Here’s the situation: Of all of the hundreds of bands that I have enjoyed in my time on this earth, Yes is one of the very few that I can attach the word ‘favourite’ to. Not favourite prog band, favourite lyrics band, favourite guitar band, or favourite live band… Favourite band. Only Genesis, Yes, and the mighty Crim occupy spots on the highest branch of my favourite band tree. Three years ago, against all odds, Yes released a powerfully articulate masterpiece with Fly From Here that I can firmly place in my top five of the band’s records. On top of this, the band have united with their most ambitious new songwriter since Trevor Rabin helmed the band’s writing in the early eighties. To say the expectations were high for Yes’ latest release, Heaven & Earth, would be a severe understatement.
By eliminating all of these factors, this twenty-first album holds up as a scrappy, if not peculiar member of the rather large Yes record family. A bit of a runt, but with a little love and understanding, it can belong with the rest. As a human being, however, I am partial to holding on to the factors listed in my opening paragraph. Understand this before you read any further into this: Yes and its seventeen past and present members are childhood heroes of mine and their music is dear to me, and I do not wish to tear apart their latest work of art. A lot of work went into this disc and I’m just happy they release anything at all. Yes has always been about progress and the thing about progress is that sometimes the first step forward is a little shaky. What I write from this point on I write out of passion for the band and its music. This is not a rant or a negative review, just the opinion of a devout fan.
Let’s get some of the B.S. out of the way right now. Roy Thomas Baker. This is the dude the band elected to have produce some sessions they did back in 1979 when they were on the verge of a schism that would lead to beloved singer/founder Jon Anderson and fan favourite keyboardist Rick Wakeman leaving the band. The sessions yielded only a few tunes that really are quite sad, although they weren’t really a finished product. The band then met up with The Buggles (Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes) and formed a relationship that would serve them well. Downes for his sturdy keyboard skills and Horn for his exceptional abilities as a writer and producer. He produced their most successful album, 1983’s 90125, and the aforementioned masterpiece, Fly From Here. So why, right after releasing such a beautifully multi-dimensional record, would the band think Roy Thomas Baker was a good choice for producer? I’m convinced that this guy doesn’t know anything about what makes the band tick and how to make a Yes record, period.
Case and point, there are a lot of great tunes on Heaven & Earth, they just seem unfinished… like, um, a producer was supposed to step in and say, you know, layer this up, put a fill here, this song drags, there’s no fire here, let’s not have the band’s renowned rhythm section be so quiet… Things a good producer should have done. You’re paid a fair bit of coin to make a record sound good. I’m not saying Elias the thing up by adding almost another band’s worth of session musicians into the mix, but you had some good hooks to work with… what happened? Granted that the music does sound good and polished to perfection, there just should have been a little more flourish. A little more imagination. I don’t hate the guy, or even dislike him in any way, but I don’t think he’s a good fit for this band. End RTB rant.
The first song on the record, “Believe Again,” is quite a catchy tune. There’s nothing terribly progressive about it, but Yes has opted to take this approach before and there’s nothing wrong with that. My favourite things about the track are Geoff Downes’ ever fabulous keyboard work and the fantastic chorus. It’s hard not to sing or at least hum along to the thing. A few beefs, however. This is new singer Jon Davison’s first outing with the band. Nevermind that he’s filling Jon Anderson’s shoes, I’m well over that. I’m a huge fan of the band’s previous vocalist, Benoît David and his perfectly clear and passionate studio voice. I’ve seen members come and go from Yes throughout my entire life and I accepted each happening as simply an artistic decision, such as a musician selecting which instruments he wants to use on an album. Benoît’s leaving was in fact the first time I was ever shaken by a departure, and Jon Davison unfortunately and unfairly gained my derision just because of this. Is he a good vocalist? Yes, he’s fantastic. I do, however, think his voice is quite weak. During the verses of “Believe Again,” when unaccompanied by backing vocalists, his voice flounders. In the chorus, when bassist Chris Squire’s epic trademark harmony is wailing out behind him, there is the illusion of strength that makes the song climb to where it should be.
Guitarist Steve Howe is great on the track, with a sweet solo toward the song’s end and the neat and epic repeating hook that makes up the song’s bridge. There are a few things that a producer probably should have addressed, however. There should have been more fills (guitar or keys) in between chorus lines. It feels as if there are empty holes and an otherwise powerful chorus loses a bit of momentum. See Howe’s fill work in the last verse of “We Can Fly” from Fly From Here for an example of what could have been done. On a more positive note, Alan White still pounds the skins like a boss.
The second tune, “The Game,” took some time to grow on me, but it really is a lovely song. Here, Davison’s vocals sound as clear and magnificent as Benoît’s did. They deliver a very pleasing melody that is Yes through and through. The verses leave some to be desired, however. This seems to be a running theme throughout the record. Although the band and fans alike are lauding Davison as this fresh, new writer, I don’t find him to be particularly astounding. Chorus hooks abound, but Yes has a lot of the time been more about the adventure of its lyrics. This is certainly true with Anderson and Horn as writers. I will give you that Rabin was all about hooks, but his included punchy verses. I’ve had a bit of trouble connecting with the lyrics, but I’m used to Jon Anderson’s one-of-a-kind charming nonsense, so this has never been a concern for me. It is, however, true that I favour Trevor Horn as a lyricist.
The first full-on Yes tune to appear on the record is the smoothly sombre “To Ascend.” Everything here is quite gorgeous. This song sees this new line-up melding together into something very beautiful. It reminds me somewhat of some of the more powerful moments on Magnification (another Yes disc that I love), “We Agree” for example. Again, Geoff Downes… bravo… The production here is also of note.
“In a World of Our Own” is a snappy little tune with an interestingly clunky rhythm. I don’t particularly care for the delivery of the vocals on this tune. It reminds me perhaps of something from Keys to Ascension 2, which was never a favourite of mine. There are definitely enough hooks in the song, however, and pretty well everyone is in fine form, it’s just me not buying Davison again. It comes and goes. I’m sorry, he really does have some great moments on this album… I mean, even the great Jon A. had his cringe moments.
And then along comes “Light of the Ages” to kick me in the backside for saying anything against Jon D. on the tune that, in writing credits, bears his name solely. He performs this one magnificently. His vocal quality and delivery are quite moving and there is a lot to like about this song as a Yes fan. It shifts very progressively and provides the perfect opportunity for Davison’s vocal to soar with immediacy until the song’s punchy coda. I hope to hear more like this one from him as a songwriter and vocalist in the future.
In order to end on a good note, I’m going to skip ahead a bit. The album ends with the overrated “Subway Walls.” Fans are lauding this as a progressive epic like the band’s old stuff, but I’m not hearing it. It plods along more like something off of Open Your Eyes. True, there are some switch ups, like what happens halfway through, and Downes delivers some really cool keys, but we’re not talking “Endless Dream,” “Awaken,” “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Machine Messiah,” “And You And I,” or “Heart of the Sunrise.” My problem clearly isn’t with the song itself, but with its comparison to the classics. I personally find it a terribly anti-climactic code for the record. Mind you, I felt “Into the Storm” was a terrible ending for Fly From Here. I thought Magnification ended badly too.
At last, we come to the one and only song on the record in which I can’t find any fault, and Howe gets the writing credit. “It Was All We Knew” represents everything I love about Yes. The verses are very minor and echo the band’s early 1970’s stuff, while the chorus is playfully fun and reminds me of the band’s 1969 debut. The hooks are pristine and Steve Howe… dang. Yet again Howe comes along toward the end of the record with a song that so perfectly harks the old stuff. He did the same with “Hour of Need” on Fly From Here.
Hopefully you see where I’m coming from here. While it’s not quite what I or many fans were expecting (and don’t play that ‘go easy on them, they’re old’ B.S. … Fly From Here demonstrated that the band is still very much with it and can still put out near flawless material), Heaven & Earth isn’t without its charms. In a world where many great bands have turned into live-from-a-casino-near-you acts, Yes should be receiving praise for continuing to release albums. Good, bad, or what have you, I’m just happy to have a new Yes album and simply putting a disc into the player that has their name on it brings a joy to my space cadet heart that I can’t fully explain. Please forgive any harshness of words. It’s not the album I expected and I definitely had that ‘my god, even Union was better than this!’ moment, but it grew on me, maybe cause it really isn’t all that bad, or maybe cause I just needed it to. Give Heaven & Earth a week of your time, like I did, and remember that this will hopefully be a stepping stone to something amazing in the future.
Thank you for the record, gentlemen.
RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.