I pre-ordered the new Yes album, Mirror to the Sky, hoping it would show up today (Friday, May 19, 2023) for the official day of release. But on Tuesday this week, something really weird happened. Amazon delivered a giant cardboard box, the size of a microwave oven, onto my front door step. Baffled as to what could be inside, I opened it up. It was empty, with nothing in it, expect for a handful of tiny air-filled plastic cushions that scarcely made a dent into the empty space. But there, right beneath them, in the far corner of the box, was the Mirror to the Sky 2-CD set!
I don’t know why the new Yes album showed up early in such bizarre fashion, but I like to speculate. Maybe a fellow Yes fan, working at Amazon, sent the album out early to me in secret solidarity: maybe items receive extra fast shipping, if the big box functions to indicate a high-margin, top-priority item. Or maybe the algorithm controlling the shipping had achieved sentience and decided autonomously to prioritize the Yes shipments, because of course any sentient AI truly worthy of its name would, after surveying all the digitized music in the world, undoubtedly become an aficionado of Yes music.
Or maybe there was just a screw-up. Who cares! It got me the Yes discs early, which meant I could digest them with advance special treatment in order to write this review. Usually I listen to music in my car (where I can turn it up as loud as I like) or through ear buds (during daily exercise). Only rarely do I actually put a CD into that ancient device in the living room known as a stereo system. Sure, it has the best sound, but who has time to sit around like a teenager doing nothing else but listen to vinyl LPs?
Reader, I made the time. The early arrival was a message from the sky that I had to immerse myself in this record. Just like the good old days, when there was no demand on your time—just a copy of The Yes Album or Fragile or Close to the Edge on the turntable. I gave Mirror to the Sky the special treatment, following along with the accompanying booklet, reading every line of lyrics as it was sung.
During instrumental passages, I was silently thrilled to read in the liner notes about exactly which guitars Steve Howe used on each track! The info here is so precise, it tells you exactly what time codes Jon Davison is playing acoustic guitar, or exactly when the orchestra comes in. I absolutely love it, and I volunteer to write liner notes for Yes or any other band after they get me to interview their musicians about what pedals and other gear they used on every track. I can’t recall the last time I listened to a new album this way, with album cover and liner notes carefully caressed by the trembling hand of the true collector. But if any band deserves it, surely it is Yes, a band that introduced me early on to such wondrous arcana. This is the way.
Despite what you may have heard, I don’t think you can believe the hype. I reserve the right to change my opinion after many more days of listening (because I recall hating ABWH at first, only to reverse that absurd reaction 180 degrees soon after), but I don’t think Mirror to the Sky is on equal footing with the three classics I named earlier, or with any other of their very best albums. We can save that debate for another day, but I would also include Drama, 90125, and The Ladder.
Production-wise, this is Steve Howe’s baby, and I can understand his urgent fervor at 76 years of age to assume control and make no compromises regarding his musical legacy as it enters its final stage. (I note that Mirror to the Sky is lovingly dedicated to Alan White.) But what makes The Ladder great is an outside ear, and Bruce Fairbairn gave that disc a unique flavor—a fact which Steve Howe agrees with me on, since we discussed this very point at the Yes VIP Meet and Greet in Vancouver, Canada, which was where the album was recorded. Another essential ingredient for capturing the full energy of a band is to have them all live on the studio floor together. But a band-produced outing, without the outside ear that will argue for another take with more verve, or without a one-take wonder live off the studio floor, runs the risk of sounding like a collection of demos.
(Also, a producer wouldn’t let Steve Howe sing lead or duets. But Howe is excellent when he does classic Yes background vocals with Billy Sherwood or Chris Squire. By the way, I can’t get enough of Sherwood singing lead: he has the ability to sound like Peter Gabriel, which Arc of Life takes advantage of on many an occasion. But Howe is the producer, so we hear him loud and clear on this release, where I would have chosen more Sherwood.)
That’s really the worst I can say about Mirror to the Sky, because this album in fact sounds amazing—I just found myself imagining what these songs would sound like live, because that is the Yes that I know and love. Sure, their albums are amazing, but that’s because they can actually play all that crazy shit live too.
So let’s get right down to it. Yes fans will be hypercritical and debate this versus that, just because we can. None of it is a knock on the world’s greatest band. It’s just a way of expressing how much time and thought we devote to meditating on the beautiful musical experiences Yes gives to us. I can lay my cards quickly on the table, and then we can compare notes.
The best track is “Mirror to the Sky,” which is no doubt why it is the title track. Despite my earlier remarks about non-equal footing, this track does in fact achieve entrance into the Yes pantheon. It is destined to be ranked among all their very best songs. And I can only dream of what it sound like live. Because I know it will be a dream come true. I hope I get the chance to hear it someday.
Two more tracks off the album also achieve the highest rank. “Luminosity” and “Circles of Time” are both stunning. Each is achingly beautiful in its own special way. As I listened to these tracks, I realized that Jon Davison has consolidated his place in the history of this band as one of its giants. Just as we would find it foolish to denigrate one giant at the expense of another (Bill Bruford vs. Alan White, or Rick Wakeman vs. Geoff Downes, or Trevor Rabin vs. Steve Howe), so too must we admit Davison is one of this band’s giants, no less so than Anderson.
Now on to the lesser tracks. Sure, “Cut from the Stars” has that nimble Billy Sherwood tribute to Chris Squire, but it still sounds to my ear like 3/5 Arc of Life and 2/5 Yes. (Which is no criticism, since I classify Arc of Life as truly Yes, and no less so than ABWH.) Still, the hippy-dippy lyrics are ambiguous: one day they sound to me like loving homage to Jon Anderson (he of “shiny flying purple wolfhounds” et cetera), but another day they sound like an SNL parody of Yes. I guess that “All Connected” strikes me the same way: it’s inspired by the best Yes music of ages past, in the same way that Arc of Life is inspired, but not quite there yet in the upper echelon of Yes achievements.
None of this is a negative evaluation, because even lesser tracks on a Yes album are better than anything you will hear elsewhere. I’m just insisting that “Cut from the Stars” and “All Connected” are the lesser tracks, and they do not reach the highest levels of Yes achievement, which “Mirror to the Sky,” “Luminosity,” and “Circles of Time” all do. Those three tracks make this the best Yes album since The Ladder or Magnification. (Fly from Here has a top-notch title track, just like Mirror to the Sky, but it also has some lesser material too, just like Mirror to the Sky.)
I appreciate Yes striving to make a classic LP-length statement. Mirror to the Sky is a perfect 47 minutes long. That’s why I fully support the decision to have a second CD with three bonus songs, even if they could all be on one disc. By making a second disc, the band is making a principled artistic statement: disc one is the album and disc two has the bonus tracks.
And for Mirror to the Sky, this makes sense, because disc one has the unifying thread of the use of a studio orchestra on all six tracks. Disc two, however, has no orchestra, and the songs are all written by Steve Howe, unlike the first disc, where everything has collaborations with at least two band members, except for the solo-scribed Jon Davison masterpiece, “Circles of Time.”
But let’s be honest, the Downes-Howe collaboration “Living Out Their Dream” is the worst of the six tracks. If I were the producer on this Yes album, or I could be pulling rank on them at the record company, I would have replaced “All Connected” with “Unknown Place,” which is truly a killer track. That’s no doubt why it is placed first on the second disc. The amazing keyboard and organ work by Geoff Downes is a real highlight, and the sonorous organ pedals blow you away so much that you wanna get up and get down.
Also, I would have swapped “One Second is Enough” for “Living Out Their Dream.” “One Second is Enough” has Steve Howe shredding away in glory, and at key points I think the track even invokes some memories of “Tempus Fugit” off of Drama. The only filler seems to be “Magic Potion,” but hey, not every Yes track is equal in magic.
But “Mirror to the Sky” brings us right back to the old magic. And that’s why you cannot miss out on Mirror to the Sky.
For, in the end, every band must be weighed. And finally answer to Yes!