Buy Alain Simon's Excalibur II: The Celtic Ring

Jon Anderson with...

Layton, Voinea, Zvoncheck, Messertraum, Simon, Curiano and more

Buy Tommy Zvoncheck's ZKG (re-release)

Over the last few years, and it seems now over the next few too, Anderson has been spreading himself about in a large number of collaborations over the Internet with various musicians. Many tell the same familiar story: having responded to one of Anderson's calls for collaborators, the individual receives a call from an excited Jon full of grand ideas. The collaborator  sends over some music tracks, Jon adds lyrics and vocals, but then is sometimes out of contact for extended periods, punctuated by more excited phone calls and grand plans. The results of these many collaborations are all over MySpace, but few have been physically released so far.

As I write, at least 14 complete tracks are or have been available online. There's effectively an album's worth of material by Jon Anderson with..., so this review is meant as a guide to what's out there. I also know that many of these artists are active online, so apologies if I didn't like your work! If this material hasn't always been to my liking, I still support your work and hope you are enjoying the unique experience of working with Jon Anderson.

By and large, the tracks say more about the collaborator than about Jon. Most of the time, Anderson seems to be adding a vocal line to existing material, although some pieces may be more co-written. Much of the material is more mainstream than Yes; obvious comparison points are Anderson's more recent solo albums like Earthmotherearth or The More You Know. The results are mixed, but I have found myself disappointed at times. To be fair, many of these tracks are uncompleted demos and not necessarily representative of finished work. Anderson's vocals remain distinctive, as do his lyrics, but those lyrics are often a weak point, using familiar Jon Anderson words and themes but in an overly generic fashion. That said, there are pieces here that stand up against any of Anderson's solo work over the last 20 years. All these tracks come from before Anderson's near fatal acute respiratory failure in May, most apparently from 2007 or early 2008.

Two collaborators who have made most material available are Steve Layton and Tom Curiano. Layton has six 2007 demos on his MySpace page, most fairly short pop songs with an electronic sound. (They're worked together on over 35 songs.) "Shine Shine Deliverance", which Jon has sung live, is very Jon-ish. "The Day Before" and "Lights Out" have some nice electronic backing. At times, the demo quality is more apparent. Anderson's lyrics and vocals are middling. Overall, the songs are listenable, but nothing that stands out. With one exception, that is, for the one stand-out track and one of the best reviewed in this article. "Sacred Balance" (10:22) is a four-part epic with classic prog stylings – contrasting sections of soft and loud, acoustic and electric, and an instrumental interplay that builds and subsides – but also a quite modern sound. It feels like a good combination of Anderson's input and a different flavour from Layton.

Tom Curiano is a drummer/multi-instrumentalist/producer from New York. His MySpace page has had various songs recorded with Anderson available but only for very short periods. There's nothing there at present, but I've heard 5 tracks before now. This is a strong set of material and it sounds polished, ready for release. The material comes across as a good combination of Anderson's style with Curiano's. It's relatively mainstream: think of it as an updated In the City of Light.

"Animal Life" (5:00) had an interesting mix of Anderson's style and (presumably) Curiano's, with prominent drumming throughout. Although quite mainstream in form, it has a certain quirkiness. A good song. "Know Now" (4:31) was not as strong, a straightforward love song, slightly reminiscent if anything of some of Anderson's 1960s work. "Blessings of Water" (3:58) felt more like Anderson's solo work, vaguely recalling Earthmotherearth in particular. It began with Anderson's vocal strongly to the fore, with a simple accompaniment, but the arrangement later opens up with more parts and a Japanese feel.

"The Knowing" was split on MySpace into Part 1 (2:53) and Parts 2 & 3 (4:26). It began with multiply layered vocals, and a big anthemic sound. I think this will appeal to many Anderson fans. The shortest piece, "Lament" (2:57), is again a good mix of Anderson and Curiano, with some nice Howe-like guitar work, but it sounds incomplete in some way.

It's hard to judge from briefly available MySpace samples whether the material has staying power. Curiano says he has 14 songs done with Anderson, and more happening now. This sounds like an album release pretty much at the ready, an album at least on the par with Anderson's last few studio releases. Yet, on the other hand, there isn't much here that will change people's minds about wanting Anderson back in Yes. Anderson's lyrics remain disappointing, generic fare from him.

Sorin Voinea has one track with Anderson at his MySpace. It's a similar story: "The Shape of Things" is an OK track with a modern, even slightly urban, sound. Neither the vocal performance or lyrics is outstanding, but the track stands up reasonably well compared to Anderson's last few solo albums. Voinea also has an instrumental version of the same piece available.

Peter Machajdík's MySpace has an extract of a contemporary classical piece "Sadness of Flowing" with Anderson. This is very different from the other music covered so far. For starters, it has now actually been released, on Machajdík's album Namah. It is a beautiful and haunting piece of music, with Anderson adopting a more narrative lyrical style: the best work I've heard with Anderson for years. I recently interviewed Machajdík here and also recommend the rest of his album Namah.

I am unclear whether "The Key" by Messertraum has been released or not, but a finished version is available at their MySpace. This song features both Jon and daughter Deborah on an electronic dance track. Along with some of the pieces mentioned above, it shows Jon's willingness to work over a wide variety of styles. The lyrics remain typical fare. It's a good vocal performance from Jon, but actually I think Deborah's vocal is the stronger here. Another three tracks are on MySpace and worth checking out.

Tommy Zvoncheck's "Rain in Florida" about the 2000 Presidential election Florida vote can be heard in full at his MySpace video page and is on a re-release of his solo album ZKG. Zvoncheck has done better music than this, while Anderson's lyrics are amazingly trite and the vocal delivery tiring. By far the worst of the bunch. Zvoncheck responded to the initial version of the review by explaining the context of the piece here. This version of the song is the original demo. Anderson was working with Zvoncheck on "Rain in Florida", but put off doing his final vocal due to health problems around Feb 2008. The recording remained unfinished, but given the lyrics' topical nature and with Anderson's blessing, Zvoncheck released it as is. Zvoncheck also explained the agreement behind this collaboration, saying: "Our arrangement was for me to orchestrate and arrange a 3 movement orchestral piece for him. In return, he would collaborate with me on a song and said I could do anything I want with it. I completed the task to Jon's satisfaction." This relationship whereby Zvoncheck does orchestrations/arrangements for Anderson and Anderson sings on his work has echoes in the experience of other collaborators.

"Circle of Life" is from Alan Simon's Excalibur II and a sample, not the full piece, can be heard at the project's MySpace page too. That this is a bigger budget production is immediately noticeable. Here, Anderson is just a guest vocalist and Simon wrote the lyrics. It's good AOR and Anderson turns in a good performance, but nothing to get that excited above.

I'm unclear of its origin but there's an untitled track by Jon available at The Wychwood Recorder's MySpace, seemingly from around early 2008. It sounds like a quite complex production, but it is unclear whether this is solo Anderson or another collaboration.

Overall, few of these show Anderson at his best as a singer or a lyricist, and he seems to have largely opted out of any broader composing role in these collaborations. Some of the vocal performances have a breathy, raspy quality and one wonders whether these reflected a deteriorating vocal health prior to Anderson's crisis in May, although they may just be early takes. I am reminded of the early 1980s when there's a similar series of uninspiring Anderson guest appearances on multiple projects (many soundtracks, including "Metropolis", "Legend" and "St. Elmo's Fire"). There's possibly more promise here than then in tracks like "Sadness of Flowing", "Sacred Balance" and "The Knowing", and most of the material is as strong as Jon's new solo material of the last few years, but I feel Anderson has more to give. The positive way of considering this material is as multiple works in progress, with the better material presumably to see release, yet I also wonder whether many of these collaborations will fail to go anywhere, destined to join the large pile of half-finished ideas Jon Anderson seems to have. Whichever, there is plenty of material already for which it is worth turning on your computer speakers. It's all free after all!

Addendum: In response to this review, a further MySpace appearances by Jon have been pointed out to me. "Soldiers of Discipline" appears on keyboardist Zach Tenorio's MySpace page, recorded with Max Johnson (guitar, bass) and Glenn Johnson (drums).

Henry Potts, 6 Dec 08; revised 8 Dec 08

Originally posted to, and Progressive Ears.