Thursday, January 31, 2019

Review of Yes's "Heaven & Earth"

I posted this review about twenty minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Chris Squire's Yes swan song is better than you might have thought.

Heaven & Earth is Yes's most recent studio album, and it's probably their last one (unless the Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman version of the band decides to put one out). It's certainly the late Chris Squire's last studio LP. As such, it's a shame that H&E has been so heavily maligned by many Yes fans. All the more so because, really, it's not a bad album.

Here are some statistics. Released in 2014, Heaven & Earth reached #20 on the UK chart, and #26 on the American Billboard chart. Not too shabby, especially since this was the best performance by any Yes album since 1991's Union LP. Yet its average rating here on Sputnik Music is only 1.7 out of 5 stars, which is .2 lower than the band's immensely disappointing 1997 album, Open Your Eyes. Its sole review on this site, written by a staff member whose opinion I respect immensely, rated it at 0.5, and suggested its existence as evidence that Yes needed to be euthanized. So how do we reconcile this respectable chart performance with the enmity that some have expressed towards this album?

"Lo," you might say to me, were you the sort of person who regularly utilizes expressions such as "lo". "Surely you're not claiming that chart performance equals quality?" And you make a fair point. After all, each of Justin Bieber's studio LPs has reached #1 in the American charts, and a quick glance at the Billboard 200 every week makes me want to blow my brains out in despair. 

But here's the thing: The first time I ever listened to Heaven & Earth, it put a huge smile on my face, and over these last five years, that smile has remained. Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming it's the second coming of Close to the Edge, or even of Drama. But there's a lot of beauty on H&E, from the opening notes of "Believe Again" through the last throes of "Subway Walls". So why do many Yes fans hate this album so? I believe I can answer that question in two words: Jon Davison. 

Jon Davison has been a rock performer/vocalist for more than twenty-five years. Prior to joining Yes, he played bass in the American psych rock group Sky Cries Mary, and he later became the lead vocalist of the prog rock band Glass Hammer. He seems an unassuming gent, who to the best of my knowledge has never serial killed, R. Kelly'd, or even paid his taxes late. So what's the problem here? Simply put, he's a Jon Anderson-sounding dude who stepped into Jon Anderson's old role without actually being Jon Anderson. Yeah, there are other criticisms that have been leveled at Heaven & Earth. It features a gentler, poppier brand of music than had been featured on most prior Yes albums. Most of the tracks on the album are slow- to mid-tempo. Alan White seemed to have lost a step by the time the LP was recorded, and Geoff Downes was never Rick Wakeman, or even Patrick Moraz. But really, these things seem to be minor issues to most. The real burning hatred seems to be reserved for Davison, who many see as a tribute-band Jon Anderson copycat who has usurped the role of the real thing.

Judge to the LP on its own merits, though -- forget it's even a Yes album, and just listen to the music -- and you might find plenty to like here. Downes actually does some of his best work on this project. I love the playful synth pattern he uses on "Step Beyond", and the mild-but-affable pulsing keyboards he uses for much of the LP's opening track "Believe Again". As for Howe, he's still Howe -- you'll hear his instantly recognizable guitar stylings popping up throughout. And he had at least a hand in writing three of the four best tracks here, including the two I just mentioned, plus "It Was All We Knew". As for the vocals, as even many of the album's biggest critics have grudgingly admitted, they're actually one of the best things on the LP. Davison might not have Anderson's power, or all of his range, but his voice is still quite graceful. And his contributions are more than capably bolstered by Squire's and Howe's backing vocals.

Heaven & Earth is not one of Yes's best albums for sure. But then again, you're talking about one of the greatest progressive rock bands that ever existed, so the bar is pretty high there. Listen to it on its own terms, though, and it's actually better (or at least more enjoyable) than most of the LPs I listened to in 2018. Forget it's Yes. Pretend the name of the band is "No", or "Perhaps". Then close your eyes and just listen to the music. If you give it a fair shot, and focus on what's actually there instead of what (or who) isn't, you just might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars