Creating new Yes music over the last decade has been extraordinarily challenging. The band has had to re-group under the most tragic of circumstances, twice, incorporating new members who have had to get fully engaged with learning the back catalogue for live work as well as integrate into the song-writing process for new releases.
We are all familiar with the tumultuous nature of the various Yes family shake-ups over the years and in recent times there have been more than a fair share. There have been the Anderson Rabin Wakeman (ARW) tours, the ‘return trip’ re-recording of Fly from Here, the release of From a Page, and even the off-shoot that is Arc of Life, confusing muddy waters yet again. The fans have been happy to buy into the classic album tours, but it is clear that our patience is wearing thin for a more credible pattern of new music if the band is to become more than just a tribute act.
The writing process has, of course, been further disrupted by the pandemic lockdown restrictions and 2021’s The Quest was created in this background of turmoil. As my colleague Alex Driessen summarised in his review; “So, the final verdict: a mediocre album by the icons of prog rock, although substantially better than Heaven and Earth, especially through opening track The Ice Bridge, but also Dare to Know, the harmony vocals and production. And Howe’s guitar, of course. But otherwise, it’s mostly too many quietly flowing, medium tempo, easy-listening songs, without fire, without balls. It’s all too sweet, too boring and lethargic. Surely this can’t be the final chord of this legendary band?”
I note an element of optimism in the last sentence so, let’s look at things from this brighter perspective and see what signs of hope there have been prior to the making of Mirror to the Sky.
Firstly, there has been a great reception for the live performances. Most recently I saw them on the Close to the Edge 50 year anniversary tour. It came very soon after the passing of Alan White, but the shows went on and they proved to be spectacular. Billy Sherwood and Jay Schellen have teamed up to provide a dynamic and distinct partnership with the right kind of echoes of Chris Squire and Alan White, Steve Howe and Geoff Downes are so obviously in tune with each other and are perfect both as complementary players and virtuosos in their own right. Jon Davison has a bit of work to do in terms of stage presence but he is highly capable in his delivery and adds emotion and nuance with his voice. This band of brothers is developing into a harmonious unit and they know what ‘Yes’ is all about.
Secondly, From a Page was terrific. Oliver Wakeman takes a lot of the credit for resurrecting these ‘lost’ tracks, but they show just what fruits are still to be found when Steve and his crew have their mojos aligned.
Thirdly, I was extremely impressed by the recent release of Seeking Peace by Billy Sherwood’s Prog Collective project. It had ‘Yes music’ DNA running through a large section of it and signposted new avenues of possibilities.
And lastly, how can we forget that these musicians, each in their own right, have been at the pinnacle of prog music culture for most of their careers? They are professional creatives who are passionate enough to continue in the most challenging circumstances with strong enough personalities to forge a way through the difficult times and to come out fighting. As fans, let’s trust in the process, let’s put to one side our petty biases and our pre-conceptions and let’s listen together to this new album and be open to whatever lies within.
Enough context – “Is it any good?” I hear you cry. Well, it absolutely is. It is a well-crafted, absorbing, classical Yes album of the highest quality. Steve talks a lot about the progression of this version of the band and they have surpassed all expectations with an official album of six tracks that, in time, I am certain will be pushing for a Top 5 place, well, top 10 definitely, in the all-time Yes discography. A bold claim, and we are all entitled to our opinions of course, but for me this was pretty much my response to the first listen and it goes from strength to strength on every play.
“How can this be?”
Opening track Cut from the Stars may be familiar to you. Personally, and especially with prog, I like to wait for the full album to hear everything in place and in context. I was looking forward to hearing it as on its release the response to the track was generally good. It’s a catchy up-tempo tune in the way of The Ice Bridge, but has a more traditional Yes sound, particularly in the case of the bass lines and tone. It has twists and turns in the mid-section but the band is much more fluent in these transitions now and the song is enhanced throughout by interesting diversions as each player contributes individually whilst supporting the whole. Most satisfying is that it doesn’t sound forced or especially derivative. It’s recognisably Yes, but it is also recognisably from the 2020s version of Yes (with writing credits to Davison and Sherwood). The lyrics do a great job setting up the themes that run through the album, and now it is clear that every component is working harmoniously. It is a decent song that opens the gateway for the longer form tracks that we know are upcoming, but this first track certainly doesn’t mark the high point of the album this time round.
All Connected is next, credited to Davison, Howe and Sherwood. It starts with an uplifting melody from Steve on slide guitar. A number of complementary guitar parts follow before the band hit their stride. Musically, it’s a busy track and there are multiple vocal parts, but the clarity of the production means the listener can pick out the individual elements and the band, once again, does a great job of keeping the flow going. Across the nine minutes, Steve repeats the key melodies to provide a structure that allows the elements of the song to flow, and reprises the slide guitar magnificently to close it all out. The track has an And You and I swinging vibe to it. The big progression made from the two previous albums is that now the band can work with a low-tempo song and give it a more interesting upbeat feel with a few judicious additions of rhythm and alternating patterns. The new found confidence, and trust in Steve’s production capabilities has transformed the sound and also the feel of the writing style of Davison, in particular.
Luminosity is quite a difficult one to appraise. Essentially, the meat in the sandwich is a relatively under-whelming song, but it is bookended by two of Steve Howe’s finer moments. Steve, once again, picks out a simple but effective guitar melody in an extended opening passage before Jon Davison delivers the song itself. It’s another that fits nicely in the theme, although the lyrics and delivery tend more towards the twee end of the spectrum this time;
We are as the stars luminous,
We all are stardust,
However, as the vocals fade Steve picks up the original melody again and over the course of the remaining few minutes turns it up to 11. It’s melodic, it soars, and it’s accompanied tastefully by some sympathetic rhythm work and by the orchestra. Splendid stuff.
Howe and Downes link up for the fourth track Living out their Dream. It’s a fun interlude before the main event and showcases the great spirit in the band. As well as the consummate playing there is humour and a strong sense of the freedom of expression that stems from self-confidence. What it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in ‘joie de vivre’. It’s a great addition to the mix of sounds and styles presented through this album’s playlist.
Steve Howe and Jon Davison have a significant hand in the writing of each of the longer form songs and the combinations of musical arrangements that they develop in Mirror to the Sky, the centrepiece of the album, are a classic mix of the old and new Yes music stylings. The track opens with an unmistakeable ’70s feel. We have the now familiar opening of a Steve Howe guitar theme that leads into a band section right out of the Fragile playbox. The dramatic vocal lines that follow is more akin to Drama, and next up we have a melodic section and the introduction of orchestral arrangements that compare to the best moments of Magnification. Jon Davison puts in a spectacular performance here before Steve reprises the opening theme and the band of today take it in turns to add layers of interest in a fascinating soundscape that sets up the climax.
It’s inevitable that you get drawn into making these comparisons, but what is clear to me from this album is that this is not a band that is re-creating a vision of what Yes should sound like. This is truly about progression, it’s also about having a passion for particular styles and arrangements, for using the strengths of each band member, whatever their musical background, to create Yes music in the here and now.
The last of the ‘CD1’ tracks is Circles of Time, a Jon Davison song that gently brings us back down from the highs of the previous 40 minutes or so. Jon accompanies himself on the vocals and Steve Howe provides an unfussy backing on acoustic guitar. It serves this album well and is a step up in grade from comparable songs on the two previous albums – however, it probably won’t change the opinions of the Anderson-philes.
And my advice is to leave it there. When you fancy putting on a bit of modern day Yes to while away a bit of spare time and to lose yourself in the majesty of classic prog, stick at CD1. On CD2, the three tracks are all credited to Steve Howe, which may – or may not – say something about the nature of the band collective at this stage in their development. First up is Unknown Place which is interesting to listen to but the sum of the parts doesn’t quite make a whole. One Second is Enough and Magic Potion are the now-familiar type of jaunty Howe pop songs that would seem to fit best on a solo album.
Mirror to the Sky is very much a band album, where all five members, plus the orchestration from Paul K. Joyce, have been at the top of their game. The baton of the previous band incarnations has been passed, and this version is truly focused on being the best that they can be. Whilst being conscious of the legacy of the ‘Yes’ brand they have developed their own identity. Part of the joy of listening to the album is simply that it is so much better than the two previous releases, but it is much more than that. It will inspire, it will sustain, and whether you like it or not, ‘Yes’ will continue to have a role to play in shaping the future sounds of prog.
01. Cut From the Stars (5:25)
02. All Connected (9:02)
03. Luminosity (9:04)
04. Living Out Their Dream (4:45)
05. Mirror to the Sky (13:53)
06. Circles of Time (4:59)
Time – 47:08
01. Unknown Place (8:15)
02. One Second is Enough (4:04)
03. Magic Potion (4:08)
Time – 16:27
Total Time – 63:35
Steve Howe – Guitar, Vocals
Geoff Downes – Keyboards, Vocals
Jon Davison – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Percussion
Billy Sherwood – Bass, Vocals
Jay Schellen – Drums
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 19th May 2023