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Yes - Heaven & Earth CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

2.37 | 550 ratings

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1 stars "I don't want to end up like grandmaster Max Roach, the American living legend, he of the MacArthur Foundation Grant. Last time I heard him, and it was shortly before he passed away, there was daylight between him and the bass player. Not even close. How are the mighty fallen. You don't want to see Muhammad Ali in the ring again, do you? Get outta here."

- Bill Bruford, The Autobiography, 2009

Two major changes happened to Yes in the time between Fly From Here and this one. First: in one of the all-time great ironies, Benoit David came down with a serious respiratory illness, needed to be replaced for a tour in 2012, and learned through a magazine interview Squire gave that he was out of the band for good. For his replacement, Yes turned to one Jon Davison, another high-pitched vocalist in the Anderson mold, and somebody who had spent a couple of years as the lead singer of Glass Hammer. I've only heard a pretty small amount of Glass Hammer, a Tennessee-based prog band that started in the 90s and was still going strong when Davison joined, but based on what I've heard (some scattered YouTube clips, plus Davison's first album with the band, If, which seems to be the best-regarded of the albums he did with Glass Hammer), it would be hard for me to come up with a band that would appeal to me less. While Davison didn't have much to do with the actual music that I've heard from Glass Hammer (his contributions were mostly limited to his singing and to some lyrics), he is nonetheless the front man of those performances, and if his Anderson-knockoff vocal approach doesn't hurt the music he sings over, it doesn't help things either.

The second change was much more important, however, and it not only ended up amplifying whatever fundamental problems the band had at this point, it also helped make the new inclusion of Davison much more important than it should have been. Trevor Horn, who had produced Fly From Here and had provided a great deal of direction in the process of making that album, decided to leave and do other things. Well, the band had to find somebody to produce them, and they ended up settling on Roy Thomas Baker, a choice that seems innocent but should have sent a shiver of horror down the spine of every serious Yes fan when it was revealed. Baker's production credits are pretty decent on the whole, but I'd far prefer that Yes had hooked up with somebody with no history with the band rather than the person who had been in charge for the aborted Paris Sessions back in 1979. The selection of Baker (not to mention the inclusion of Billy Sherwood, who had some mixing responsibilities) makes it seem like the band had tried to get on board with anybody who had worked with the band in some capacity at some point, and I can't help but think of a lonely drunk flipping through his contacts on a Friday night and trying to find an old girlfriend to hook up with. The only choice that could have horrified me more would have been Jonathan Elias.

So why is it that replacing Horn with Baker would horrify me so much? There are a couple of main reasons. The first: back in 1979, the sessions with Baker heading things up essentially left the band for dead, and it was only when Horn and Downes came to replace Anderson and Wakeman (with Eddie Offord in tow) that the band was able to revive itself and make another pretty strong album (which I still insist Drama is). That the situation reversed course, with Horn leaving after helping to revive the band and squeezing a pretty good album out of them, then bringing in Baker to replace him, strikes me as rife with symbolic badness. The second: with Horn heading things up on Fly From Here, the album could be summarized in ways that would make it seem promising despite the sketchy circumstances that led up to its creation. It was a chance for something like the Drama sequel that never happened, with Howe/Squire/White tapping into a version of themselves from long ago! It didn't matter that they didn't have a bunch of new material ready, because there was a whole bunch of interesting old Buggles material, waiting to be updated and given a Yes sheen! Geoff Downes could tap into his interesting younger self, the interesting Buggles keyboardist who did such a good job on Drama, and ease the nausea of everybody who didn't really like what he'd become with Asia! With Horn's departure, all of this fell apart. Whereas the Fly From Here group+producer combo be spun as "the Drama band, together again, plus an acceptable Anderson/Horn proxy," the lineup suddenly became half of Asia plus the somewhat ideas-bereft Squire and the rapidly declining White (who puts on one of the all-time great "keep getting dem checks" performances here), plus an Anderson-wannabe from a Yes-wannabe band. Whereas it had been ok for Squire and Howe to not contribute a great deal of new material, since so much of Fly From Here was reworked older material, suddenly there was no older material to rework, and the band had to call on Davison to contribute a lot to the songwriting (he has a full or partial credit on 7 of the 8 tracks, while none of the other members are credited on more than 3). Whereas Downes had shown a good balance between the approaches of his younger self and his current self on Fly From Here, this album has Downes reverting entirely to his current self, and unfortunately his current self is nothing like the vibrant but restrained player that made me like The Age of Plastic and Drama so much. The point is, Horn's departure, without being compensated by the arrival of an equally strong hand that could provide clear leadership, set off a significant chain reaction that created a circumstance that would lead to a bad album unless all of the parties involved stepped up their game significantly ... which they didn't.

I've listened to this album several times, hoping (though with rapidly dwindling faith) that my propensity towards finding more to like in a given Yes album than many people typically do would prompt me to like it more than others tend to. What ultimately ends up dooming my feelings towards this album is that I can't figure out what this album generally does well (or, at the least, what this album generally does well that would fall within the bounds of what I tend to value in rock music, prog included). There are some instrumental passages that I like: I enjoy the brief stretches at the beginning of "Believe Again" and "The Game" with Howe's sustained notes on electric guitar; I enjoy the majestic Howe-driven passage that occupies the first minute of "Light of the Ages"; I like the out-of-nowhere "don't worry we're still prog" bit jammed into the middle of "It Was All We Knew." Of course, the passage at the beginning of "Believe Again" is immediately swallowed up by a chintzy rising synth line that inexplicably functions as a crucial element of a middling pop song that has the audacity to last 8 minutes when it can barely sustain 4. There's a "we've got to do some Yes stuff here" lengthy instrumental passage in the middle, a "dark" break to contrast with the cheery banality of the rest, but it's one of the least interesting Howe passages ever on a Yes album, with one of the dinkiest guitar tones I can think of, and I'm fairly amazed that this passage made it into release.

"The Game" is one of Squire's two contributions to the album, and it's essentially a sequel to "The Man You Always Wanted Me to be" in that it contains a co-writing credit from former Syn-mate Gerard Johnson, though this one does not have Squire singing. It's also significantly less interesting to my ears than its predecessor, which may have been my least favorite track on Fly From Here but at least was pretty memorable throughout and had a nice combination of Squire/David harmonies up against decent Howe soloing. This one does itself no favors by lasting nearly seven minutes when it could get by with four or five, but I quite like the combination of Downes' keyboards with the decent vocal melody and that fun hook in the backing vocals. The "climax" sections at the end of each verse section seem a little overwrought to me, and Howe's guitar parts seem to get weirdly tangled up in knots in some spots, but I basically like most of his parts, and I like the song more than I don't. Meanwhile, if "The Game" is more or less the counterpart to "The Man You Always Wanted Me to be," then "It Was All We Knew" is more or less the counterpart to "Hour of Need" (it's another mid-tempo Howe semi-ballad, though without any "Your Move" throwback guitars), and while I kinda like the guitar line that drives the song forward and the mid-section instrumental passage (even if it sounds like something the 70s version of the band would have done if on tranquilizers), it also has the same issues as "Hour" with lyrics that don't quite mesh with the meter of their attached tune (I seriously cannot be the only person who hears this problem in these two songs), and the song ends up seeming a bit clunky.

All of the rest of the songs feature Davison as one of the credited songwriters, and all of them are problematic in their own way. The aforementioned "Light of the Ages," at the very least, has that nice opening stretch, but it completely disappears without an explicit reprise after the opening minute (there's probably a cannibalization of elements of this introduction found somewhere else in the song, but it hasn't jumped out at me), and it gives way to a song that alternates decently atmospheric balladry with awkward melodrama over the next six-plus minutes. I do like the ending repeated "I will follow" near the end, though. The Davison/Howe collaborations are the aforementioned "Believe Again" (bleh) and "Step Beyond," a clunky shuffling pop-rock song built around a pedestrian guitar line over a pedestrian beat and a silly keyboard line that amused me the first couple of times I heard it but started annoying the crap out of me by the third listen, and I just don't like it at all. The Davison/White collaboration is "To Ascend," which is five minutes of go-nowhere fluffery with lyrics like "Taking the time/On the weekend of prayer/A wounded bird in the hand/With the eyes of a child come to understand" and "Take me from where I am/As a freed bird flies from the hand." Listening to this is like stuffing yourself full of marshmallows; right after you're done, you're hungry again and your stomach hurts, and a few hours later you regret it all over again. This is on the short list of Yes songs that provoke a feeling of rabid irritation within me, and I'm the guy who will defend "Wonderlove" and "Love Shine" to anybody who wants to throw down.

The album's other Davison/Squire collaboration, "In a World of Our Own," is a sort of jazzy/music-hall shuffle, and I like the idea of the song more than I like the final product. I can actually very easily envision this having been featured on a (completely hypothetical) Squackett follow-up project to A Life Within a Day, with Steve Hackett and Roger King finding some way to take the core idea and either give it a darker edge or go the other way and accentuate the music hall aspects for all they're worth. Amanda Lehmann could have taken lead vocals, Gary O'Toole or Jeremy Stacey could have messed around with the drum part a bit, Hackett could done something a little more adventurous with the guitars ... alas, it was not to be, and a decent melody and framework is largely wasted.

Finally, the album concludes with a nine-minute Davison/Downes collaboration in "Subway Walls," which is somewhat in the "New Languages" mold (remember that one?) in that it has a long dramatic introduction that eventually gives way into a herky-jerky pop song with a meant-to-be-rousing chorus interspersed with noodling instrumental passages to boost its prog cred. Now, I'm not an enormous fan of "New Languages" (which I still consider to be a good 4:30 pop song unnecessarily bloated into a prog epic), but it has this one beat in every way; the opening instrumental passage of "Subway Walls" is filled with bombastic keyboard and xylophone parts that should be beneath Yes, the verses of the pop section are nowhere near as memorable as the "New Languages" one, the chorus doesn't even come close to the one in "NL" (which doesn't just have the chorus but also has that great transition from the herky-jerky verses), and the instrumental passages are much duller here than there. This one also has a big bombastic coda (not just instrumental, but also featuring Davison/Squire singing lines that culminate in a big "TRANSCEND!!!!!!" over the instrumental parts) that breaks the mold, but while Howe's soloing is actually pretty decent in this part, it comes across as too little too late.

The knee-jerk defense from somebody who wants to defend this album (I'm definitely not saying this is the only possible defense, but it seems like it's a common one) could likely take the form of something like "It's unreasonable to expect something like Fragile or Close to the Edge, just accept it for what it is!!!" The problem I have with this album is not that there isn't anything that lives up to the standard of "Roundabout" or "South Side of the Sky" or "Siberian Khatru"; this would be a completely unreasonable expectation if somebody held reaching this level as a pre-requisite of enjoyment, and I certainly do not have this expectation. The problem I have is that I don't believe anything on this album lives up to the standard of "Into the Storm" or (if we're dipping into the list of reworked older material) "Sad Night at the Airfield" or "Life on a Film Set," and there's little on here that I would perceive as living up to the standards of perfectly decent Life Within a Day material like "Aliens" or "Perfect Love Song." Furthermore, as much as the material on the album strikes me as falling in the range of middling to bad, there's also very little in the way of a diversification effect in tempo and style to boost it up at least a little bit. Ok, there's a smidge of variation in presentation (boring pop vs boring prog-pop hybrids, I guess), but only a smidge; if ever a Yes album absolutely needed a Howe acoustic guitar instrumental or three, it's this one. Or, for instance, couldn't Squire's songs have been reworked to give him a more prominent place in the vocal mix, maybe making him the clear lead in spots? Again, this comes back to the question of leadership; the band really needed to have somebody around to throw out a bunch of goofy ideas that might be unworkable on their own but could spur the band to try something unusual, instead of settling for the path of least resistance in so many cases. As for the "accept it for what it is" argument: there's too much good music in the world for me to force feed myself something like this, even if it's from one of my very favorite bands.

Now, with all of these downsides, a once unthinkable question had to be considered as I listened to this repeatedly: could it be that Yes had finally made an album that I could consider worse than Union? After all, as awful as it might be, Union does have three songs I genuinely enjoy ("Masquerade," "Lift Me Up," "The More We Live - Let Go"), whereas this album doesn't have any songs that I like even as much as those. So, I broke my long-ago vow, popped the entirety of Union onto my iPod, gave it a full listen for the first time in many years ... and holy hell, that album is awful and definitely worse than this one. No, this album may not live up to the best material of Union, but it also doesn't have anything as astoundingly soul-sucking as the three-song "Angkor Wat"/"Dangerous"/Holding On" sequence, not to mention other low points like "Shock to the System" or "Silent Talking." Honestly, this makes sense to me: as bad as much of this album might be, it's still the genuine product of a past-its-prime version of Yes, whereas so much of Union was the product of Jon Anderson, Jonathan Elias, and the bowels of Hell. With that perspective in mind, I can rank this album a nudge above Union, which is something, I guess.

It's presumptuous to insist that anybody should retire from recording new music if they don't want to; Yes really wanted to keep touring at this point, and (best as I've been able to gather, though it's possible I'm misinterpreting what I've read) they had an obligation to have an album out before the 2014 tour where they'd be playing Fragile and Close to the Edge in full in addition to material from a new album, so this album pretty much had to happen. I will say this instead: if this is genuinely the kind of music that the various members of Yes (especially Howe/Squire/White) wanted to make at this time, and if they were genuinely satisfied with the final product, then this means that they had, by this point, lost all connection to the younger versions of themselves, the ones who made so much music that has made my life and the lives of others so much better. Fly From Here retained that connection, and so did Magnification, and so did The Ladder (Open Your Eyes didn't really, but I still like it for other reasons), but this album suggests that it was gone for good. As hardcore as my fandom might be, and as much as I've tended to find some level of enjoyment in pretty much anything Yes has done in its old age (or, for that matter, in the bulk of its career), I just can't get behind this album when it sounds like the product of a listless, directionless, old version of the band. Yes, it charted respectably, but it came out in 2014, when so few albums were being sold that charting numbers basically became pointless, and it's hard to envision a scenario where, 50 years after release, the album would be regarded as anything but an embarrassment.

tarkus1980 | 1/5 |


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