The center of Yes is chaos. Members fall in and fall out. Sometimes they bring new energy into the fold, and sometimes they don’t. It’s been this way for forever, but since the ill-advised blended family experiment Union back in the early-1990s this has been their one true constant. They’ve had high points in this group of releases, and I personally count Talk, the proper reunion of the Trevor Rabin lineup and The Ladder as two of them. Conversely, Open Your Eyes was a glimpse into the hell of being the cashier at a mall-based new age store with patrons yammering on about incense, chakras, and spacing out for more than an hour wondering if they need that rainstick.
I was buoyed by the album Fly From Here, which alongside the addition of vocalist Benoit David was the reformation of the Drama lineup, which has received its due recognition in the past decade in spite of being the first without mainstay vocalist Jon Anderson. Many were disappointed by Fly From Here, and I can sympathize with their viewpoint given the enticing proposition. Based solely on its standalone merits, I think the album holds up remarkably well. Inevitably, David was out of the band, now replaced by Jon Davison, previously of Glass Hammer. Davison has Anderson’s range nailed on the new album Heaven and Earth, and that’s about the best I can say for it.
What else is there to say? If I were to go by the principles of my grandparents — if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all — the review would end here. The band sounds tired, and drummer Alan White doesn’t even sound like he was in a studio to record his tracks, much less a studio with these other individuals. There is no tension in the music, no push and pull between bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe. Can we start a Kickstarter campaign so we can pay to buy Howe’s volume pedal away from him? The gimmick of phasing in and out is effective as a bit of coloration, but on Heaven and Earth, it’s like Howe is shouting, “Everything blue! Everything blue now, or I’m going back to Asia!”
Speaking of Asia, Geoff Downes is again the keyboardist on this record. Where his laid back approach worked on Fly From Here, which was mostly material previously written by himself and Buggles collaborator Trevor Horn, here it just hangs in the margins, adding neither flash nor mood.
Horn produced the previous record and I found it to be a grave mistake that he was not back for this one. Yet there was hope when it was announced who would be in the producers chair: Roy Thomas Baker, previously of Journey, Foreigner and The Cars’ more memorable outings. Surely he could provide the needed punch required to get this band up on all four and running. And once again, what should be just plain isn’t. The overall sound of the record is limp and yawning.
As uninspiring as the musicianship seems this time out, the lyrics are even worse, caked with the pretense of being too inspiring, uplifting, and generally positive overall. Lyrics, as we know all too well, were never Yes’ strong suit anyway, but the kind of things found on the album would be right at home in the spiral binder of a middle school student who thinks they are an aspiring lyricist. Just one example comes from “Step Beyond”: “You told me so/if I don’t let go/I’d never know/The joy that freedom brings.” The wordplay fails to rise from these narcoleptic notebook scribblings.
You can sound like Jon Anderson, and many b-line prog bands have proven that with soundalike precision, and you can write a bunch of super important sounding gobbledygook and sing it over the music. Yet, if you don’t have the conviction to throw your weight, your guts, and sure, your belief into it, then you’re just getting halfway there. If you don’t bring dramatic gravity to what you’re singing, then you might as well be doing Broadway versions of Top 40 pop songs. That’s what Anderson brought to the fold. Think about “Gates of Delirium” from Relayer. Throughout the hard-punching track, the angry hordes are attacking, and it is sturm und drang in extremis…then things settle down, nearly fading out, and the coda “Soon” lifts everything to a new and beautiful place. Taken at face value, “Soon” is just about as blank as anything on Heaven and Earth, but that dramatic investment, that feeling, is right there. It transmits to the listener. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Whereas nothing on Heaven and Earth has the energy to stand at all. The true pity of it, for me, is that I felt Fly From Here was the right track, and even if you weren’t as impressed with it as I was, you had to admit it was cohesive. The next album would have improved on the plan had they had the will to just hang together and make it work, but they didn’t. They splintered off like they always do, and in return we get something that sounds lazy, tired and contractually-required. Maybe calling Heaven and Earth an embarrassment is heavy-handed, but let’s do so anyway. It’s the only forceful aspect one can apply to this missed opportunity.
At least the cover is pretty.