HEAVEN EARTH RELAY

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.

The artist is no stranger to Vinyl Connection, having appeared at least twice already with a classic and a triple live album. Yes, here they are again.

Yes - Relayer + Heaven Earth

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.

Yes Heaven and Earth 2014

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.

Yes CDs

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.

Relayer label

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.

Yes - Relayer with Lego

20 comments

  1. I wonder if there are any other instances of a band releasing albums “40 sodding years apart”–:)–and having the same artist do the cover art, a la Roger Dean and Yes…?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are definitely 40 year artists (Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep) but as for the cover artist…
      I do rather like that Roger Dean has become part of the Yes brand.

      Like

  2. For reasons inexplicable even to me, I only “discovered” Relayer this year (2015) when I picked up a used CD copy. The Yes Album, Close to the Edge, and Fragile have been regulars in the rotation for near 40 years, but I seem to have been only barely aware of Relayer at all. Since getting it a few months back, it has become a regular craving. I share what I read as your highly positive view of the album. Great review, well thought.

    As for Heaven & Earth, I’ve tended to find myself relatively lacking in enthusiasm for giving it a chance and, for better or worse (better probably), your review here is likely to keep me unenthused.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to hear you are enjoying Relayer. I’ve never quite understood why it is overlooked – as mentioned I wonder about the potency of the musical identities in the ‘classic’ Yes line-up making Moraz’s inclusion something of an aberration.
      Confession: I only picked up H & E very recently when I saw it for a fiver. That’s about the right price, I reckon.

      Like

  3. No to smooth oldies-radio sound; Yes to Relayer [which I’ve never heard; your review tempts me].

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mission accomplished! For those moments when jagged beauty is called for.

      Like

  4. Really interesting stuff Bruce and I’m a big fan of the art. Loved the bit about H&Es rather profound lyrics..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The major I completed on adolescent poetry has stood me in good stead. Especially with my own verse. Ouch.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Double ouch! I still can’t get anywhere near Yes I’m afraid and I have tried again recently, via Spotify.

        Like

  5. Great stuff, Bruce. I’m all about digging further through the Yes catalogue, so this is timely. Still very much finding new bits within their first album (only one I own).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers J. I reckon the Yes catalogue is one that works really well doing just what you describe: starting at the beginning and going chronologically. Let me know what you make of Relayer when you get there in a few years!!

      Like

  6. Yes were a band I never got fully on board with, for some reason. I bought Fragile on vinyl and then on CD. Still brilliant. I also have 90125 and a Greatest Hits tape a mate gave me. But the others I never really made the effort to listen to …
    Although I bought Topographic Oceans for One Pound fifty Pence in a second-hand bin but could not get into it and gave it to a girlfriend. Considering it was a triple album and all the artwork, I should have kept it!

    Like

    1. Sorry you have never become a Yes-man. They’re quite popular around these parts!

      The double studio album Tales from Topographic Oceans was the one critics loathed (though fans loved – it was amongst their most successful). The triple live album YesSongs had a wonderful series of cover paintings by Roger Dean. Funny how the art still lodges in our memories even if the music is not so familiar.
      Thanks for sharing your ‘no to Yes’ story!

      Like

      1. Doubles and Trebles. *Sigh* Old Age catching up. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. He He, don’t worry man. I only knew because I’m looking at them!!

          Like

  7. […] The only studio album featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards, Relayer is demanding and often startling fusion of beauty and brutality. Previously featured at Vinyl Connection here. […]

    Like

  8. douglasharr · · Reply

    nice post – like the 40-years split angle – has been hard for me to desire a spin of H&E after the few times … Relayer however is a favorite of mine as well and I saw your comment on my recent post – the very long tour with Moraz had Yes playing at some of the largest stadiums and coliseums in the states – Gryphon opened for them on the first leg in UK/East coast, then when the latter part of the tour with “Crab Nebula” staging in place they played with Peter Frampton, Gentle Giant and Gary Wright out west. one of the best series of live shows from the day… was a shame they did not reprise any of this when Moraz joined the Cruise To The Edge gig – will be following you now!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I have to give you your due Bruce. Your honest and thoughtful take on the later album sounds like what CB would guess it to be. ‘Relayer’ is an album that I really like. I hung around for later releases but after this I tailed off. Lots of other music to explore and I had put a lot of time into Yes and enjoyed it. Still a fan. ‘Relayer could get a spin today. (This is one of my fave covers)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Relayer’ is simply one of my enduring favourite progressive albums. And, as you say, an absolutely classic Roger Dean cover. Hope you enjoy the spin!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Had a good work out to it. Still sounds good! These guys could play. Can tell you have a personal connection and it moves you. CB will continue his trek through VC land

        Liked by 1 person

Comments and responses welcome for all posts: present or past. Go on, join in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: