Heaven & Earth


Frontiers Records, 2014


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Yes created some of the most memorable music of progressive rock’s golden age. From 1971’s The Yes Album through 1977’s Going For The One, they dazzled (and occasionally confounded) audiences with the complexity, drive and imagination of their music, which blended complex harmonies and metaphysical lyrics with expansive, often virtuosic playing. During this period, the band cemented their legacy as one of the most highly regarded and influential prog bands ever to hit “record.”

If the Yes story had ended in 1978, the group’s immortality would have been assured. The fact that it didn’t—that they have gone on, and on, and on into their late 60s in a variety of incarnations—has turned the band’s legacy from one of greatness to one of wild swings in quality and increasing musical irrelevance. (Which I say as a dedicated fan myself, someone who considers the epic “Close To The Edge” one of the great achievements of the rock era, has seen Yes live in four different decades, and has reviewed enough of their voluminous output to qualify for combat pay.)

Since 1978, the story of Yes has largely been one of persistence, of periods of change and conflict followed by the inevitable retrenching. There have been moments of promise, to be sure; 1983’s 90125 was inventive in its blending of AOR and prog, and a few of their latter-day albums between 1996 and 2002 showed flashes of the old fire.

Today, however, Yes exists only as a shadow of its former self. Since unceremoniously giving the boot to co-founder / lead vocalist Jon Anderson in 2008 while he was temporarily too ill to perform, co-founder / bassist / harmony vocalist Chris Squire and longtime cohorts Steve Howe (guitar) and Alan White (drums) have plowed ahead with a series of fill-ins, touring endlessly and recording two new albums. The first, 2011’s tepid Fly From Here, featured Yes tribute band singer Benoit David on lead vocals and saw the decades-later return of keyboard player Geoff Downes (Asia), whose previous tenure in the band lasted roughly calendar year 1980.

By last year, though, David was out and Jon Davison—of both a Yes tribute band and modern prog-rockers Glass Hammer—was in. Davison had the advantage of having a natural high tenor voice similar to Anderson’s, making it easier for the band to recreate the classic Yes tunes live in concert, i.e. where the money is these days. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Heaven & Earth is the group’s first album with Davison as their frontman, and the singer, who comes across in concert as a sincere, enthusiastic fan of Yes music, ends up playing a major role here, co-writing seven of eight tracks. Given the dearth of fresh musical ideas contributed by Squire and Howe in recent years, one suspects this was out of necessity. The end result is some of the weakest material ever to be issued under the Yes name.

Yes have flailed, many times, but never before have they slumbered through an entire album. Tales From Topographic Oceans at least showed ambition; Big Generator at least had drive; Union at least offered variety. This album has none of the above: no ambition, no drive, no variety. The band whose kaleidoscopic approach used to not just use every tonal color available, but invent new ones, has made an album of unbroken, enveloping beige.

The opening moments of “Believe Again” offer a hint of promise as Downes’ chirpy, echoing synths and Davison’s pleasantly sing-songy delivery hark back to “Wonderous Stories” from 1977’s Going For The One. But just when it should soar, “Believe Again” does the opposite, moving from lilting verse into a plodding chorus.

Several of the tunes that follow are so utterly bland and generic—two adjectives that should never be associated with Yes music—that they disappear from the imagination seconds after they’re finished. “The Game” and “Light Of The Ages” in particular have a distinctly cheesy Asia/AOR feel, with Davison and Howe working in clichés high over pedestrian keyboard lines and ponderous rhythm tracks. 

The low point comes early on when Downes puts a dime-store Casio synth patch on repeat for the duration of “Step Beyond,” already one of the laziest and most amateurish tracks ever recorded by an alleged progressive rock band. An utter embarrassment.

“To Ascend” is a well-intentioned ballad that falls flat even as Davison borrows a familiar Andersonism (“with the eyes of a child”). “It Was All We Knew,” a Howe composition, at least tries something a little different, giving the intro a hint of rockabilly twang before dissolving into America-ish easy-listening verses.

The nearest this album comes to anything resembling progressive rock is on the closing “Subway Walls,” a nine-minute track with some actual dynamics, with Squire awakening briefly in the early going and Howe doing the same just before the fade. Unfortunately, the lyric is weak, the transitions are awkward, and the whole thing ends up feeling disjointed and half-formed. It’s hard to figure out what, if anything, producer Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, The Cars, Guns N’ Roses) contributed to this mess; it’s clear there was no leadership or musical direction of the sort Anderson used to provide in the studio.

Four decades down the road from the era of greatness that first attracted many of us who still follow the band, it’s obvious that neither this nor any other lineup of Yes is likely to produce another Close To The Edge. Those days are gone. All most longtime fans are really hoping for at this point is new music that is worthy of the legacy represented by the name Yes. Heaven & Earth doesn’t even come close to meeting that standard. As a fan, this album just makes me sad.

Rating: D-

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© 2014 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Frontiers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.