Prog legends return, but can the 2014 line-up deliver?
Never was there a more apt title for an album than for the 2014 Yes opus Heaven And Earth - an album delivered over forty five years since their inception in 1968. For a band to last that long takes something, although to be fair, the Yes' story (or what fans might like to call the Yesstory) has seen the band go through so many incarnations that the revolving door policy or what football fans will appreciate as ‘squad rotation’ has certainly contributed to their longevity.
But that title - one which has seen the division in opinion between Yes fans and critics as never being wider - perhaps ‘Heaven And Hell’ may have been more suitable. While there are those who welcome any new music from such a giant of the progressive rock genre, there are those fans and critics who have literally slaughtered the record as being nothing like the standard or the quality of what they expect from Yes. Not a particularly fair stance when you’re judging it against some of their classic progressive works of the seventies. Again, there are those who have flocked to see the band on the live circuit playing sets featuring material exclusively from their seventies heyday, and there are those fans who protest at the dependence on their past at the expense of new material.
Prior to the album’s release, guitarist Steve Howe spoke to Prog Sphere magazine saying “the seventies were the seventies you know, the seventies are never going to come back .” Whilst being an obvious statement to make, it seems an unusual viewpoint when the bulk of the most recent Yes live outings have focused on playing entire albums back to back - Fragile, The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and the magnificent Going For The One - albums which were undeniably released and rooted in the seventies
Heaven And Earth comes as a result of their recent collaboration with producer Roy Thomas Baker with whom the band last encountered during their abortive sessions in 1979 in Paris when working on the follow up to their wonderful Going For The One record. Again, not a partnership many fans might have anticipated, but hey, water under the bridge and all that. The current incarnation of Yes includes the ever present Chris Squire along with senior members in Steve Howe and Alan White. This cycle seems them accompanied by early eighties keyboard recruit Geoff Downes; himself a former Yesman and reunited after being showhorned into the keyboard slot previously occupied by Oliver - son of Rick who in turn is perhaps the most celebrated Yes keys man - Wakeman. Handling vocal duties is Glass Hammer singer Jon Davison who replaced recent tribute band recruit Benoit David, who in turn had replaced the almost religiously revered Jon Anderson whose non-participation in Yes since 2008 due to a respiratory illness….pause for breath while the revolving doors slow.
So, given some time to let the album permeate and make our own minds up, what’s the Manchester Rocks opinion? Well, as a fan since the mid seventies who has always done their best to support Yes over the past thirty odd years, hopefully the opinion is objective and educated.
First things first, and as is important to prog fans, the package looks like a Yes album with a new Roger Dean cover design but we all know the danger of judging a book by its cover, but so far so good. Pop the disc in the tray and within half a minute of Believe Again (maybe a hopeful question or statement from the Yes camp?), there have been some pleasant light and airy keyboards and Davison has introduced himself with a suitably Anderson-esque vocal line and melody.
"As good as it gets from present day Yes"
What’s also apparent immediately is that for anyone who veers towards being a staunch supporter of Mr Anderson, the first impression is the remarkable similarity between Davison and the traditional/expected Yes vocal sound. He truly does sound more like Jon Anderson than Jon Anderson. Believe Again might not be the ultimate Yessong, but as good as it gets from present day Yes.
Next up the overall impression of how the album sounds is of washes of keys and Davison’s ever increasingly pleasing voice with the occasional sprinkles of Steve Howe guitar work. There’s clearly the influence of Downes’ New Dance Orchestra work particularly with Step Beyond whose quirky and bubbly keyboard motif has proved to be anathema, not just a step beyond but a step too far, for some Yes fans.
The lengthy album closer, Subway Walls finally offers some interaction and distinctive interplay between the instruments beyond the safe and secure songwriting which pervades the record. In fact there’s almost a jam halfway through with Downes and then Howe layering some improvised sounding phrases over the Squire/White rhythm section.
For those who foretold of an album of anti-climax and failure, it’s not as bad as it’s made out - give it chance. It’s an album of pleasant enough tunes which lack consistency, but maybe be thankful for small mercies, it being as good as we could expect although it’s pretty standard soft rock fare at times. Given time and effort, some tracks grow more than others while some fall sadly on stony ground or even worse, fall sadly into the filler bin. The jazzy swing of In A World Of Our Own, while offering something a bit different, seems out of place and the bouncy keyboard fanfares of Step Beyond have been condemned by some Yes fans as best forgotten. Howe again has stated that the album was recorded quite quickly “the appropriate amount of work in the time available.” Perhaps a bit more time taken for quality control might have separated the wheat from the chaff and provided a more consistent set.
"Davison stamps his impression all across the record, contributing not only a vocal which can’t fail to satisfy all the Yes/Anderson fans, but also in his songwriting contribution."
To use another footballing analogy, it’s the new boys, Davison in particular who have stepped in and done the business while the experienced internationals have coasted a bit. Davison undoubtedly is the man of the match, stamping his impression all across the record, contributing not only a vocal which can’t fail to satisfy all the Yes/Anderson fans, but also in his songwriting contribution - he collaborates with each of the other members in turn across the album. Squire’s usual harmonious bass sound is either absent or well hidden in the mix, and Steve Howe seems to have popped into the studio for a few sessions and scattered his distinctive guitar where he saw fit before leaving the others to it.
So there it is - the 2014 Yes deliver an album which is bookended by some quite acceptable Yessongs and Yesmusic, the journey not always being a comfortable or rewarding one but there’s always the scan button with which to find solace. At a time when prog seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance and the genre is packed with exciting up and coming bands, for the old hands, the jury’s still out and deciding on which side of the fence to fall.