Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Heaven & Earth is as cheesy as progressive rock gets. If you were to take a swig for every mention of “ascension,” or “visions,” or “consciousness,” or “light” or “flight” or whatever, you would be incapacitated by the end of this record. If the sight of yet another Roger Dean album cover is enough to make you cringe, then please stay far, far away from Heaven & Earth. For the rest of us, there are enough bright spots for Yes to leave with its dignity intact, but make no mistake—this is by no means a great album.
Of all the problems with Heaven & Earth, the biggest offender is one that’s plagued Yes for decades now: digital recording technology is the worst thing to ever happen to this band. Any trace of grit or warmth in their early string of classics was obliterated around the time of 1983’s 90125, an album that wasn’t even supposed to be a Yes release, only to become their biggest hit to date. Since then, the band continues to consolidate that brief foray into synth pop with their prog-rock heritage to inconsistent returns. Although the 2011 comeback effort Fly from Here had several satisfying moments, their last truly impressive release was 1999’s The Ladder.
Take one look at producer Roy Thomas Baker’s storied history—the man produced Queen’s A Night at the Opera, for heaven’s sake—and it’s easy to assume his presence would spice up the band’s ever-softening sound. Not so. Perhaps the poor production is due to a reportedly rushed recording process, or maybe the mixing efforts of former Yes member Billy Sherwood are to blame. Whatever the case may be, the feeble and amateur sounds featured on Heaven & Earth are incredibly detrimental to all but the best songwriting here.
The singing is slathered in reverb and over-processed to the point of unease, robbing the band’s trademark harmonies of their beauty. Alan White’s characteristically mediocre drumming is buried in the mix, a far cry from the prominent pounding of albums like 1973’s Relayer. Only guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire escape unscathed; their crisp, consistent performances are the best part of the album.
Despite the tremendous sonic hurdle this record faces, Heaven & Earth starts off surprisingly strong. “Believe Again” overcomes the bargain-bin keyboard sounds used by Geoff Downes in favor of a legitimately gorgeous chorus:
“I used to believe in a love watching over
I want to believe in that love yet again
I lost my touch to handle with kid gloves
In the rough game of push and shove, I lost sight
I used to believe in your love, to be believed in
Once more tonight”
Yes’ instrumental interplay is at its best on “Believe Again”, conjuring the sort of rich, atmospheric textures that are synonymous with their best work. The lovely ballad “To Ascend” brings to mind such majestic soundscapes like “Wondrous Stories” or “And You and I,” no small feat for a band this far removed from its legacy. “The Game” trades in thick synthesizer pads for arpeggiated guitar lines and bite-sized vocal hooks, and although White’s drum groove is initially awkward, the band saves face on the strength of its melodies. Nevertheless, the song overstays its welcome by recycling the same parts ad nauseum instead of evolving in a significant fashion over the course of seven minutes.
Unfortunately, the forced “kid gloves” line on “Believe Again” is lyrically par for the course on Heaven & Earth. Even without longtime singer, lyricist, and certified space cadet Jon Anderson at the helm, Yes continues to embarrass itself with faux-new age ruminations. Although new vocalist Jon Davison sounds competent enough—he’s oddly not very distinguishable from the band’s last singer, Benoît David—his lyrics may be the worst Yes has ever offered. Take this nonsensical couplet from “In a World of Our Own”, the album’s limp, bluesy leadoff single:
“You can whet your appetite anywhere
As long as you do your cooking at home”
Uh…what? If that stinker wasn’t enough, this song also features the instantly classic line “‘Bout time you hail a taxi for that ego.” I won’t pretend to understand what Davison is getting at.
If the lyrics weren’t goofy enough, Heaven & Earth features a few asinine melodies to match. The intro to “It Was All We Knew” could sneak into a Christmas commercial and no one would notice. “Step Beyond” could do without the bouncy synthesizer part that only weakens an already awkward verse vocal. Once again, Squire and Howe save the day with intricate backup harmonies and chunky guitar riffs, and the song actually evolves enough to justify its length. Downes’ tasteful piano and organ playing later on in the tune almost make up for his initial faux pas.
And don’t even get me started about the irritating chorus to “Subway Walls”. As the obligatory nine-minute “epic” expected from every prog-rock band, there’s little to justify the song’s extended length apart from a few appropriate time signature changes. Just sample these dubious cosmic musings from Davison:
“Is there meaning in the stars?
Or does graffiti on some subway wall hold secrets to it all
We fear it’s just too far
Past the safe and small identity of who we think we are
Is the answer in the stars?”
I used to believe in Yes. I want to believe in Yes. They authored some of the greatest prog-rock albums of all time, and they’re still capable musicians after fifty years in the game. But you wouldn’t know it from Heaven & Earth.
Nick Porcaro is a 24-year old graphic designer, musician and writer based in Jersey City, NJ. Nick graduated in 2012 from UArts in Philadelphia, PA with a BFA in Graphic Design. As a musician he’s played guitar for over 10 years, in addition to dabbling in bass, drums and vocals. Nick currently plays rhythm guitar with Max Feinstein and has worked with Matt Scuteri, Sara Martin, Shakedown Inc., and The Nerd Who Ate St. Louis. When he’s not freelancing for the Wilma Theater, Nick is writing songs for his debut solo record.