'Heaven & Earth'—Collecting Visions from the Other Side
There's a Truth to Hear
In early 2014, the Yes lineup of vocalist Jon Davison, keyboardist Geoff Downes, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White recorded a new album. They reunited with Roy Thomas Baker, who had produced the failed 1979 Paris sessions. This seemed to be part of a pattern in which Yes revisited certain things from their distant past. After all, they had revisited material from the Drama era for their 2011 album Fly from Here, and they had done a 2013 Three Album Tour in which they performed Close to the Edge, Going for the One, and The Yes Album.
On the new album, however, there was no overt recycling. Released on July 16, 2014, Heaven & Earth had newer material that felt lightweight compared to its immediate predecessor Fly from Here. As was the case with that album, the first half (in the opinion of this reviewer) is stronger than the second half overall. The difference, however, is more noticeable on Heaven & Earth. While the album title is rather generic, there is something to be said about the effort in exploring the idea of the contrasting material world and the unknown, both of which can be full of their own forms of beauty. I have heard speculation that perhaps four tracks represent "heaven" and four tracks represent "earth," but I am not sure whether that was intentional. While the album was underwhelming in some regards, I do appreciate the moments that emphasize the running theme of hope.
1. "Believe Again"
Notes echo and feel as though they are descending from the heavens. We are told about a climb to a mountain line and a search for a vision "Woven to touch / And all to capture light." Davison conveys optimism through the lyrics:
Surely the stream of consciousness
Flows to the sea
Where drifting I found
That I can be
I’m really getting to know the empty space
Beneath the surface of common days
What speaks to me about these words is how one can find positivity when encountering emptiness, whether it be through prayer or meditation. The words of "Believe Again" feel very much like classic Yes to me. People can relate to the desire to believe once again in a higher positive force after perhaps having lost sight of how to view life.
Howe and Downes add very good textures during the instrumental section. However, there comes a point where "Surely the stream of consciousness..." is repeated in a manner that sounds artificial, which can take me out of it for a bit. As is the case with other songs on this album, "Believe Again" has somewhat of a slow tempo. And depending on my mood, I might desire for it to be sped up. But I do appreciate the hopeful tone of the song.
2. "The Game"
The opening notes of "The Game" sound very triumphant to me, making this song a good follow-up for "Believe Again." When I hear the words, "We all know the rules, the game / Us fools, still we play the same / As if our days remain," I cannot help but imagine the musicians poking fun at themselves and how they sometimes tend to play the same old songs. But by that same token, I have enjoyed how such songs have been performed. The thought of the "game" referring to musical performance seems to have weight in the following stanza:
Reversing the flow
Here to grow
We’re all rehearsing, you know
Come the final fade out
Perhaps it might have been effective for that last line to have been repeated toward the end before a fadeout. But I do enjoy the song as it is. "The Game" is catchy, and the title makes me think of the "To Be Over" line, "Do not suffer through the game of chance that plays." The newer song indeed echoes the need to reflect on acts of love as people go through the game of life (or the "rough game of push and shove" mentioned in "Believe Again").
3. "Step Beyond"
"Step Beyond" begins with keyboards that commence a great groove for the song. Many of the words are sung by multiple voices. This is another song about the need for enlightenment, which can be achieved through the act of letting go and hearing truth on a metaphorical hill. The song takes a sharp rhythmic turn when we hear, "Beg, steal rob, run, hide / Beg, steal, no disguise." It almost comes out of nowhere, and then we are back on the prior path, told to "Take one step beyond." While the verses about begging and stealing are catchy, they do feel a bit repetitive the more that they are sung. I do like how "Beyond" escalates toward the end, though.
4. "To Ascend"
"To Ascend" is a gentle track, but it is a favorite of mine. It conveys a vibe akin to drifting through a dream and reflecting on confusing times. The guitar gives it an airy feel, and the bass provides a grounding factor. "Collecting visions / From the other side" ties back into the idea of looking for meaning through meditation and such. "You were stealing moments past hours of your life" repeats the idea of stealing that is brought up in "Step Beyond." So far, there is cohesion between the tracks on the first half of this album.
The lines "Memories of once longer days / They keep on flooding back" feel like the antithesis to "Into the Lens" verse "Memories, how they fade so fast." Once again, Yes remind us to reflect on the love encountered along the way during past adventures. "With the eyes of a child / Come to understand" bring to mind similar ideas from "Children of Light" and "We Agree." Sometimes, it takes a bit of optimism to see the bright side and gain peace. As a writer, I find that the following lines resonate with me:
I will open the book
Raise the pen
Let it reinvent
My life again
Take me from where I am
As a freed bird
Flies from the hand
To ascend, to ascend
I really admire the ideas of this song, and how it suggests that one can become something when there seems to be nothing. Rather than dwell on past failures, one can "Call out those bleak shadows from your mind." Even though this is not a bombastic track, it conveys a comforting feeling of ascension. The Japanese release of this album includes an acoustic version as a bonus track.
5. "Living in a World of Our Own"
"Living in a World of Our Own" takes things in a different direction, as it has a more blues-y feel to it. The drums stand out to me more, but the song overall feels a bit off. It does not quite mesh well with the atmosphere conveyed by the surrounding tracks. Such lyrics as "Why must you always lie to me?" and "We're headed for heartbreak" are not quite what I think of when going through Yes music in my head. Something about this song makes it feel like a stripped down "Owner of a Lonely Heart," but I am not sure how to explain why that is. There was certainly an attempt to make this song grab the attention of listeners when Frontiers Records released a lyric video on their YouTube channel.
6. "Light of the Ages"
The beginning of "Light of the Ages" makes me think of bells during the winter holiday season. The icy landscape of the album cover would go well with this intro. The verses "Through the winter of our lives / A faithful polestar arises" reinforces the winter feel. The song is about seeking guidance of the light in moments of uncertainty, so it ties into the earlier themes of the album. Davison conveys a bit of a sense of urgency when he sings, "When darkness holds me down / And trials abound." Howe has memorable heavy guitar parts, but "Light of the Ages" feels like it could have been longer and gone somewhere more adventurous. Instead, it fizzles and fades out.
7. "It Was All We Knew"
"It Was All We Knew" feels like it is missing something. There are bits of good bass work, but it feels like there is a lot of empty space in this song. The vocals do not leave much of an impression on me. The only stanzas that are somewhat memorable to me are the ones containing "Sweet were the fruits / Long were the summer days / It was all we knew." And even then, those parts of the song feel lacking. I will say, though, that this view of summer days does remind me of "Beyond and Before" from the first album: "Now that you're gone / The summer's too long and it seems like the end of my life."
But overall, "It Was All We Knew" feels like it was a last minute addition to the album with very little development. I'm tempted to believe that the band's excuse for the lack of development for this particular song would be, "It was all we knew." Perhaps under different circumstances, the band would have fleshed this out some more. An early version of the song appears on Steve Howe's Homebrew 6.
8. "Subway Walls"
"Subway Walls" became a favorite from this album among a good number of fans. It showcases the potential of the band at this time. The instrumental intro teases an epic sound, but then the bass guides us through a shift to a lighter tone. The lyrics feel a bit off-the-wall (pun intended), with such words as, "Life road, metaphysical / Journey existential." Again, we hear about the unknown and a desire to find, whether it be in the heavenly stars or earthbound subway walls. "Oh, wounded sparrow in my heart" reminds me of the "wounded bird" mentioned in "To Ascend." "Venturing to find / The victory of game / It's all a state of mind" reminds me of "A Venture," "The Game," and "New State of Mind."
But to me, "Subway Walls" does not really hit its stride until the music gets heavier toward the end, complementing the elongated "Transcend." Part of me wonders whether this song could have been extended somehow. As it is, it feels like a tease of what Yes are capable of doing. Your mileage may vary on whether or not that makes it a good closer to this album.
On some of Heaven & Earth, there is a sense that the album was rushed and could have used more development. It was recorded within two months, and Yes were on a tight schedule to get back on the road. Their set list incorporated the Fragile album, but the only Heaven & Earth songs played live were "Believe Again," "The Game," and "To Ascend." The latter was only performed at six shows. Since the release of Heaven & Earth, Yes fans have been curious about what the current Yes lineup could do with a new album. With the inclusion of the late Chris Squire's successor and longtime Yes associate Billy Sherwood (who actually mixed Heaven & Earth), fans have wondered what an album with him in the mix would be like. Yes fans will have to wait and see what the future holds, but one can still appreciate whatever strong points they may find in Heaven & Earth.