Yes: Heaven & Earth
Currently in their 46th year, Yes is the most enduring of all the prog bands. Much of the band’s longevity is thanks to an ever-shifting lineup, with bassist Chris Squire being the sole constant (though drummer Alan White has been with Yes for 42 years and guitarist Steve Howe has spent 31 of the last 44 years in the band). Keyboardist Geoff Downes, originally in Yes from 1980-1981, rejoined in 2011 for the recording of Fly From Here and has been with the band since.
Making his debut is vocalist Jon Davison, taking over from Benoit David (who assumed the position in 2008, replacing Jon Anderson). The last two years on the road revealed Davison to be the most adept, of all the singers who have assumed Anderson’s role, at performing the classics with the greatest of ease, while bringing his own flavor. His voice sounds much like Anderson’s, making him an easy and obvious fit. While Benoit David was a fantastic singer, Davison adds a new dimension by being a great songwriter as well, stepping up in a way that most “new guys” wouldn’t dare, writing (or co-writing) seven of this album’s eight songs. The result is a fantastic set of brand-new Yes classics.
I will admit, it took a couple spins through this record for it to sink in but, once it did, the payoff was monumental. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker, this album has a crisp sound and manages to be epic without being overwrought. There are certainly proggy moments but there are also some strong shorter songs. There is a certain sort of accessibility to this material but, unlike certain earlier albums, they don’t seem to be writing in an attempt to have a hit. This is an album for fans and for the band and it flows in a natural way. There are nods to the past on here, as you would expect, but there are also areas explored that Yes had yet to cover and that keeps it fresh.
“Believe Again”, co-written by Davison & Howe, kicks off the album in a light and airy way, not too far removed from “To Be Over” (from 1974’s Relayer) but it soon goes through a series of catchy sections that’ll get stuck in your head. The lyrics, while not as cosmic as Anderson’s, are nonetheless full of love and universal being, which have been running themes in Yes’ work since day one. While there is a certain pop element to this song, the middle section is a wicked prog trip and, at times, is reminiscent of the middle section of “Terrapin Station” by the Grateful Dead, satisfying two of my musical loves at once.
“The Game”, written by Davison & Squire, starts off with some soaring e-bow guitar from Steve Howe and quickly morphs into a cool pop-oriented number, one of the great latter-day Yes songs with lyrics about fleeting days and losing sight of life’s details. While this may never be a “hit” it’s still a fantastic song and one that proves Davison’s weight as a writer in this band.
“Step Beyond”, written by Howe/Davison, features a weird analog synth groove that is hard to get used to but the song itself is pretty solid. At times it reminds me of something Yes would have done in the 90s, though with many contrasting sections and some really interesting bits. Not one of the best songs on the album but if this is the worst that it gets then I think they are doing okay.
Co-written by Davison and White, “To Ascend” is a gorgeous acoustic-based number, a folk-tinged ballad full of emotion…one of Yes’ best “pretty” songs since “Wondrous Stories”, further proving how essential Davison is to the modern version of Yes, no matter how much Anderson is missed.
“In A World Of Our Own”, courtesy of Davison & Squire, starts out with a slippery, barrelhouse sort of groove, totally unlike anything Yes has ever done. A complex heartbreak song, this soon slips into territory that is reminiscent of what you’d might end up with if Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson were to do a record together.
Davison gets a sole writing credit on “Light Of The Ages” and, if the above tracks did not convince you of his worth, this surely will. Folky and proggy, with Steve Howe employing his best tricks like volume swells and lap-steel crescendos, and some of Alan White’s most creative drumming, this is one of the finest songs to ever grace a Yes album, up there with “To Be Over”, “Turn Of The Century”, and “And You And I”. Simply amazing.
Steve Howe gets a sole writing credit on “It Was All We Knew”, which is fun little stummy song with a quirky lead motif, some killer vocal harmonies and some classic, frantic guitar work. This could be a fun song to play acoustically, which is usually a sign of a great song.
Closing the album is the Davison/Downes composition, “Subway Walls”. At nine minutes, it’s the longest song on the album and features some wicked Squire bass grooves and some avant garde flourishes, along with a fantastic chorus about how the secrets to life could be found in the stars or in the “graffiti on the subway walls” just the same. Featuring some of Downes’ finest organ playing, this is yet another slice of excellent latter-day Yes.
With Davison working in so many writing configurations, it should come as no surprise that there is a great deal of leftover material, including a long-form piece co-written with Downes. The intent, apparently, is to use this stuff for the next album. If so, then it would be wise to continue this new sense of purpose swiftly and get another new album out as soon as possible, before the lineup ends up shifting again.
For the time being, Heaven & Earth does a fantastic job of keeping Yes alive and thriving and Jon Davison should be applauded.
Written by: Chris Anderson