I have listened to the new Yes album “Heaven And Earth” for a few days now and deliberately held off a review until now because I find that “First listen reviews” are in the main an emotional response to that first listen whether that that be positive or negative, and are rarely objective. So here we go “Heaven And Earth” reviewed by a fan of over 40 years, but stepping outside of the Yes bubble and listening to it as a fan of music in general with no pre-conceived ideas as to how I think it should sound. The album opens with a nice e-bow intro from Steve Howe before Geoff Downes unmistakable keyboard sounds enter the fray. Before I continue, many people accuse Geoff of making Yes sound like The Buggles or Asia which completely misses the point. What people are hearing is the keyboard style of Geoff Downes which would be just as distinctive whatever band he was in. Case closed there….But I digress.
When vocalist Jon Davison enters the proceedings my feeling is that this guy was born to sing for Yes. No he is not Jon Anderson, he has a softer voice without the edge and pure power that Jon Anderson brought to Yes, but then again this album is a more restrained affair so the more gentle vocals are entirely appropriate. There is a lot of space between the music which lets the whole album breathe naturally, indeed given some of the criticism the band has received since the departure of Jon Anderson it would have been easy for the band to take the route of playing it safe with longer instrumental passages with less emphasis on Davison. In a perverse way, by making a more song oriented album with Davison dominating the writing and putting him on display to such a degree, it can be argued that Yes have made a very bold move with “Heaven And Earth”
The instrumental section of the opener “Believe Again” raises things up a notch with a signature Howe solo, underpinned by Squires more restrained but still strident Bass. Whites playing in keeping with the album is more restrained and serves to help to give the album a consistency, sound and style which is both pleasing and uplifting. To my own ears “Believe Again” sounds very much like 1977 “Going For The One” Yes. It’s retro, and has a very classic Yes sound.
“The Game” again sees the band keeping things simple while all the time keeping this listener interested with it’s earworm in a good way chorus. Howe again displays some great restrained guitar work. Both Davison and Howe shine on this song which is rapidly becoming one of my favourites. To my own mind, if Yes were a new band, “The Game” would be a live staple for many years. I did say that this would be a review by a Yes fan stepping outside of the Yes box and this brings me on to “Step Beyond” which is the track on the album I am finding it hard to get my head around. There are a lot of pleasing moments on the song, but to these ears they are mixed in with a tweeness that I have to be honest and say that I find a wee bit cringeworthy and because of that “Step Beyond” is a skipper for me.
“To Ascend” is a simply beautiful song and has become another favourite of mine. Howe introduces us to the song with an intro which briefly echoes a more Genesis sound before entering into the main body of the song with beautiful laid back guitar from Howe and a gorgeous vocal melody from Jon Davison. Perversely enough the vocal melody and style seems to echo previous vocalist Benoit David and some of his vocal stylings with “Mystery” Geoff in addition pops up with a lovely piano run not unlike Tony Banks to these ears. “To Ascend” is one of those shorter songs which have the same effect on me as “A Venture” from “The Yes Album” Not that they sound anything alike, but is proof ( if any were needed ) that Yes are just as competent at writing shorter songs as they are at writing sprawling epics. It is a truly beautiful song.
Up next is “A World Of Our Own” which sees Yes dipping their toes into new territory. The song has a slow seductive moody “Swing” feel which wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid period “Wishbone Ash” album ( hey some of these dudes used to hang out with “The Ash” in earlier days so it’s not a complete surprise ) The song still manages to retain that Yes flavour we all know and love and actually shows Davison with a subtle underlying menace to his voice. The vocal harmonies as displayed on most of this album are crisp and clear. “Light Of The Ages” is a solely Davison penned song, and again echoes and brings to mind a past period of the band. There is a restrained power to this song which is both deceptive and pleasing. A worthy sole songwriting debut by Jon Davison.
“It Was All We Knew” is a sole Steve Howe penned number, which has Yes in pure happy pop mood ( When I say pop I mean GOOD pop – The Beatles, The Beach Boys and more latterly Crowded House ) Again the song is a good earworm and has a feelgood factor that raises a smile of satisfaction and happiness when I listen to it. “Subway Walls” ends the whole package with that distinctive Geoff Downes style which has become an integral part of Yes these days. In complete contrast to the rest of the album this is the one track where the band enter into more familiar Prog territory. There is in fact a distinct “After Forever” feel to the track and displays some wonderful little twists and changes. Geoff Downes brings to the table some tasty Hammond which is a pure pleasure to hear. “Subway Walls” is a bonafide classic Yes song and sits comfortably with some of the more recognised classics. Steve Howe gets to shine as the whole band build to a crescendo of pure eargasm.
In summary I normally prefer my Yes to rock out a little bit more, but by the same token I also love the softer and more restrained side of the band like “Soon” “Onward” etc. “Step Beyond” aside, my own view is that Yes have delivered a beautiful album chock full of clever straightahead songs which once inside your head will stay there. It is not always about bizarre time signatures and sprawling epics, sometimes it can be about just how strong the songwriting is in shorter form, and Yes have certainly delivered this with Heaven And Earth. It is a beautiful album and one I personally think will win some doubters over given time. A solid 4 out of 5.
REVIEW BY IAN RAGGETT
For fans of - King Crimson, Asia, Genesis, Fright Pig and all good prog in general