by Prog Nick
South Africans are generally a pride-filled bunch, and they are particularly proud of their musicians. (Ask a group of South Africans about this, and they will often respond with the affirmative ‘Aweh!’) But in Prog music, one star stands above the rest as the country’s finest-ever musical export. Multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rabin, born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, is generally regarded as the man who saved Yes. He created four stellar Yes studio albums over twelve years, and performed on copious tours with Yes and the off-shoot Yes iteration Anderson Rabin Wakeman (ARW). Rabin became a shining light in Progressive Rock over that time. Just imagine, if you will, a once-isolated South African boy from the tip of the Dark Continent saving the career (and perhaps even the genre) of the huge international Prog band that he grew up loving. Moreover, Rabin wrote Yes’ biggest hit ever in ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. Now that is a South African success story if ever there was one.
But even Rabin’s massive contribution to Yes should not overshadow his solo work. With (until now) seven solo records under his belt, including 1981’s Wolf, 1989’s Can’t Look Away and 2012’s Jacaranda (a species of tree that covers Johannesburg during Springtime), Rabin has not exactly neglected his solo career. It might be said, though, that his highly successful endeavors as a film-score composer have taken up much of his time and have left his fans gasping for a full new studio album. This is because Jacaranda was instrumental and Can’t Look Away, the last Rabin solo album to feature vocals, was released some 34 years ago. This year therefore very clearly ushers the time for a new Trevor Rabin solo release, and the virtuoso musician has signed to Germany’s InsideOutMusic for that purpose. The question has been firmly asked of Mr Rabin, and the answer has now been given in the form of 2023’s Rio.
Years in the making, Rio is named after Rabin’s granddaughter, and is obviously a very personal affair. The album features huge variations in ideas, both conceptually, and musically, to the point that it becomes clear that Rabin is indulging (and enjoying) himself in the best possible way – and we are the beneficiaries. Rabin is very obviously and consciously seeking a high degree of difference, variation and surprise on this album. The result is that the listener never knows what is coming next, and the record is packed with moments of the most charming elasticity.
‘Big Mistakes’ starts the album off on a solid and satisfying footing with an uncomplicated but effective guitar groove. This riff lays the foundation for Rabin’s sweet vocals and his first – typically discordant – lead solo. About surviving the rigors of his youth, the song is autobiographical. The elaborate bass lines are reminiscent of one Mr Squire and the track immediately harkens the listener back to more straightforward Rabin-era Yes hits such as ‘Love Will Find a Way’. One head-bobbing listen to ‘Big Mistakes’ will tell you that you are in for a rollicking good ride with this album. A mighty song and, one would think, definitely a hit single.
The heavy production of the first track might at first come across as a little ponderous, but this is soon rectified with ‘Push’. The second song, an elaborate guitar, vocal, piano and strings arrangement, will remind you why you loved the deeper tracks on 90125 so much. Intricate and intense with Yes-like vocals interwoven with stunning instrumentation, this song makes the patently obvious point that Rabin was the driving force behind the 1980’s revival of Yes. With a violin solo, tinkling Wakeman-like piano and odd time signatures courtesy of the one and only Vinnie Colaiuta, we are off and running to the Prog races. That Yes had an identifiable sound in the 80’s is undisputed, and if you are one of those who enjoyed that sound, you will love ‘Push’.
Acoustic guitar of the most flamboyant yet tasteful kind forms the core of ‘Oklahoma’, a paean to the tragic history of one American province that suffered a lethal terrorist bombing. Such a tragic topic has to be handled with great sensitivity, and Rabin does just that, somehow making the country guitar work and lyrics sound infinitely sadder and more melancholy, just by using pure emotion. It becomes very cinematic and Rabin’s voice does the rest as this beautiful track unfolds into the traumatized countryside of the listener’s imagination. Astoundingly sad and beautiful.
A slow country rock feel pervades the main riff to ‘Paradise’, but when a synthesized (almost robotic) voice introduces the verse, pure pop nirvana is achieved. Unadulterated, catchy and powerful in the sweetest way, this song is straightforward but at the same time not uncomplicated. The guitar solo may retain the country feel, but it reflects Rabin’s credentials as one of the most technically gifted guitarists of his time. The complex vocal arrangements keep pace while the track leads into a jazzy instrumental outro that is frankly unique. Did you love Yes’ most poppy 1980’s hits? If so, you will love this. Country-Jazz-Prog is apparently now a thing, y’all.
Stuttering vocals scatting over a thunderous rock guitar riff introduce ‘Thandi.’ The song’s title is a South African forename, and the track is one of several that are inspired by Rabin’s homeland. This particular track takes on the horror of the African ivory trade, since the name belongs this time not to a human, but to a rhinoceros killed at the hands of poachers ’plundering like roaches as the tusk prices soar’. The painful lyrics are one thing, but on the musical level, the lead solo is the unique identifier here. Insanely fast and complex, the guitar part weaves around frenzied keyboard stabs as Thandi suffers her awful fate. You might have to pay a visit to a South African conservation park to fully experience the pain of this one, but in the meantime, the track speaks for itself.
The jauntiness of the pure country pop in ‘Goodbye’ belies the loneliness of its theme, and Rabin has his tongue firmly in his cheek on this one. ‘Goodbye everybody’ he chortles as the ragtime piano, banjo and country guitar bob and weave under his voice. If you believed that pure country music could never be complex or fulfilling, think again. In fact, this track is a fairly desolate farewell to South Africa, presumably set at the time when Rabin left his über-successful South African pop band Rabbitt, to take up a new music career in London.
A capella vocals introduce ‘Tumbleweed’, a simply astonishing vocal performance. It is very whimsical and longing, and it shows why the likes of Jon Anderson have such deep respect for Rabin as a vocal arranger and performer, though the extended final chords do give the song something of a ‘muzak’ ending. ‘These Tears’ is a sad lament of forlorn love, showing yet again that Rabin’s voice has held up well through the passage of time. Simple but powerful, the slow march of this song is quite entrancing, but it is not the album’s most remarkable moment.
More upbeat and cheerful is ‘Egoli’, the Vernacular name (meaning ‘City of Gold’) for the city of Johannesburg. When Rabin gives a tune a South African feel, he does so with complete authenticity, and this is just one example. With African backing vocals that would make Paul Simon jealous, this song is a proud moment for all Rabin’s compatriots, but it is not just they who will love it. Whilst quite cheerful and bouncy in a very South African way, the track’s lyrics are in fact very serious and relevant, being a description of the betrayal of Nelson Mandela’s vision that has been caused by the corruption of South Africa’s current politicians.
Weight and power drive the closing number ‘Toxic’, a full on guitar-based tour-de-force about poisonous relationships. Another high point on the album, the song harkens back to Rabin’s blues-rock childhood influences, yet still provides a fresh and novel feel with advanced production and sounds. The instrumental break is particularly impressive with it’s unusual melding of boogy-blues shuffle and Prog. All too soon the album ends with the sound of a needle being lifted from vinyl – a very classy and interesting touch.
Trevor Rabin performed the majority of the instruments and vocals on Rio, produced the album and even painted the cover artwork himself. His high lead vocals, in particular, have been recorded with painstaking precision and in general, this album can only be viewed as a true labor of love. Permeated with his personal perspectives and perpetually evidencing his astounding musicianship, Rio is another victory for Africa’s not-so-forgotten son. The album crosses over musical boundaries with immeasurable success and it announces the return of a giant of Progressive Rock with, dare I say it, a uniquely South African fanfare. Whether you are a Prog fan, a popster, a guitar aficionado, a rocker or just an avid follower of great music, ‘Rio’ is winner, and you most certainly need a copy. Your homeland is proud of you, Trevor Rabin – as they say in South Africa: ‘Aweh!’
Released on Oct. 6th, 2023 on InsideOutMusic/Sony
Order now here: https://trevorrabin.lnk.to/Rio
The full track-listing is as follows:
1. Big Mistakes
8. These Tears
The Ltd CD+Blu-ray Mediabook & Ltd Deluxe Gatefold Red 180g 2LP + Blu-ray also features the following bonus tracks:
1. Spek & Polly
2. Fragile (Demo)
Trevor Rabin – all instruments
Lou Molino – drums
Vinnie Coliuta – drums on “Push”
Liz Constantine – backing vocals
Dante Marchi – backing vocals