Legendary progressive rock band Yes, one of the most influential and respected bands in the genre have outlasted many of their contemporaries, crossing from West Coast psychedelia into epic traditional progressive rock symphonies, new wave FM rock, back to progressive epics and beloved anthems over the course of their 46 years, evolving band line-ups and 21 studio albums.
Their latest opus, Heaven and Earth (released in the UK on 21st July, and in the States in July 22nd) marks the first studio release with Jon Davison (who replaced Benoit David back in 2012) on vocals, and Geoff Downes third studio album, firmly consolidating his place as their keyboard player with the classic line up of Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White.
I was lucky enough to grab a brief chat with Geoff recently to talk all things Heaven and Earth, and the impact that Jon Davison has had on the band,
‘It’s a bit different from other Yes albums, Jon has been given a freer run, and it very much reflects his style. It’s a different album from Fly From Here, and the stuff we did with Trevor (Horn), working with Roy Thomas Baker has another style, something that a diverse band like Yes can bear.’
I asked Geoff about the writing process of the album,
‘It’s all new material; we had a clean slate that enabled us to take it in a direction that felt natural to all of us. Yes is fantastic music, and it’s nice to be able to make a contribution even at this stage in the bands career, Benoit wasn’t so much of a writer, whereas Jon has really contributed to the album’
I think Geoff was being overly modest, as he and Trevor Horn had a massive impact on one of my favourite Yes albums, 1980’s Drama,
‘Drama, that came together in the studio, I’m very proud of it still, it sounds very fresh, and its what Yes needed at that point to move into a different arena for this type of music’
Of course with Geoff back on keyboard duties it’s nice to hear some of the Drama songs performed live,
‘Its good to play tracks like Tempus Fugit and Machine Messiah as they fit nicely into the set, we performed a few on the Fly From Here tour, and hopefully we’ll do more going forward’
I did wonder, which tracks from the new album would make it into the live arena?
‘We start rehearsals next week, we’ve practiced some of the songs so we have an idea which ones will work, we may only do a few from the album, certainly Believe Again, maybe one of the shorter songs and move them around in the set.
We’re playing classic albums in full, we’ve toured with that show for a while, so we’re changing it a bit, dropping Going for the One, focusing on Fragile, Relayer and lots of the Yes album.’
Heaven and Earth is a very different Yes album,
‘It’s very fresh, some fans don’t see beyond the 1970’s, but Yes were different in the 80’s and as different again in the 90’s, each different period of the band were interesting musical chapters, and this is another piece in the jigsaw. Hopefully it will bring in new fans to Yes’
Roger Deans striking artwork, with his black and white Yes logo (which to mind recalls the original Time and a Word album cover) is another Yes mainstay,
‘Roger Dean is very much synonymous with Yes, apart from that period in the 80’s where the very hi-tech album sleeves represented the albums, he’s very much a part of the scenery’
As Yes have only recently brought their show to the UK, I asked Geoff when he thought they might return,
‘We more likely to come back to the UK towards the start of next year, we are rehearsing for the US tour, then we tour the Pacific Rim, which will take up the rest of the year’
How did Geoff feel about returning to the Yes fold for Fly From Here?
‘It felt very natural, we started working on Fly From Here and it turned the clock back 30 years, the reunion of the 5 Drama guys, and it came together very easily the guys were all very helpful, it’s a great band. Jon coming in was not an easy job for him performing Jon Anderson’s songs and producing an authentic sound of Yes is a difficult role. My role as the keyboard player isn’t as critical as the vocal sound, and when we do the vintage albums the fans really like it, and Jon (Davison) has really worked’.
Of course Geoff has been the driving force behind Asia for over 30 years as well,
‘We’ve just done some Asia dates in Japan, and we had the new album Gravitas out at the start of the year, I think I’m busier now than I have been for a long time. Its great that in the past few years I am still involved in the bands that I was working with 30 years ago, it’s like my career has come full circle. We did Fly From Here, Asia still tour and of course we reunited the Buggles for some gigs a few years ago’
Buggles, the most misunderstood and underrated new wave band of the late 70’s/early 80’s, would Geoff ever consider a new Buggles album?
‘I still see Trevor and speak to him, and if the planets align, our diaries match up and we get the time it could well happen, never say never. The old stuff (from Buggles) still gets played a lot, and it’s nice to be involved with a timeless song (Video Killed the Radio Star), the same applies to Drama. I am really proud of that album; a lot of people were sceptical about these two pop guys joining Yes. In hindsight fans view Drama in a different light. I think it paved the way for Yes in the 80’s, my style of synths was techno, samples and it formed a bridge between Yes of the 1970’s and the work they did on 90125. Those changes helped sustain the bands longevity and shows it musical legacy could outlive the 1970’s when so many other bands folded’
There’s been a lot of interest in the Yes back catalogue recently with the 5.1 remixes
‘A lot of the progheads are into the 5.1 sound, like with Genesis fans some don’t like the pop Genesis. You have to look on each band as a whole, each album and each line up has a valid contribution to the bands history. I would like to hear Drama in 5.1, the album was heavily overdubbed at the time, and so it would reveal a lot of detail’.
Thanks to Geoff Downes for his time.
Heaven and Earth by Yes – the verdict!
1) Believe Again (Jon Davison, Steve Howe) 8.18
2) The Game (Chris Squire, Jon Davison, Steve Howe) 7.07
3) Step Beyond (Steve Howe, Jon Davison) 5.45
4) To Ascend (Jon Davison, Alan White) 4.53
5) In a World of Our Own (Jon Davison, Chris Squire) 5.31
6) Light of Ages (Jon Davison) 7.57
7) It was All we Knew (Steve Howe) 4.21
8) Subway Walls (Jon Davison, Geoff Downes) 9.21
So, I don’t think a Yes album has been as eagerly anticipated as this one since the last one! Fly From Here, Yes’ first studio album in 10 years, and the only one to feature Benoit David on vocals. Musically and spiritually it was the sequel to Drama, only 30 years out of sequence, and with Trevor Horn on production duties, Geoff Downes on keyboards and the music made of Buggles demos (interesting alternative versions exist on Adventures in Modern Recordings 2010 remaster, which shows a different version again) received a mixed reception, which was seen by some as very much a holding pattern it can now be seen very much as Drama can be seen now. A bookend on a previous era, and a bridge to a new Yes. With Downes firmly ensconced in the keyboard position, and Roy Thomas Baker finally getting to finish a Yes album, the band is as stable as Yes can ever be. However the attention isn’t on the new old boy in the band, or the established Squire/White/Howe axis who have been the mainstay of this Yes era since 1996’s Keys to Ascension, the attention is always going to be on the vocals, and the fact that the vocalist isn’t Jon Anderson.
Much has been written, and will no doubt continue to be written about whether Yes are Yes if Jon Anderson isn’t on the record. To my mind if it says Yes on the album sleeve, and sounds like Yes on the record, then it’s a Yes album.
Jon Davison is the Yes singer, and he also writes a fair bit to, which can be seen in the credits above. Jon Davison has put his stamp on the Yes sound as firmly as his illustrious predecessors and his vocals add to the unmistakably Yes sound on display.
As Geoff Downes states in the interview above, each member of Yes adds something to the chapter they are writing, and this is as true on Heaven and Earth as of its 20 brethren.
There’s plenty of continuity here with former Yesman Billy Sherwood involved in mixing the harmony vocals, and Roy Thomas Baker (producer of abortive sessions in the late 1970’s) adding his considerable experience to the mix.
So what does the album actually sound like? And more to the point is it any good?
Well, if you can imagine the leap between the sound of the distinctly average Open Your Eyes, compared to the amazing beauty contained in its follow up The Ladder, then this is that leap from Fly From Here.
First of all if you’re looking for a quick hit, look elsewhere, this album is a slow burner. A grower, one that teases you and tempts you, revealing its secrets slowly and seductively, listen after beguiling listen. You’ll find songs slowly sneaking into your subconscious, humming tunes, singing along as you play the album.
Opening with one of the longer tracks Believe Again, which has been trailed as the teaser track for the album, you can tell instantly that its Yes, but that the goal posts have moved. Downes synths are to the fore, and then in come the vocals, similar enough to Jon Andersons to keep an element of continuity. Lets face it, if you’re Yes and you are hiring a new vocalist you need someone who can handle the older material and hit the heights Olias of Sunhillow used to hit at his peak. You wouldn’t hire Lemmy would you?
Jon D is different enough from Jon A to put his own stamp on this album, and Believe Again comes across to me anyway as a message to the fans saying believe in us, we are still the Yes you know and love. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but with Davison’s work making an impact straight away, and the band working in symphony from the get go, this is a Yes line up with chemistry, bouncing off each other, and whilst Believe Again is at the more commercial end of the spectrum, it’s still a powerful piece, with the vocal harmonies and musical counter play working really well. Howe’s guitar and Downes synth interplay is to the fore, and is something that really stands out throughout the album.
Geoff Downes isn’t the new keyboard player, he is the keyboard player. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing with this Yes line up, and to be honest I wouldn’t want anyone else in.
The Game has some fantastic work from Howe and some wonderfully direct lyrics. The themes are the same, but the vocal and lyrical approach is different throughout. Jon Davison isn’t trying to be Jon Anderson or Benoit David. He doesn’t need to be. He is the Yes frontman and lyricist and his identity is all over this album. His performance throughout is assured, confident and fits. If you liked his earlier work with Glass Hammer, this is right up your alley. The Game is taut, sharp, direct and punchy, a classy piece of rock.
Step Beyond, with its funky keyboard sound, its powerfully insistent vocal work, and the taut chorus, with some fantastic guitar work from Steve Howe, and with Downes nagging keyboard riff, combined with some truly classic Yes vocal harmonies, and a great instrumental interlude, only clocks in at under 6 minutes, yet it’s got a funky drive, some great drum and bass work from Squire and White and some catchy lyrical moments, it might be brief, but there’s so much going on here, both musically and lyrically, it could well be a new classic Yes anthem, and seems destined as a live staple.
That’s one thing that is really noticeable throughout the album, the sharpness of the harmonies, the work Billy Sherwood has done with Howe, Squire and Davison has brought all the classic harmony power that is a hallmark of Yes to the fore, and with Thomas Bakers production, the vocals have some real power.
To Ascend, has some beautifully direct lyrics, more of those gorgeous harmonies, and some beautiful acoustic guitar work from Davison, that mingles with Howes exquisite performance, whilst Downes majestic piano and keyboard work soar, all the while underpinned by the rock steady Squire and White, its glorious chorus, it’s musical crescendos and Davison’s performance is sublime, a true classic Yes track amongst all the adventure on this album.
In a World of Our Own, with some great musical work by Yes, Downes keyboards shining throughout, White kicking back with a funky dirty blues beat, Howes guitar cutting through the sound left, right and centre, with some languid blues and Davison’s honestly direct lyrics, as different as his predecessors as possible, with it’s tale of love gone sour, this is Yes gone film noir, meant to be listened to in a seedy underground blues club, black and white, smoky atmosphere, Davison as the blues singer, a lazy swing underpinning the whole track. Its Yes Jim, but not as we know it.
Light of the Ages is a suitably cosmic traditional Yes title, with some beautifully gloriously languid slide guitar work from Mr Howe, that stretches out throughout the track, whilst the synth work from Geoff Downes is amazing, however this is Jon Davisons track, and ironically the closest he comes to sounding like Jon Anderson at any point, with it’s spiritual lyrics, and it’s slow build to a majestic finale, this is one new Yes track that could have snuck onto to anything from Fragile to Tormato, and enhanced any album it sat on, here it is a highlight amongst highlights. Just when you think Heaven and Earth can’t get better it throws you another curve ball, and musically the band is reaching higher and higher, pushing further and further, and pull you along. Whilst Davisons vocal performance is the marzipan on top of this particular cake, and the Light of the Ages really shines with some glorious soloing from both Howe and Downes.
The only thing that’s a touch disposable is It Was all we knew, which is a bit of a weak link in the album, the musical performance is great as ever, however the track itself is a bit anonymous, despite the great harmonies, the lyrics are a tad clichéd and the track does tend to sound a bit nursery rhyme in places, even Howes spirited solo doesn’t lift the tone. I guess that’s my one complaint about this track, whilst the rest of the album is full of musical mood swings and counterparts, this just meanders on, almost Yes by numbers, which is a shame as if there were more going on, it could be great.
Now speaking of greatness we come to the finale, the epic, the closing 9 minutes plus Subway Walls, a Downes/Davison track, one crafted by the (relatively) new boys, and boy is this a statement of intent.
From Downes symphonic and dramatic synth work that opens the track, with its powerful riffs and it’s orchestral overtones you know you are in for a treat, and it doesn’t disappoint. A meditation on the meaning of life,
‘Is the meaning in the stars or does graffiti on the subway walls hold the secrets to it all’
That is the new Yes right there, encapsulated in that wonderful lyrical couplet, not just astral travellers any more, but also earthbound voyagers.
Heaven and Earth encapsulated in a nutshell, the answers aren’t just beyond and before, they are also here and now, for us all to see if we open our eyes.
The performance on Subway Walls, with some fantastic work from White and Squire, the lynchpin that holds Yes together, allows Downes and Howe the freedom to fly, and climb as they spar from about 4 minutes in, building and pushing each other, and taking the band with them, as they go from the subway to the stars and back again in 9 sublime minutes. Davisons vocals again are superb throughout, and the harmonies again majestic.
Heaven and Earth is probably my favourite Yes album of the past 20 years, more organic than any of the Keys to Ascension studio work, more fun than Magnification. This is the sound of a band working in harmony unlike Fly From Here. Yes haven’t sounded this good since the Ladder back in 1999, or Talk back in 1994.
It could have been so easy for Yes to return to what they did best in the 1970’s on this album, but that is not why Yes are still here. Nearly 50 years into a musical adventure that shows no sign of ending, they are still pushing themselves to make the best music they can, like the superb musicians they are. Managing that difficult balancing act of staying true to the Yes name, with all its attendant history, both good and bad, and yet managing to make new, interesting, and exciting music for them and us.
This my friends is the true meaning of progressive rock, something pushing forward, ever moving, ever evolving. Yes, once again have shown us what progressive rock means, and I thank them for it.
Readers: You might also like Nick Efford’s take on Yes in Concert: http://progarchy.com/2014/05/10/yes-sheffield/
Aa well as Erik Heter’s retrospective on 90125 (30 years later): http://progarchy.com/2013/10/27/90125-at-30-a-retrospective/