Rock and roll will never last, you know. Gone in a couple of years. That’s what they said back in the early 60s. Yet not only has the beast survived, some of its protagonists have notched up multiple decades in the biz, inviting today’s extraordinary mission: Reviewing two albums by the same artist, released four decades apart. That’s forty-sodding-years; 1974 – 2014.
Heaven and Earth – 2014
Some sustained guitar notes introduce drums and bass, the vocals enter, a light tenor singing about mountains, freedom and open sky. So far, so Yes. “Believe again” has the sort of vague humanistic spirituality Jon Anderson specialised in. Except this is not Jon, but Jon. Davison, the 2014 Yes frontman. Meet the new voice, same as the old voice.
The first section of this eight minute opening song (written by Davison and Howe) is pretty pedestrian balladry though things get a bit more interesting with the middle instrumental section where Steve Howe’s guitar steps forward. Some rather clichéd existential themes are presented in “The game” in another pleasant mid-paced song. I wondered if Alan White was getting bored with the straight ahead 4/4 beats. I was.
Here to grow
We’re all rehearsing, you know
Come the final fade out
Come the song’s fade out, the guitar solo is again the highlight.
“Step beyond” opens with a particularly jaunty synth phrase. Fitting for a lyric that aspires to adolescent sophistication and almost gets there.
I told you so
As the grass will grow
Turn your hand
Back to the land
I really wish I hadn’t started reading the lyrics. I’ll never criticise Anderson’s impenetrable mystic nonsense ever again. Pure William Blake compared to this tosh.
Next up is an undistinguished ballad, followed by a jazzy little mid-paced number entitled “In a world of our own”, co-written with bass player Chris Squire. It’s pleasant enough. Davison’s “Light of the ages” starts off promisingly, with a lovely Steve Howe introduction over a keyboard string wash (has Geoff Downes lost his mojo or was he not given any space?) and a beat that – at last! – is different from what has gone before. It stops to leave space for Davison’s acoustic guitar but thankfully does return, accompanied by some punctuating bass from Squire. Tellingly, the lyric evokes a more literal Anderson quest-song but that’s fine as at last there is some musical light and shade. Just as well, as we’re well over half-way through Heaven & Earth.
Howe’s nostalgic “It was all we knew” is pretty piece of reminisce. “Sweet were the fruits, long were the summer days. It was all we knew”. Lucky you, Steve. What I like here is the song’s brief burst of guitar chords. Hey, we’ve almost moved from a stroll to a gentle jog! The sunny 60s feel doesn’t come across as contrived and is rather sweet, like that fruit. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.
But there is more. The nine minute closing “Subway walls”, the only writing credit for Downes (though shared with Davison), opens with classical symphonic grandeur before the song hops towards a more uneven beat (but doesn’t quite get there). The middle instrumental section has the first keyboard solo of the whole album, Downes on organ over a great syncopated rhythm laid down by White and Squire. Howe solos too, spare but penetrating. It is the album highlight, no doubt, and something of a reminder of Yesteryears.
If this all reads rather negatively, I should say that the playing is uniformly excellent, the arrangements thoughtful and clean and the cover art classic Roger Dean. Jon Davidson sounds so much like his namesake Anderson it’s spooky. But the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Why? Because the songs themselves are just average. In the past, the great Yes moments – and indeed the merely excellent ones – offer both counterpoint and conflict between the musical ideas and the voice/lyrics. Here, the dominance of pedestrian song-writing and predictable melody irons out those moments of surprise, exaltation and even occasional abrasion into a smooth oldies-radio sound that could best be described as Yes-lite.
I remember when I’d exhausted the Yes catalogue back in the late 70s – all their albums were acquired and absorbed and I wanted MORE! Where to go? I heard about Starcastle, often mentioned as Yes clones. Sounded like damnation by faint praise, but if you are desperate for a fix of your fave progressive band, you’ll chase down any lead. So I bought a couple of Starcastle albums and test drove them for a while. Sure enough, they delivered a smooth automatic transmission of radio-friendly prog musicality when I yearned for a four-on-the-floor back-roads adventure. (Yes were never off-road). Heaven and Earth is like that. Nice, comforting even. But ultimately just too smooth and safe.
Relayer – 1974
Tinkles, trickles, sonar twangs, a brief percussive punch. Repeat with added guitar, over synth waves, further rhythmic building… voices chant wordlessly, something’s growing, reaching towards… crashing chords like a cosmic fanfare. Then the voice enters.
Stand and fight we do consider
Reminded of an inner pact between us
The time signatures shift and rock, drums bass guitar all doing different things, but not clashing. The guitar line dances and thrusts, a restless questing energy over a roiling leaping rhythms section that never stands still. Enter “The gates of delirium” and you enter one of the most vibrant pieces of progressive music committed to vinyl. It may be a group composition, but Steve Howe is all over this epic side, his guitar snapping, surging, stinging and stunning. Your attention is commanded by this complex, intricate music; try to do another task while listening at volume and you’ll soon become delirious. The drum roll that builds to a mid-point climax is absolutely thrilling, and signals the first solo entry of new keyboard player Patrick Moraz as he introduces the second melodic theme on a gloriously squelchy analogue synth. Howe picks up the tune, spiralling like Icarus to the heavens. When there is a brief glide to earth at the fifteen minute mark, you realise you’ve been holding your breath and exhale to a slightly dissonant sustained synthesiser line… which creates the perfect space for the beautiful “Soon” section, Howe first, then Anderson singing…
Soon, Oh soon the light
Pass within and soothe this endless night
…then Howe again, guitar entreating, yearning, now joined by the voice, over a tidal synth wave. After the complexity and aggressive energy of earlier sections, this peaceful ending is satisfying indeed.
Side two opens with the martial crash of an interstellar army preparing for battle. The baseline jumps, electric piano swirls, roto-drums roll. After a minute the song section begins:
Faster moment spent spread tales, of change within the sound
Counting form through rhythm, electric freedom
There is a definite jazz-rock flavour here, which Steve Howe attributed to the recently recruited keyboard player. “Sound Chaser has this keyboard tune really hammering away against Chris and I doing our guitar and bass riffs. Sound Chaser is really Patrick Moraz shining through” (liner notes to 2003 CD re-issue).
A quiet, reflective section ends with a return of the opening-punch theme and the complex dance starts up again. A portal of vocal chanting briefly opens and slams shut before a wonderful keyboard solo has you totally forgetting Rick Whatsisname and his silly cape. I’m being naughty there, I love Wakeman, but this is lapel-grabbing music that might wrestle even a prog-sceptic to the floor shouting, “Pax! I submit! It’s clever and muscular!” In my fantasy, Stravinsky would rock out to Relayer.
The final piece brings some peace. A pretty song arranged with restraint and subtlety, having a series of instrumental (primarily guitar) sections between the verses. “To be over” is a nice title for a closing song. Especially when the journey has been a phantasmagoria of soaring musical ideas, fiery solos and introspective interludes.
History tells us that Relayer was the only Yes studio album featuring this line-up. We’re left to lament what might have been had Moraz fully integrated into the band and stepped forward with his own unique musical visions. But there is no need to be mired in regret. Relayer is a quiet-noisy soaring-crashing masterpiece of progressive music. Oh, and the Roger Dean cover is pretty special too.