second solo album in 1979. Next to all that ragtime and prog rock, it didn’t stand out at all. On Time, the original material from Howe, Joyce and Sutin scooch their chairs even closer to the likes of Vivaldi’s “Concerto Grosso in D Minor” and Bach’s “Cantata No. 140 (Wachet Auf)”. And while this can often be seen as a good thing, many Yes nerds know that Howe is capable of more sound varieties in spite of his musical professionalism. This is coming from a guy who spent more time in high school listening to Turbulence and The Grand Scheme of Things than any Pearl Jam or Nirvana. Time is a successful exercise from a man who already proved himself long ago.