For whatever reason, I got the weird idea in my head that a good album cover was a promising indicator of a good album. It seems weird to think I’ve had that misconception; after all, most of the time the musicians don’t have all that much to do with their album’s visual art. Still, in the case of Yes‘ career, the covers usually say a lot about the records themselves. Roger Dean has provided a visual feast for all but a handful of the band’s best works, and created a lavish counterpart to Yes‘ equally elaborate music. Fragile and Relayer are two of my favourite covers for two of my favourite albums- even the deceptively plain cover for Close to the Edge has become iconic. Then, as the band began to turn sour, the beautiful artwork began to disappear- the uninventive covers for Talk and Open Your Eyes said all they needed to.
Roger Dean returned to the band a few more times over the years, but none seemed so momentous as Fly From Here, an album I met with eager anticipation. Even if that album’s long since lost its favour with me, I couldn’t help but feel the same sense of excitement when Heaven and Earth was announced. Once again, Roger Dean unveiled an incredible cover that sought to capture my imagination. The skyscape felt liberating just to look at, and from the way the band members would talk about it in promotional materials, part of me was expecting a true return to form for Yes. This was going to be the album myself and others had been waiting for.
Was I right? No. No. No. No. No. No. I think it would be unfair to call Heaven and Earth a ‘terrible’ album- it’s melodic, appropriately performed and doesn’t turn its back on the band’s prog rock history like the worst of their discography did. Yet, there isn’t a single thing about the album that stirs or excites me. We see plenty of films where a brilliant ‘outside the box’ madman is reduced to a docile wreck in a mental institution, be it a result of medication or a lobotomy. If Yes‘ classic material was that brilliant madman, Heaven and Earth has seen the dreaded lobotomy come to pass. I’m sure the album was a well-intentioned effort to bring progressive rock back into the fold, but it completely lacks the energy and sense of adventure that would have made it work.
It wouldn’t be fair to call Heaven and Earth a pop rock album, although part of me would like to. Yes (or whatever you’d like to call ‘em nowadays) have created merely a shadow of progressive rock, one with all of the toys and trinkets of the genre, but none of the sophistication we would normally look for in it. Even the album’s most ambitious piece- the nine minute would-be epic “Subway Walls”- colours within the lines so much so as to induce a coma. When they’re ambitious enough to emerge beyond the fold of adult-oriented rock (a trend their hosts in Frontiers Records are dreadfully synonymous with), the orchestrations are tired and predictable.
If there’s anyone in the band who could potentially save or revitalize Yes, it’s Jon Davison. I’ve long-been a vocal (pun intended) fan of Jon Anderson, and for a time couldn’t bear to think of Yes without their classic vocalist. While Trevor Horn and Benoit David felt awkwardly placed, Jon Davison fits Anderson’s shoes like they were made for him. His work in Glass Hammer- particularly 2014′s Ode to Echo- has impressed me, and I can’t think of another vocalist in progressive rock who would do such a good job of filling the vacancy. On Heaven and Earth, his vocal gifts are apparent, but his performance feels equally as safe and tame as the rest of the band’s mid-tempo tedium. “Subway Walls” and the single “To Ascend” have some genuinely nice melodies, but more often than not the memorable hooks are only so because I find them saccharine and irritating.
I guess ‘length extension’ is an indicator that Yes were truly aiming for a proggier approach this time around, but it’s honestly squandered what may have otherwise been mediocre pop tracks. I’ll admit that some of these tracks had more potential than the finished product. “Believe Again”, “The Game” and “Light of the Ages” feel minutes overdrawn. The constant mid-tempo, cheer and shallowness runs throughout the entire album. There’s a sense of individual identity for each song while you’re listening to them, but by the end of it, I cannot help but feel everything except “Subway Walls” flows together into a single, sterile blur.
I don’t like Heaven and Earth, I don’t even necessarily dislike it. It doesn’t provoke or stir me in the slightest, save for the gross feeling of disappointment that’s come with the knowledge that one of my favourite bands has truly ‘lost it’ creatively. The nasty part of me wants to say that Yes have gotten too old, but that’s not true at all. Artists never get too old, but they do get tired. Like the god-awfully disappointing Dream Theater album from this past year, I get the sense that Yes feel like they have to prove themselves anymore. Their career is legendary in the canon of rock music, and a bad post ’70s album isn’t going to change that. However, for the sake of Heaven and Earth, I’d suggest you keep your hopes down for this one. Even if Jon Davison proves to be a great fit for their existing work, you can be rest assured that the creative days are indeed over for Yes.
Fortunately, Yes‘ largely wonderful career can still be heard in a host of countless other progressive bands. If you’re looking for music like the glory days of Yes, there are some amazing newer bands to check out- I’d personally recommend Wobbler from Norway. Heaven and Earth rests among the greatest musical disappointments of the year, and as the years go by, I predict it will be reduced to a footnote in the band’s history. Yes will forever remain one of my favourite ever bands, but if Heaven and Earth is any indicator, it may be time to give things a rest permanently.
Don’t let the album cover fool you… this album is almost completely lifeless.
1. Believe Again (8:02)
2. The Game (6:51)
3. Step Beyond (5:34)
4. To Ascend (4:43)
5. In A World Of Our Own (5:20)
6. Light Of The Ages (7:41)
7. It Was All We Knew (4:13)
8. Subway Walls (9:03)
* Steve Howe – electric guitar, acoustic & steel guitars, backing vocals
* Chris Squire – bass guitar, backing vocals
* Alan White – drums, percussion
* Geoff Downes – keyboards, computer programming
* Jon Davison – lead & backing vocals, acoustic guitar on tracks 1, 4 & 6