The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Heaven & Earth Nick Reed , July 2nd, 2014 12:32

It would be nearly impossible to find a band with a more checkered history than Yes. While they've had inconsistencies over their 46 years of existence, they've never wavered in their dedication to unpredictable, bizarre lineup changes, and the drama that comes with them. There's far too much of that to cover in this review, but let's just say that Yes were perhaps the 70's premiere prog rock act, with an incredible run from 1971 to 1974 that still holds up as some the very finest music the genre had to offer. But, like most of those prog rock bands, they couldn't keep it up for too long. Prog fell out of favour and the band tried their hand at new things, at one point even scoring a number one single with 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart'. Of course, that edition of Yes was dominated by Trevor Rabin and had little to do with the group that recorded Close To The Edge; but that's Yes for you. Even when it seems like they're cooked, they find a way to rebound.  

Case in point: when Jon Anderson suffered a severe asthma attack in 2008, the group unceremoniously booted him and replaced him with Benoit David, the frontman of a Yes tribute band that they found on YouTube. Keep in mind the fact Anderson was their singer for about 40 years; he appeared on every single Yes album except Drama. What's more, they recorded a new album with David - 2011's surprisingly decent Fly From Here, a sort sequel to Drama. David faired well, but he also got sick, so the next man in line was Jon Davison, the current singer of Tennessee's Glass Hammer, who looks and sounds he could be Anderson's son. And so the show goes on.

Heaven & Earth is Yes' latest album, and unlike Fly From Here, this one's all new material. The lineup: Chris Squire, Jon Davison, Alan White, Geoff Downes, and Steve Howe. Jon Davison is absolutely the right choice for the band. While Benoit David had to throw his voice to sound like Anderson, Davison just naturally sounds that way, and if anything his voice is even more ridiculous. He writes the same sort of obtuse, nonsensical lyrics that old Jon did. Naturally, they also saddled him with the majority of the songwriting duties (he's credited on seven of the eight songs - no other band member has more than three).

Heaven & Earth is an odd duck in the Yes discography. I mean, the Yes discography is full of odd ducks, but this time, they don't sound anything like classic Yes or the Rabin-era Yes. Some of these songs are on the longer side, but this is not progressive rock; if Starcastle was one degree of prog removed from Yes, then Heaven & Earth is about three degrees removed from Starcastle. This is a pure shot of Adult-Oriented Pop, and it's not completely without compare in the Yes catalogue - Talk, Open Your Eyes, and The Ladder had a number of limp, smiley-face pop songs, but there's even less edge on the songs here. It's almost as though the band tried to put together an album full songs like 'I've Seen All Good People', without the corresponding 'Your Move' bit that ties everything together.

Here's what this album sounds like. First, there's Downes, whose keyboards are all set to soft, angelic tones, playing bits that are either tasteful but ignorable, or really doodly ('Believe Again', 'Step Beyond'). Howe is usually somewhere in there, strumming something way in the background or taking some time to insert half-speed guitar runs in random spots. Davison sings his bits, often with Squire backing him up, and those are often the best (or prettiest) parts of the album - Davison sounds like he's about to burst into tears on half these songs. White plays these dinky rhythms that might as well be from a drum machine; he's so undermixed that you can barely hear him. And Squire is halfway asleep almost the entire time - when he's audible you can hear the dust rattling off his bass. Okay, so imagine what all that might sound like. Now, reduce the tempo by a good third or so. These songs are shockingly slow; even for a band of grandpas, there's so little energy that it feels as if everyone's going to spontaneously doze off at any moment. It's almost like an MC Escher house of lethargy; this shouldn't even be possible. Every single instrument seems to be quieter than every other instrument, and the songs feel like they're constantly slowing down, even though we know they aren't. Try getting one of these songs stuck in your head, then go back and listen to it again. What the hell?

And that's the thing - these songs will get stuck in your craw, for better or worse. It may be an easy album to tear down, but truthfully, I kind of like some of these songs. There's no energy and the performances are dry, but Davison certainly knows his way around a pretty melody; 'Light of the Ages' and 'To Ascend' have a certain ethereal beauty to them. Some of it is catchy - the delicate harmonies in 'The Game' and 'Step Beyond' are great, and at least the verses of 'Believe Again' are nice. Sometimes they even sort of benefit from the surreally listless tempos; if the album's concept is ascending to heaven, then these songs do make you feel like you're dying. Now none of them really work from start to finish, but at least most have something going for them, with the exception of 'In a World Of Our Own', which pretty much bites it, I'm afraid (my God, does the spectre of death loom hard over that one).

Still, it's not good news if you're a longstanding fan, particularly since Fly From Here at least featured a band that resembled Yes. The only glimmer here is the closing 'Subway Walls'; finally Squire plays more than a couple of notes at a time, and you can hear them shift time signatures and jam for a couple of minutes like they used to. Again, it's far too slow; like most of the other songs, you get the feeling that the song may have worked fine if only they had recorded it 20 years earlier. Like everything Yes have done in the last three decades, it's mostly just odd and frustrating. Even the most hardcore of Yes fans may forget that this exists in a couple months. Let's just stay tuned for the inevitable 50th anniversary Yes album, featuring a completely inaudible Squire and White, the return of Jon Anderson, Wakeman's grandson, and the ghost of Peter Banks. You can't really rule it out, can you?