As most of you know, I am an enormous fan of the progressive rock (sometimes shorted to “prog”) band Yes (I have written more about the genre of progressive rock here and more about Yes here). On July 22, 2014 Yes has released, depending on how one counts, at least its twenty-first studio album entitled Heaven & Earth. This is Yes’ first release since I started this blog and I am happy to have the opportunity to dedicate a post to this blog on my review of Yes’ latest album.
Yes made a short promotional video about the album which you can find here.
Before I get into the meat of the review, here is the basic information for the album:
||“Believe Again” (video clip sample here)
||Jon Davison, Steve Howe
||“The Game” (video clip sample here)
||Chris Squire, Davison, Gerard Johnson
||“Step Beyond” (video clip sample here)
||“To Ascend” (video clip sample here)
||Davison, Alan White
||“In a World of Our Own” (video clip here)
||“Light of the Ages” (video clip sample here)
||“It Was All We Knew”
||Davison, Geoff Downes
Yes was founded in 1968 and, as one may expect, anything released by a media entity, such as a band, or movie series, or television show, and the like, particularly one which has seen its share of success, after forty-six years comes with it much baggage and expectation from its fan base and Heaven & Earth is no exception. Heaven & Earth, as incredible as it may sound, is a unique album for one released this deeply into the band’s career. For better or for worse, and for perhaps the first time in twenty, if not thirty, years, Yes has made an album which truly reflects who they are and what they want to be right now, without regard to expectations and baggage. For this reason alone, whether one hates or loves Heaven & Earth, I think it must be respected as it is enormously risky to make an album like that this far into their career.
Yes began its life in the 1960s as a psychedelic group inspired, like most bands of the era, by the Beatles. By the time the 1970s arrived, and the introduction of Steve Howe into Yes, the band evolved throughout the 1970s as the premier progressive rock band, selling millions of albums and playing arenas to tens of thousands of fans per show. Unfortunately, the end of the 1970s saw progressive rock’s popularity on the wane due to the increase in popularity of punk and pop which led many progressive rock bands to fold. Instead of following this pattern, Yes retooled itself into having a more mainstream commercial sound in the 1980s. What Yes may have lost in some musical credibility, it gained as a chart topping band through the 1980s. The era of the revitalized commercial Yes concluded more or less after the tour of their 1991 album Union. By the early 1990s, Yes’ style was once again foiled by punk, this time by its progeny known as grunge.
By 1994, Yes began a twenty-year era marked by the confusing push and pull of its two eras of popularity; an era which may have finally found its end with the release of Heaven & Earth. Over this twenty-year period Yes found itself in the unenviable position of trying to satisfy two seemingly mutually exclusive groups of fans at the same time in an effort not to lose either: the fans of the 1970s progressive rock era and the fans of the 1980s commercial era. One way Yes tried to do that is to release compromise albums which have aspects of each style, some songs being of their progressive style and some more commercial; specifically Yes tried, to varying degrees of success, to do this on 1994’s Talk, 1999’s The Ladder, and 2011’s Fly From Here. Of course, these albums have some songs which please some fans and other songs which please others, leaving both somewhat unsatisfied. Alternatively, Yes , at times, decided to go “all in” on one of their styles. For example, in 1996 Yes released the Keys to Ascension set which saw the reunion of Yes’ classic line up and an album of “old school” prog rock. Although seen by some as a great return to form, this album was criticized as being “retro” or “derivative” or “breaking no new ground.” So, in 1997, Yes released Open Your Eyes, which saw them embrace their 1980s sound, yet, as before, this album, too, was criticized, this time as being a sell out or a rejection of their prog rock roots or lacking musical credibility. In 2001, Yes, in what appeared to be a stroke of creativity to avoid the prog/pop conflict described above, released Magnification, which embraced the long forgotten sound of band and full orchestra as found on their second album Time and a Word released in 1970. Unfortunately for Yes, this rediscovered sound did not move many fans. So, as a result, with yet another reformation of the classic line up in 2002 through 2005, instead of creating wholly new material, Yes elected to rediscover their back catalog as an “unplugged” band (albeit about ten years after the unplugged fad ran its course) and released Yes Acoustic: Guaranteed No Hiss and The Ultimate Yes.
I provide the rather long winded introduction above to provide the background in which Heaven & Earth finds itself and why it should be respected as a Yes release in 2014.
Overview of the Album:
One thing that is striking when listening to this album is that it sounds nothing like any other album Yes has ever produced. If I had to compare it to another release, it would fall somewhere in the family of albums comprising of Tormato, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, and The Ladder, and possibly Going for the One and Talk, yet it really does not sound like any of these. As I stated above, it is truly unlike the rest of the Yes canon.
The album does have some distinguishing features. It is marked by a mid-tempo, mellow, and light sound through most of the album. It also shows a band that is mature. Of course, any band that is 46 years into a career is mature. What I mean by that is that Yes does not seem overly concerned with proving their prog rock credibility at every turn by playing to the genre or their reputation. Instead, Yes plays the music they want to play and, when appropriate, include prog rock fiddle faddle, but do not clearly feel pressure to do so, especially when the music may not call for it. The other characteristic of the music that comes across almost instantly is that it is song oriented, melodic and beautiful. The band gets the most out of every melody and clearly the emphasis and focus the band has is on melody (especially vocal melody) and beauty over the other aspects of the music. In fact, the melodies on practically every song are great candidates to be earworms for days; for all of Yes’ talent and history of great music, creating earworms is something of a new thing for them. Most of all, it is very clear that Yes feels no pressure to live up to their reputation. Yes made an album that reflects who they are today.
There are three groups of songs on the album. Three songs, “Believe Again,” “Light of the Ages,” and “Subway Walls,” are the ones which are most like their prog rock pedigree and, unsurprisingly, are also the longest of the album. “Believe Again” has a beautiful melody which is introduced on Steve Howe’s guitar. The verses have a nice counterpoint bass part and the chorus features memorable and standard Yes harmonies. The middle of the song has a darker instrumental break which, perhaps in ages past, would have included more furious playing than done now, but here Yes includes just the right notes with just the right amount of subtly. “Light of the Ages” sounds like something Yes would have made as a movement to a longer song in the past, but now, in 2014, Yes makes the most of the track taken alone. The music is beautiful and atmospheric, with a great Howe introduction and powerful melody. “Subway Walls” is the most “classic Yes” of the songs though it too includes rather unusual elements for a Yes song. Notably, it includes a long highly orchestrated neo-classical keyboard/vibraphone introduction (which is, believe it or not, unusual for Yes) which leads into a friendly bass melody and, once again, a memorable vocal melody. The song leads into a long instrumental break that compares more to traditional jazz than traditional Yes, which includes a Jon Lord like Hammond organ as well as angular and fuzzed electric guitar, concluding with a very insistent and dramatic vocal section to conclude the song.
The next set of songs include “To Ascend,” “In a World of Our Own,” and “It Was All We Knew.” These songs are progressive in as much as they include their fair share of Yes fiddle faddle, such as awkward time signatures and unusual arrangements, however, in my mind, these songs are progressive for what they stand for in the Yes canon. “To Ascend” is a Yessified country western song (Steve Howe strums his 12-string Portuguese guitar throughout a la “Wonderous Stories“) , while “In a World of Our Own” is in the style of a Chicago blues shuffle with a blocky Hammond organ and some Beatles-isms, while “It Was All We Knew” would fit comfortably on a Jimmy Buffet album. Many may say that these songs are not progressive enough (or even at all), but, to my mind, a band like Yes pulling out songs like these, which have no real analogue anywhere in their back catalog, shows a band willing to be unpredictable and push itself and continue to try new things, which, I think, is especially impressive this late in their career considering all of the expectations their history has created in the minds of their fans.
This leaves “The Game” and “Step Beyond” as the final set of songs. Both songs could be considered as heading in the direction of a “pop” and/or “commercial” style, but, once again, these songs, as the others, include unpredictable arrangements and structures that would not be found in pop or commercial music. “The Game”, with its smooth guitar with ebow and extremely catchy melody in both chorus and verses, really glides along and gets caught in one’s brain for days. Squire’s bass parts and Howe’s guitar parts during the verses are very unusual, textural, and effects based, and fit together like a jig saw. “Step Beyond”, which is arguably the weakest track on the album, has a rather awkward gait to it which features bouncy moog parts, a loud electric guitar which appears out of nowhere, and a fat Squire bass line that is unexpected considering the context of the song in which it finds itself. Despite its weaknesses, though, the chorus, strangely enough, finds its way into one’s brain for hours.
Everyone in the band turns in excellent performances throughout as one would expect. The playing is consistent with what Yes has always produced. The only thing I would say is that their playing is subtler than on other albums. For example, instead of a big fat in your face bass line, Squire is content to make his sound more polite. The long and blistering solos and/or the furious (over?) playing so prevalent on prior Yes releases are mostly absent in favor of playing some would say is more tasteful. Indeed, part of the reason for the lack of this sort of playing is simply that the music does not call for it, with its emphasis on melody and group playing, and perhaps Yes are at a point in their career where they are finally mature enough to embrace subtly and tastefulness more than before. It’s not that they can’t play furiously anymore – their live shows show that they can – they just choose to be more judicious about it on this album. It is also worth noting that, strange enough as it is to say, Alan White stood out to me on this album. The playing of the other guys is as expected while Alan White turned in a performance not seen since at least The Ladder, if not before. His playing is complex, subtle, and very pleasing. Ironically, the “original thunder machine” (as Jon Anderson used to call him) who provided such a contrast to Bill Bruford‘s lighter touch and subtle jazzy style when he joined in 1972, appears to be taking on more of his predecessor’s style by toning down the speedy pounding in favor of lighter but more complex percussion. Finally, to address the elephant in the room, Jon Davison, the man filling the shoes vacated by Jon Anderson, does an amazing job. His singing is high, clear, and emotional, and easily fits within the vocal style established by Anderson for the decades before Davison’s arrival into the band. Interestingly, in the acknowledgement section of the liner notes of this album (pictured below), Dasvison thanks Paramahansa Yogananda who provided Jon Anderson inspiration to create Yes’ epic magnum opus Tales from Topographic Oceans. This should give him a little more Yes credibility for those who pine after Anderson. His voice, like Anderson’s, seamlessly harmonizes with Squire’s voice who turns in yet another great vocal performance as well.
Before I conclude, I want to mention the sound/production of the album. The album is produced by famed English producer Roy Thomas Baker. Billy Sherwood, former Yes member and long time Yes collaborator, mixed the album and engineered the vocals. Baker, as hardcore Yes fans will recall, was the producer of Yes’s 1979 Paris album that was never completed or released (except for the bits and pieces released as “bonus tracks” on re-releases of old albums and box sets in the 21rst Century). So, Baker and Yes had some unfinished business (note that none of the music on Heaven & Earth dates from the Paris album). Baker’s sonic emphasis was on the vocals (which makes sense considering the emphasis on melody on the album) and the drumming. All of the other instruments were sort of compressed between the singing and the drumming. This is unfortunate as some of the playing is really good but can be missed because of its underemphasis. For example, there are a few of places on the album where Chris Squire’s bass should be fat, loud, and pounding, but winds up somewhat buried and crammed between the singing and the drumming. The other instruments have similar issues at various times across the album as well where the singing (especially) or the drumming takes priority when, to my ears, perhaps the guitar or keyboards or bass should be more prominent. Indeed, the weakest link on the album is, strangely, the production. As good as the songs are I do not think the production does them any justice and, quite honestly, I think these songs, as a result, will really shine and take on a life of their own live when the band can set its own volume levels.
Like any Yes album, this album has received its share of criticism, including from many who call themselves Yes fans. Now, there is no accounting for taste. People like and dislike what they like and dislike out of an emotional response to music that no amount of intellectual argument can persuade otherwise. That being said, although some criticism is objectively of the music itself, I have found that the vast majority of the criticism (especially from Yes fans) stems from the fact that this album does not meet preconceived expectations. In other words, the criticism can be described as the following: “Yes should not sound like that” or “Yes should not make an album like this” or “This does not sound like any Yes album I know” or “This is not what Yes should sound like.” I take these criticisms as those of people who cannot accept that Yes continues to change and push themselves and try new things. Yes may have delved into an area of music one does not like but I do not think that makes the music poor; it merely means it is not what one expects from Yes. Quite honestly, I would rather have a Yes that does not meet expectations as they are trying (and possibly failing at) something new than a Yes that continues to do the same thing over and over again to meet the expectations of its fans. Indeed, after forty-six years, I respect the fact that Yes can risk making an album that does not meet the expectations of its fans.
This is, without doubt, a Yes album and a very credible one at that. I think this album took courage to release. This album will please a lot of Yes fans. I doubt this album will convert many non-fans. The courage, though, comes in that this album may displease just as many fans as it pleases as this album is completely unexpected and unlike what Yes has done before. Failing to fulfill fans’ expectations, which have been formed and crafted over forty-six years, regardless of the merits of the music, is an enormous risk to take for a band that is heading into its fiftieth anniversary, as such a failure can be viewed as betrayal or disgust by their fans. I think Yes made an album that reflects who they are today. Yes in 2014 is not the Yes of 1972 that made Close to the Edge or the Yes of 1983 which made 90125 and, realistically, we should not expect them to be at this late date. Besides, those albums have been made and do not need to be made again (indeed, retreading old territory would reveal a lack of creativity); they are now moving on to new and different things and, honestly, that is okay and, if I may say so, rather progressive of them even if what they created does not fit the traditional conception of prog rock. Yes, as described above, have tried being their past selves but dissatisfaction appears to be part and parcel with doing that. Instead, Yes have paved a new path and charted new territory, a path and territory they want to tread, regardless of the past and the expectations placed on them and for that, I think, whether one loves or hates Heaven & Earth, it has to be respected.
Here is the cover art: