Album review: Heaven & Earth by YES (2014)

YES has a new album called Heaven & Earth. First off, let’s discuss the elephant in the room. Jon Anderson is not on this record (as in the previous effort, Fly From Here). This fact will immediately send many life-long YES fans into a whirling dervish of fists and elbows to tear it down. (“It’s not YES without Jon Anderson!”) And while it’s sad that he is not involved, it must be noted that Mr. Anderson had previous quit the band TWICE (1980 and 1989). So, let’s believe that Jon is truly happier as a solo artist and the band is best served moving forward with their new lead singer (also named Jon!) Jon Davison.

Oh look… another elephant in the room: YES cannot make another record on the level of The Yes Album, Fragile or Close to the Edge. It is impossible. So there will be no comparisons to that glorious tri-fecta that occurred in the magical years of 1971-1972. If one is to compare this record to anything, it should be to other bands with members in their mid-to-late-60’s, say Asia.

Heaven & Earth (named for the Roger Dean artwork of the same title) contains 8 songs. Seven are written or co-written by Jon Davison, who captures Jon Anderson’s “unique” sound so accurately, it’s a little strange. (How can they both have an identical and unique singing voice???) Although sometimes in the lower register, he sounds a bit like the lead singer in 1980, Trevor Horn. In fact, on the 1980 album “Drama” we find the only line-up difference is in the lead singer role (again, as in Fly From Here).

The opener, “Believe Again,” is an 8 minute mid-tempo song that incorporates a dark  Steve Howe solo in the middle before returning to its predominantly uplifting mood, singing about believing in love. During one’s first listening, you’ll be wondering, “is this the strongest, most energetic offering?”  If so, we might be in for a long haul or a good nap (which this writer did indeed have while listening.)

But we’re going to look at the album as a whole and this writer has listened in its entirety 3 times (awake).

“The Game” is a bit peppier and clocks in at nearly 7 minutes. There’s an undeniable light-weight-ness to the track. Again, we cannot compare it to the early cannon material; so, on its own it is pleasant enough.

I consider the third track “Step Beyond” as the weakest on the album. The tune, written by Davison and Howe, does benefit from the minor chord change in the pre-chorus, but I found it a bit too 80′s pop (and not in the 90125 Rock kind of way).

“To Ascend” has a rare co-writing credit to drummer Alan White. A ballad in 3/4-time with a driving 6/8 swing in the chorus. The song is well written and could receive decent airplay on AOR stations. The best song at this point.

The Davison/Chris Squire song “In a World of Our Own” is a very enjoyable track. It contains a feel never associated with YES; a mid-tempo shuffle similar to “Now She Knows She’s Wrong” by Jellyfish or The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” The bridge section contains some tricky rhythmic playing. Might be the first true Prog-rock section of the album. At this point, the record seems to be getting better all the time (Beatles reference intentional.)

“Light of the Ages” is the first YES song written solely by Jon Davison. It begins with the what-must-by-patented-by-now Steve Howe guitar sound and some marching snare drum fills by White. Another good song adorned with Geoff Downes piano playing and more tricky rhythms. At the 4 minute mark, the tune shifts to an uplifting 3/4 swing. The song is also a slower tempo one that has clearly defined the album as a whole. But it’s a strong 7 & 1/2-minutes. I’d imagine if this was performed live while pushing the tempo a little, it could come across quite well.

The 7th song, “It Was All We Knew” was written by Steve Howe. The tempo has been picked-up to mid-tempo. It’s alright and helps to lighten the feel.

The final and longest song of the album is also its strongest. “Subway Walls” is co-written by keyboardist Geoff Downes and Jon Davison. It’s got lyrics like the word “existential” – so, it’s gotta be considered Prog-rock, right? Strong bass lines and lots of Chris Squire harmonies make this probably the truest-YES-like. There’s a funky li’l bass solo in the exact middle of the song. The instrumental break is an odd time signature that builds adding just the drums, then solos on keys and guitar; somewhat reminiscent of “Safe (Canon Song)” on Chris Squire’s solo album Fish Out of Water. It builds and breaks open into the final climax. The last 4.5 minutes are the finest on the whole record and leaves you wishing it was a couple minutes longer.

It accomplishes its goal leaving the listener with a feeling that this incarnation of YES is good on its own merit.

It’s hard to say who will enjoy this record, but it is recommended that one plays Fly From Here alongside Heaven & Earth to give the listener proper context for this current evolution of YES. Keep an open-mind, let the past-be-the-past, listen a few times, and one will find it is a fine record top-to-bottom.

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