Required reading: two merciless reviews of the new Yes album, Heaven & Earth, by fans who I am sure took no pleasure in writing their unhappy assessments.
Here’s an excerpt from the first, by Jason Warburg:
Yes have flailed, many times, but never before have they slumbered through an entire album. Tales From Topographic Oceans at least showed ambition; Big Generator at least had drive; Union at least offered variety. This album has none of the above: no ambition, no drive, no variety. The band whose kaleidoscopic approach used to not just use every tonal color available, but invent new ones, has made an album of unbroken, enveloping beige.
The opening moments of “Believe Again” offer a hint of promise as Downes’ chirpy, echoing synths and Davison’s pleasantly sing-songy delivery hark back to “Wonderous Stories” from 1977’s Going For The One. But just when it should soar, “Believe Again” does the opposite, moving from lilting verse into a plodding chorus.
Several of the tunes that follow are so utterly bland and generic—two adjectives that should never be associated with Yes music—that they disappear from the imagination seconds after they’re finished. “The Game” and “Light Of The Ages” in particular have a distinctly cheesy Asia/AOR feel, with Davison and Howe working in clichés high over pedestrian keyboard lines and ponderous rhythm tracks.
The low point comes early on when Downes puts a dime-store Casio synth patch on repeat for the duration of “Step Beyond,” already one of the laziest and most amateurish tracks ever recorded by an alleged progressive rock band. An utter embarrassment.
“To Ascend” is a well-intentioned ballad that falls flat even as Davison borrows a familiar Andersonism (“with the eyes of a child”). “It Was All We Knew,” a Howe composition, at least tries something a little different, giving the intro a hint of rockabilly twang before dissolving into America-ish easy-listening verses.
The nearest this album comes to anything resembling progressive rock is on the closing “Subway Walls,” a nine-minute track with some actual dynamics, with Squire awakening briefly in the early going and Howe doing the same just before the fade. Unfortunately, the lyric is weak, the transitions are awkward, and the whole thing ends up feeling disjointed and half-formed. It’s hard to figure out what, if anything, producer Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, The Cars, Guns N’ Roses) contributed to this mess; it’s clear there was no leadership or musical direction of the sort Anderson used to provide in the studio.
Four decades down the road from the era of greatness that first attracted many of us who still follow the band, it’s obvious that neither this nor any other lineup of Yes is likely to produce another Close To The Edge. Those days are gone. All most longtime fans are really hoping for at this point is new music that is worthy of the legacy represented by the name Yes. Heaven & Earth doesn’t even come close to meeting that standard. As a fan, this album just makes me sad.
And from the second, by Ken DiTomaso:
Most of the songwriting is handled by new vocalist Jon Davison, which suggests that the rest of the band was so thoughtfully tapped for material that they had to rely on his ideas to fill the gaps (and there must have been a lot of gaps). As a result, these songs are about as lightweight as it gets. To quickly summarize some of them: “The Game” sounds like it belongs in a greeting card commercial, “Step Beyond” is dopey and disjointed, “In A World Of Our Own” is the wimpiest excuse for a “dance” number I’ve heard in a long time, and “To Ascend” is an astonishingly cheesy ballad with garbage lyrics. There are a handful of moments where an unexpected chord change or chorus almost brings a song to life (“Believe Again” comes closest), but moments like that are dwarfed by the unstoppable wall of bland. This album rarely ever goes beyond playing it safe. And since Yes is a band who built their entire legacy on not playing it safe, unflinchingly drab material like “It Was All We Knew” might as well be a huge middle finger to the band’s fans and legacy. When Yes does take a few chances things just get weird. Awkward bridges are wedged in where they don’t fit, tacked on instrumental sections come out of nowhere, and songs are stretched to unjustified lengths. These are some thoroughly clunky songs.
Not only does this record fail on the songwriting front, it’s also immensely lazy. These tunes sound like they’re being performed by a group of drunk grandpas. Each track limps along at a sleep inducing mid-tempo, as if they’ve never heard the word “upbeat” before. The rhythm section has no drive whatsoever. Chris Squire’s distinctive bass sound is sucked into the background most of the time and Alan White’s drums sound distant and muffled. The band’s lead parts sound like they were played to a backing track without any reference to what the other members were doing. “Light Of The Ages” has a section that sounds like an elementary school band slowly attempting to play “Long Distance Runaround” for the first time. What possessed them to play this so slowly? The tempo picks up a little during “Subway Walls” but the song is such an inept piece of wannabe-progressive crap that I wouldn’t blame anybody for not noticing.
Jon Davison’s vocals sound weak and feeble. He has no lower register to speak of, and there are several moments where his voice quivers in an unprofessional sounding way. Surely these weren’t the best takes of vocals they could have used? He sounded fine in the live performances I’ve seen from this lineup. What happened here?
Steve Howe is an even greater disaster. His parts sound like he came up with them on the spot. The solo at the end of “The Game” even has these weird tiny halts that sound like he’s making mistakes! How could they have let this leave the studio? His lead parts sound like placeholders for where he would come up with actual written parts later but never did. During the bridge of “In A World Of Our Own,” Geoff Downes plays organ chords while Howe plays what literally sounds like random notes behind it. This is downright unfinished!
If you can bear to read more, check out the rest of both reviews at the links above. Well worth your time.
Caveat lector: I can assure you that the band is still fabulous live on the current tour, whatever your reaction to the new material might be. Check out the great review by Nick, with which I heartily concur.