A new album from a classic group can often be problematic – nobody sells albums anymore, especially bands of an older ilk who are faced with an aging fan base that solely wants to hear the hits of yesteryear delivered live. Try as I might to convince someone that the Rolling Stones A Bigger Bang was a solid addition to their catalogue, or that The Who’s Endless Wire was a consistently strong piece of art, there’s a good shot it will fall on deaf ears. The same can be said for prog rock masters Yes, who, in 2011, put out Fly From Here, an album I consider to be their best since 1980’s Drama. Some of their unrelentingly vocal fan base may agree with, while others would take the absence of founding member and lead singer Jon Anderson as reason enough to dismiss that effort.
If that’s the case, there’s no way I’ll be able to convince you that the band’s latest album, Heaven and Earth, is even better than Fly From Here. Or that, in my humble opinion, Yes has delivered a modern masterpiece.
It’s an uphill battle in many ways for the band. Much of their fan base won’t be satisfied unless at least one song clocks in at 20 minutes long and features the band playing in 12/8. Believe me, I understand. Though I came to the group via their mega 80’s hit, Owner of a Lonely Heart, I too love the extended pieces that made the band the leading lights of progressive rock during the 70s. The title track to their last album was, in fact, a 20 minute suite of music that flowed together beautifully. However, one of my favourite Yes albums happens to be their self-titled debut, which was full of relatively short compositions. So, in my mind, not every Yes album needs to feature epics to be rewarding.
Such is the case with Heaven and Earth, where the longest song, the closing track, Subway Walls, clocks in at 9 minutes and also happens to be the progiest offering from the band, featuring some quintessential Chris Squire bass playing. Two other tracks, Believe Again and Light of the Ages, clock in past the 7 minutes mark, but in the world of Yes, Heaven and Earth is a relatively concise group of songs. They also all happen to be incredibly beautiful.
I credit that fact with the arrival of new lead singer Jon Davison, whose lyrics clearly come from the school of Jon Anderson positivity; Davison’s words are uplifting and moving, like the best of his predecessor. Unlike late period Anderson, though, Davison doesn’t need an editor. As co-writer on all the tracks, and sole composer of Light of the Ages, Davison has been welcomed into the band on Heaven and Earth, and his presence and influence is clearly felt on every track. To these ears, he fits right in.
While there are some clever and intricate parts throughout the album, there is far more verse chorus verse than hardcore Yes fans may want. For me, with such great hooks and vocals (backing ones mixed by former member Billy Sherwood), I don’t mind the focus on on accessible songs. While I found Geoff Downes’ keyboard riff on Step Beyond shocking at first (it is pretty darn poppy), I still can’t get it out of my head. The same can be said for just about every song on Heaven and Earth. They’re ear worms, digging in, unwilling to leave until they’ve permeated your brain.
As much as I love this record, I will call out one flaw that did let me down. The production work by Roy Thomas Baker is virtually non-existent. I have no idea what the man, who contributed to the best of Queen’s 70’s output, did to earn his credit on Heaven and Earth. Baker was renowned for his big drum sound, but Alan White’s work is far, far back in the mix for the majority of the record. At no point do I feel Baker puts any sort of significant stamp on the album, and that’s something I would have liked to have heard. In reading one particular interview with guitarist Steve Howe, I get the sense that perhaps I’m not the only who felt that way.
However, the material contained on Heaven and Earth transcends my feelings about the productions, or lack thereof. The album is one of the most interesting of the band’s career, as they look not to ape what they were yesterday, but instead define who they are today. It’s interesting that the new album comes on the heels of the 5.1 surround sound remix reissue of The Yes Album (work done by Steven Wilson and released by Burning Shed). Released back in 1970, the band’s third album was a watershed moment for the group. As Heaven and Earth marks the arrival of Jon Davison in the studio with Yes, The Yes Album signalled Steve Howe’s studio debut. With his stunning virtuosity (highlighted even more now when the album comes at you from in front and behind – you won’t go back to listening in simple stereo after hearing it in surround), Howe defined the direction the band would go in. Davison is tasked with the same chore for Yes. In both cases, the new guys succeeded admirably.
Yes fans are a fickle bunch, and as much as I truly love Heaven and Earth, I know it will split fandom down the middle. Those that believe that 3/5ths of Yes doesn’t constitute the band will moan about the length of songs and the fact that neither Jon Anderson or Rick Wakeman aren’t there. For fans of the band who are tolerant of all incarnations, they’ll certainly have an easier time finding much to enjoy in Heaven and Earth. Either way, in a career that’s more than 45 years old, Yes continues to do things their way. I, for one, could’t be happier.