I love this album. How much do I love this album? Well, if this was a Yes album, it would be my third-favorite, after Talk and Fragile. This is going to be not just one of my favorite albums of 2019, but one of my favorite albums ever. My grandchildren will listen to this album and remember Grandpa Luke (after I kick the can, of course). Even better is the fact that, as opposed to the majority of my all-time favorite albums, I will have the distinct memory of actually getting it when it was released: getting excited when it was announced, pre-ordering it, receiving it in the mail. (Most of my favorite music is the music of somebody else’s youth-music my uncle got at the record store the day it came out.) So yes, that’s how much I love this album. And since it’s a Jon Anderson album featuring my favorite instrument, the steelpan, and one of my favorite (late) bassists, Chris Squire, it’s impossible for me to be completely objective about this record. Bear with me while I tell you how much I love each and every song.
What kind of album is this? Jon began recording it in 1990 with Yes bandmates Chris Squire and Alan White. Since then, he has been working on it on-and-off, and at long last, he has a finished product that is in turn sweeping, joyful, thrilling, and satisfying. The album sounds a lot like classic Yes, but it’s very much a Jon solo project. He is the heart and brain behind this record. The album features influences such as classical, jazz, reggae, world music, and (notably) EDM, and it was made with the help of a variety of talented musicians, including Steve Howe, Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty, Carmine Appice, and even the Tower Of Power horn section. Hence the name, 1,000 Hands. The title is representative of the many people who contributed to this amazing piece of music. Does it sound like a thirty-year compilation of old songs? Heck nah! The album is a fully-formed, coherent piece of modern prog. Yes, some parts sound more “modern” and some sound more “neo.” Nevertheless, the album flows brilliantly and has a unique sound. The production is also consistently excellent, thanks to producer, arranger and overall music-polisher Michael Franklin.
The album opens with “Now,” an intro track. Rarely do I like intro tracks, but I do like “Now.” It introduces a melodic theme that is brought back throughout the album. It serves its purpose as an overture to 1,000 Hands. The next track, “Ramalama,” is a fantastic blend of flavors. It begins with an overdubbed vocal harmony reminiscent of “We Have Heaven” and “Holy Lamb.” After the first chorus, we hear an EDM beat, which is completely unexpected! It’s the odd contrast between the vocal harmonies, the electronic groove, and the folk instruments (notably banjo and violin) that make this song what it is. “First Born Leaders” is next, and the stirring intro instantly hooks the listener. It features the vocal talents of not only Jon but also the instantly recognizable Chris Squire. I’ll admit, I teared up a bit the first time I heard him on this song. It then switches to a more “reggae” feel, featuring steelpans and an amazing bassline.
Next is the best song on the record, “Activate.” It begins with some gentle acoustic picking and a flute solo from the great Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull fame). It then moves on to a verse and chorus with a great melody and a solid bassline. The track slowly builds, introducing some beautiful violin lines and vocal harmonies. After getting gradually faster and more intense, it returns to the melody from “First Born Leaders” in a majestic outro, again featuring the great Chris Squire on bass guitar. It’s a gorgeous prog epic that brings back the emotions of 70s Yes, but with a modern aesthetic. “Makes Me Happy” stands in stark contrast, a catchy, slightly cheesy song featuring ukulele chords and the Tower Of Power horn section. There’s nothing even remotely prog about it, but you can tell Jon is enjoying himself. (This very goofy music video illustrates my point well.) “Now Variations” further fleshes out the melody introduced in the intro track and includes some great violin work.
“I Found Myself” is a beautiful prog ballad featuring Tim Franklin (Michael’s brother) on the fretless bass, and his smooth, melodic line stands out on the album, which says a lot for a record featuring Chris Squire and Stu Hamm. Vocally, it is a duet with Jon’s wife Jane, which makes it all the more powerful. The next song, “Twice In A Lifetime,” begins with an extraordinary violin solo from Charlie Bisharat. The chords on this one are really surprising, kind of like psychedelic-era Beatles tunes. Tommy Calton’s acoustic picking gives this track a vaguely medieval sound, and the accordion is a strange but welcome addition. “WDMCF (Where Does Music Come From)” is a uniquely “Jon” song, beginning with stellar vocal harmonies featuring both Jon and Chris. It soon shifts into flat-out EDM, featuring powerful drum-machine beats. It exemplifies both the nostalgia and the exploration that characterizes this record. It closes with a fantastic jazz piano solo.
The penultimate track on the album, “Come Up (1,000 Hands),” features the legendary rhythm section of Billy Cobham, Stu Hamm, and one of my all-time favorite keyboardists, Chick Corea. These three create an instantly memorable intro, leading into a smooth, subdued song. After the first chorus, we hear a steelpan soloist (Pat Frost) converse musically with Corea, to fantastic results. The song gradually builds into a fantastic bridge featuring noted violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, as well as Squire, Hamm, and Franklin all playing bass at the same time, which sounds like a bad idea but actually works fantastically. Finally, it climaxes into a triumphant outro, featuring the aforementioned musicians as well as Toto vocalist Bobby Kimball. Corea’s smooth, unique piano takes this song to the next level, but everything about it is masterful. This song stands as not only one of the high points of 1,000 Hands, but also of Jon’s entire career. The closing track, “Now And Again,” features the “Now” melody as well as legendary Yes guitarist Steve Howe’s gentle acoustic leads. The song’s chords develop more than on the previous two “Now” pieces, and remind me of early Genesis. It’s a peaceful, intensely satisfying finale to an album that Jon and all his co-conspirators should be extremely proud of.
I really have no criticisms for this album, personally. I love it. I love it so flipping much. As far as you’re concerned (should I buy it, should I try it, et cetera), I’d say it is not for uptight 70s prog fans at all. The vibe of the album is very retro at times, yes, but the strong presence of modern synths and drum machines give it an updated sound. (Think Frost* and Shineback.) In addition, “Makes Me Happy” and, to an extent, “First Born Leaders” have reggae feels that could make them seem goofy. The former is goofy, no question, and that’s part of its charm. The latter kind of reminds me of 80s Rush, and if you don’t like 80s Rush, you probably won’t like “First Born Leaders,” and probably for the same reason. So, this album will not sit well with purists, which is one of the things I love about it. At the end of the day, Jon is writing great songs and having fun singing them, which is what he’s always done and the result has more often than not been spectacular.
My conclusion is: definitely buy this album, and perhaps consider buying several extra copies to hand out to strangers at the grocery store. Jon’s voice and songwriting is in top form, the sound and concept is stellar, and all 1,000 hands which contribute to this album bring something unique and exciting to the table. This album is great and I love it. If you love Yes, you most likely will, too.