Thursday, 10 July 2014

Albums of 2014: YES - Heaven & Earth

Who would have thought that I'd be writing a blog page on a new album by one of the last surviving Prog Rock bands YES in 2014? Not only that, but that it would be a good album too.

So here we have YES in 2014 - now consisting of founder member, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, Drummer Alan White, Keyboards player Geoff Downes and the latest recruit, vocalist Jon Davison.

Following the last album, 2011s Fly From Here, which featured another new vocalist in the shape of Benoit David, YES have re-emerged with their new vocalist and put in a performance that many thought they wouldn't achieve again.

Firstly, let's address the elephant in the room. Original vocalist, instrumentalist & writer Jon Anderson's shadow will ALWAYS be over the band. His voice was SO distinctive and his lyrics and observations were very much his own. Some YES fans will always be of the opinion that there is NO YES without Anderson. 

This album will not change their minds.

 But, if you consider that YES has always been an evolving organism which has embraced change over their 46 years, then you also have to consider that Anderson's departure is yet another chapter in a book that has produced some amazing music over the years. Indeed, YES have had 5 vocalists .Jon Anderson, Trevor Horn, Trevor Rabin, Benoit David & now Jon Davison. Yet alone the countless other musicians that have been through the ranks. 

I have been a YES fan since 1971. YES have always been my favourite band.

I have ALWAYS embraced the changes. New members bring new dynamics into the music. If you go back through the years, you can see how the major changes have produced some of the band's best albums. When Trevor Horn replaced Jon Anderson following his first departure it resulted in DRAMA. An underrated classic. Enter Trevor Rabin - result, 90125, their biggest selling album. And 2011s Fly From Here with new vocalist Benoit David was also regarded as a return to form. So now we have another new vocalist in Jon Davison. And he's the best YES vocalist since Jon Anderson. Very similar in sound and approach to Anderson, Jon Davison, for good or bad (depending on your particular YES leanings) has put his fingerprints all over Heaven & Earth.
Co-writing all but one of the tracks on the album, Howe's It Was All We Knew, Jon has firmly established himself as a major part of the band. Good for him! He's even the lone writer of one of the finest songs on the album, Light Of The Ages, which is ironically probably the most YES sounding track on the album.

I managed to catch YES on this years 3 album tour were I got to see Jon Davison perform the albums Close To The Edge, Going For The One & The Yes Album live. And he was a revelation. I think YES have finally found their man after the departure of Jon Anderson.

So, here we have the results of Jon Davison joining the band and their first album together. And do you know what? It's very good indeed. If you are a fan of any incarnation of YES, I think you'll find something to love within it's grooves.

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The first track to be released from the album was Believe Again. It starts with Steve Howe's weeping guitar before Geoff Downe's Keys and Chris Squire's thumping bass come in and herald the the dawn of a new YES era. Jon Davison provides lyrics with enough mysticism to satisfy the Jon Anderson fan. 

As an opener it is just about spot on. It encapsulates the new YES perfectly. Soaring melody, 9 minutes long, all the instruments in the right place, Davison's YESesque vocals and the Squire/Howe harmonies. Yes, the guitar work and keys may sound more like an ASIA album than a YES album but surely with two of ASIA's mainstays in the band, it has to be expected.  

The Game is next up and is a strong song which skips along nicely featuring the harmonies of Chris & Steve. Led very much by the guitar work of Steve Howe. With only two songs in, the first thing that strikes me is how melodious the songs are. Is this because of Jon Davison? I guess we'll find out on the next album.

Geoff Downes can never really be described as a flashy keyboard player but with the next track, Step Beyond, he's very much to the fore with a phrase that loops almost constantly throughout the track. It's quite a poppy song. And again has the Squire/Howe harmonies in the background. I must say that former alumni Billy Sherwood has done a fabulous job throughout the album in capturing some excellent backing vocals/harmonies.

I haven't mentioned drummer Alan White so far, who gives an assured performance throughout and also co-wrote the next song, To Ascend with Davison. On my first few listens, it has been my favourite track on the album. It starts with an acoustic guitar and Chris plays some lovely bass lines throughout. It's a very gentle song and is probably the song I would most like to hear live.

In A World Of Our Own almost swings along, it's another very poppy track and one of the least YESlike tracks on the album. It's as if the band are trying out different clothes to see which ones fit the best. To me it's a bit to Yes-By-Numbers. But Hey.

The next track sees the band back where they belong with Jon Davison's Light Of The Ages. It starts off very much in the classic YES vein with layered keys, tuneful bass lines and Steve's soaring guitar before Jon comes in with sufficiently obscure lyrics. Geoff plays a nice piano motif which runs around the vocals. 

If I'm trying to place the songs so far in any sort of context, then they all sound as if they could have come from different eras of YES including the classic early 70s work and funnily enough the unloved Tormato and underrated Drama era. The album sounds like a band looking back on their history and searching for a cohesive direction. with the way the songs were constructed, with Jon Davison visiting all the individual members in their own houses to co-write then I can see how this might be the outcome. Hopefully, with the next album will have more time to record and produce an album using a 'band' writing process, where we can see all the strengths put together. 

The joker in the pack has to be the next track, Steve Howe's It Was All We Knew. A jaunty throw away upbeat pop track. Not what I expected from one of our best guitar players. 

A lot of fans are waiting to see if there are any Prog classics on the album. Well, the nearest we get is the final track Subway Walls. It's a co-write between Jon & Geoff (his only credit). It will probably be the live highlight when the band tour the album and also get closest to pleasing fans of the longer YES compositions with every member of the band getting a chance to shine in the longer song format.

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of smartbassguitar

Heaven & Earth has been described in several early reviews and by Roy Thomas Baker himself as picking the best of all the types of YESMUSIC that has gone before. And he's right. To an extent.

It is YES for the 20teens and acknowledges a rich history of sound and composition but firmly wants to be in the present and the future. I hope the fans and the band get the opportunity to hear another album by this line up and Geoff Downes, in his interview with Kevin from the excellent YES MUSIC PODCAST (see link below) has indicated they have tracks ready for the next album, one of which is a long form piece. I'd love to hear this line up's new Awaken in the future.

Twitter - @YesMusicPodcast 

Twitter - @yesofficial 

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