What started you on your musical adventure? Which band influenced to go down the route you now follow, be it Progressive Rock, Heavy Metal, Hard Rock, Thrash Metal? There must have been one catalyst that got you started?
I make no secret of my love of Progressive Rock. I like multitudes of different genres but, if I’m nailing my colours to any mast it would be with a huge, great six inch nail straight through the main mast of the good ship Prog! And what group or artist started you on my progressive journey? Why, those heavyweight stalwarts of the genre, Yes.
I will never forget the first time I listened to Yes. Jon Anderson’s dulcet tones belting out Starship Trouper, Roundabout, And You and I, Close to the Edge and many more, it was musical nirvana to these ears and I lapped up anything I could get my hands on. Many people say they dipped with the Trevor Rabin era ‘90125’ and ‘Big Generator’ but I still liked them. The later output did start to fall away in innovation and quality though. In my opinion, of the more recent albums, only ‘Magnification’ could have been considered a decent album and, next to the execrable ‘Open Your Eyes,’ was a minor masterpiece.
Now, to say Yes have gone through many line up changes would be like saying that Elizabeth Taylor had more than one husband but they were always great musicians. The one thing that did seem to affect the Yes faithful was the loss of long term vocalist Jon Anderson. His replacement on 2012’s ‘Fly From Here’, former Mystery vocalist Benoit David could hardly have been said to have been given a fair crack of the whip and, whilst it was fairly well received by fans and critics alike, it was mainly just a rehash of some old songs from previous recording sessions.
2014 sees the release of what can be considered the first new Yes album that consists of all new recordings since 2001’s ‘Magnification’. The band now consists of long term members Chris Squire (bass)and Steve Howe (guitars)and previous members Alan White (drums) and Geoff Downes (keyboards). Vocal duties were taken over by Jon Davison, lead singer with American band Glass Hammer (a band often said to have taken over the mantle from Yes) and Davison is said to have contributed quite considerably to the new album Heaven and Earth.
The progressive community in general and, more specifically, the Yes community have been waiting with baited breath for this new release. Would it bring back the halcyon days where the band were the frontrunners and acknowledged masters of the genre or, would it be another damp squib and not really a Yes album in anything but name?
I have listened to this new album on multiple occasions before reviewing it, this is nothing special, I do that with every release I write a review for. It is only fair on the artists that the album they have painstakingly put together is given a fair chance and judged on its merits.
Unfortunately, no matter how many times I listen to it I cannot get away from the fact that this feels like an average record where I would expect good or even great from a band with the history that Yes has behind it and the weight of its back catalogue. It does not begin too badly, the first song Believe Again starts in that traditional Yes style but then falls flat and becomes a washed out version of the classic tracks. It is not helped by the vocals which, on this first song, appear to be badly produced, too low in the mix and I can’t get away from the feeling that Davison is straining his voice. It does get better and his vocal delivery on the chorus is actually very nice but, at eight minutes, the song is too long. The Game lifts the ante somewhat and actually gives you hope that there will be a hidden depth to this record. It is very catchy, Davison seems to be firmly into his vocal stride and the songwriting is pretty decent. The bass, drums and keyboards add a sophisticated rhythm section and I am becoming encouraged, especially with another neatly delivered chorus yet it still lacks major substance.
Maybe the next track will prove to be the one that catches light and delivers? In so many ways the answer to that question is a resounding no! In all my years of listening to the band I have never heard them deliver something as poor as this. On Step Beyond, inexorably bad songwriting and inane lyrics deliver a musical experience that is very poor indeed. Davison’s voice is not at fault, he delivers a perfectly adequate vocal performance but this is something that a band of sixteen year old school kids could produce in their sleep and not what you expect of progressive rock luminaries. The album continues with another track that could have been so much better. To Ascend is, basically, a nice song but it is one dimensional and one paced and rapidly becomes monotonous. What is so annoying is that the seeds of a good song are present they just are not allowed to flower. To me, the one shining light of this album is how Jon Davison grows in stature and authority but, if he is given equal credit for the songwriting, he has to take equal blame for the week lyrics and average music.
Although not quite as disappointing as Step Beyond, In A World of Our Own is another lightweight track that just never grabs your attention. It has an easy listening beat and a general feeling of apathy, doing nothing to make the listener think. It is muzak, what you would hear in a lift or whilst on hold on the phone and I quickly move on to the next song. Like a musical oasis in a desert of disappointment Light of the Ages stands head and shoulders above the majority of the rest of the album and is in a totally different league to the poorest tracks on display here. An album full of songs written to this level and delivered with the musical aplomb of these accomplished artists would actually be worth hearing. Unfortunately it just goes to prove how poor the majority of the rest of the album is. Steve Howe is at his guitar playing best and Jon Davison is really given the chance to shine vocally. The keyboards are soft, mellow and appealing and Squire’s bass playing finally gets some exposure. This is what I should be expecting from the band but, unfortunately, it is a hollow success.
It Was All We Knew has some nice touches that lift it up and make it stand out a little better than some of the other tracks. Howe seems to be finding his skill set towards the end of the album and Davison’s vocals improve throughout. I always liked his singing on the Glass Hammer records so you know there is a great vocalist in there and he is finally shining. Nevermore than merely good it is still very listenable. The album closes with the nine minutes of Subway Walls which opens with the incredibly Asia-like keyboards of Geoff Downes, nice in isolation but will they contribute to one final track that will leave me with a smile instead of a frown? As Chris Squire’s nice bassline and Steve Howe’s funky riff kick in, I am encouraged enough to believe this could be the second great track on the album. The vocals are strong and the drums are higher in the mix, which is not a bad thing at all. With the different tempos and signatures there is a definitive classic progressive vibe to the song. The jazz infected interlude in the middle of the track with the meandering keyboards and off kilter drums is a definite improvement and I actually find myself smiling and thinking that the band have f found there mojo at last, just 6 bloody songs too late! The final two minutes of the song are painful but only because, like Light of the Ages, they show what brilliance these guys can produce if they really try. This is what I expected of my progressive rock heroes but two songs out of eight is a really poor showing and leaves them filed in the ‘could have done so much better’ section of my musical library.
Overall Heaven and Earth is a big disappointment from a band who were one of the originators of the progressive rock genre and enabled it to conquer the world. That’s not to say that our favourite bands should ever put their feet up and call it a day if they have something to still offer. Two of the tracks on the album show they still have what it takes but the rest of this release really isn’t up to the standard that they should expect from themselves or what the listeners and fans, the people who pay good money for it, expect to hear.