by Geoff Bailie
There’s a British analogy about buses that is: you wait for ages and then 2 come at once. Well that’s sort of how it feels getting a copy of a new Yes album to review – wait… when did the last one come out? Less than 2 year ago! So we get as many Yes albums in two years as we did in 20!
If you read or listen to the various interviews the band members gave at the time of the release of The Quest, it’s because they found a way to work – possibly even a new way of working. After 6 or 7 years of relative stability as a live act, and following what many will reflect as the missed opportunity of Heaven & Earth in 2014, with The Quest, Yes seemed to arrive at a new way of making music together/ apart. That was partly enforced upon them by lockdown, but also due to the geographic locations of band members, and the ability of technology to transcend the enforced physical separation. Perhaps the most significant factor was that Steve Howe stepped into the producer’s chair, and collaborated with Curtis Schwartz as engineer and mixer – the choice of producer has, in the past, been either the making or the ruin of a Yes album, and the job is not an easy one. Balancing the art of setting a vision/ direction and bringing the whole band with you is difficult – but Howe managed to do this. Jon Davison played a role that was not intrusive but equally left his stamp on the lyrical direction. Sherwood and White, both in the US, along with Jay Schellen covered all of their rhythm section duties in a cohesive manner, and all of the members fed in their musical ideas. The album itself was very well received, with a great sound and strong songs. If there was anything to be constructively critical of, it was that it lacked some of the “edge” (no pun intended) that those who had seen the band live knew they were capable of.
The passing of Alan White was truly the end of an era, but definitely not the end of Yes, and having started with some ideas from the end of the Quest sessions, we have a new album. Now I know it’s not the be all and end all, but which Yes fan’s heart didnt flutter at the sight of a track list that boasted six tracks, two over 9 minutes long and one almost 14 minutes long… yeah… yeah… I know… Long doesn’t mean good, but hey, at least they are trying something different!
As an opener, and first single, Cut From The Stars sends a few clear messages. First up, yes, the orchestra is back… and appears throughout the album. When the song kicks off it’s the bass guitar that’s in “lead instrument” spot, with some burbling guitar patterns present but not dominating. A Davison / Sherwood composition indicates it’s not The Steve Howe Show, and it signals a more energetic tone to the album, adding a bit more of a “punch” together with the crystal clear production we had on The Quest. Credit must go to producer Steve Howe, whose steady hand means that there are lots of nuances and a great deal of clarity throughout rather than, say, the mushy sound of Tormato with instruments competing for air. It’s worth a “headphones listen” to hear the variety of keyboard textures that Geoff Downes is adding to the track – they’re quite subtle until the guitar / keys duel towards the end of the song, when he gets a solo spot. Aside from the usual group of Yes fans who respond to every release with “Bring back … it’s not Yes without …”, the first track went down well with many, building expectations for the rest…
Track 2 is the first of the long(er) songs and All Connected adds Howe into the Sherwood / Davison writing mix. I’m always delighted to hear Billy Sherwood’s vocals in Yes music, and his parts on this song are very strong. It’s a track with many musical shifts, which perhaps take a few listens to tune into the flow. It also has some brilliant bass riffs, with Howe taking a bit of a step back in places to allow that to feed through.
The same trio are responsible for Luminosity, a wonderfully ethereal song – the space and sound complimenting the astral lyrical subject matter. Early Yes always had a degree of pop sensibility in their influences, and you can hear that sort of vibe in the vocals and the chorus – Yes aren’t straying too far from their signature sounds, but equally aren’t trying to hit the pop charts. The orchestra also join in here, working particularly well in support of a Steve Howe steel guitar solo.
When split into a vinyl album, the next 3 tracks constitute Side 2 of the first disc and I’ll make the perhaps bold statement that this 20-ish minutes of music is of such a high standard it can stand on its own with the band’s best music. Living Out Their Dreams is a punchy rock/ prog combination which, for me, echoes the sounds of the Banks-era early band. Plus … (fact checkers let me know if I’m wrong) it has the most cowbell of any Yes track! Davison sings in a lower register than normal – and it works well. This is a Howe / Downes track and while there’s a certain Asia feel, the multiple vocal parts place it firmly in Yes territory. A jazzy ending, as I said earlier, feels like something that could comfortably fit on the band’s 1968 debut album!
Next up is the title track Mirror To The Sky. Even at 14+ minutes long, it’s bulging with musical ideas and invention without overstaying its welcome. From a frantic Drama-like intro, things are pared back to acoustic guitar, vocals and the orchestra, which really comes into its own on this track. A particular shout-out must go to the Schellen/ Sherwood rhythm section who are really key in this track at keeping the energy flowing, but also in navigating us through the various sections. While the early part of the song feels a bit keyboard-lite, with that part of the sonic landscape being filled by the orchestra, midway through things drop back, to electric guitar playing the main riff, accompanied by a fantastic sounding piano, and other keyboard parts. As the song ends there is a brilliant piece of Yes arranging, with acoustic guitar picking, joined by the orchestra, leading to a solo orchestral section which sounds magnificent. This sets things up for the energetic final minutes, and a great Steve Howe guitar solo. This is a true Yes classic!
A familiar thought keeps occurring to me each time I listen to this album which is – I’d love to hear these songs played live. Perhaps that’s a pipe dream – but the CTTE anniversary tour showed those of us who saw the gigs that The Ice Bridge and Dare To Know worked well in a live context, benefiting from the added vigour of being played on stage. I think that every track on this album is playable and would make great additions to the set lists. After their Crash of the Crown album, Styx took the brave step of swapping out 4/5 classic back catalogue tracks from their set list to focus on their new album – I’d love Yes to make a similarly brave move!
My Side 2 Trio ends with a wonderful acoustic Davison compilation – Circles of Time. Focused around acoustic guitar and his voice, it’s a moment that for me cements Jon D’s right to a place in this band. Not only can he do justice to the band’s legacy and history, but he has a vital musical contribution to make to its future, and this song is a great example of that.
Like The Quest, Mirror to the Sky, in CD format, comes with a 3 track bonus disc. Howe has pointed out that the main album was put together in a format that flowed but that these tracks are not of lesser quality and were created in the same way as the rest of the album. The linking thread is that they are all Howe compositions – and indeed the only “Howe-alone” songs on the album – but they still reflect the whole band. Unknown Place has some great keyboard features from Downes, perhaps more so than some of the main album tracks, with Hammond and Church organ featuring – watch out for the closing section where a magnificent church organ part is worked into the song’s fabric! Similarly One Second Is Enough begins with some prominent Hammond organ that drives the song’s main riff. This one has Davison/ Howe duet vocals similar to moments on The Quest, and a nice time signature shifted riff on the chorus (for some reason I’m reminded of GTR!).
The closing track of this trio is Magic Potion – another duet type track, this time with a great bass riff from Sherwood, and chorus vocals where you can hear all 3 vocalists taking part. The song has a lovely slide guitar section with multi tracked layer of Howe guitar. Like the last album, there could be all sorts of debate as to which bonus track could take the place of a main album track. For me, One Second Is Enough perhaps deserves more prominence given the significance of the keyboard features it contains.
If I had some critique, the two points I’d make are: (1) I would love to hear more Sherwood vocals on the album – Billy’s a great singer and a strong counterpoint to Jon D. Maybe they’re saving that for Arc of Life but I’d welcome it into YesWorld; and (2) I still yearn for a bit more Geoff Downes on this album. Various moments contain great contributions, in solo or featured parts, but that content is greatly outnumbered by the amount of similar solo contributions on guitar.
The album ends with this listener feeling very satisfied that the band have taken another step forward. The blend of writing and musical styles makes this album a welcome progression from the good work done on The Quest. As a fan, I’m delighted that Yes are still going and have produced an album that stands its ground with energy and inventiveness that I hope open minded Yes fans will embrace.
Released on May 19th, 2023 on InsideOutMusic
The track listing is as follows:
1. Cut From The Stars 05:27
2. All Connected 09:02
3. Luminosity 09:04
4. Living Out Their Dream 04:45
5. Mirror to the Sky 13:53
6. Circles of Time 04:59
1. Unknown Place 08:15
2. One Second Is Enough 04:04
3. Magic Potion 04:08
Pre-order now here: https://Yes-Band.lnk.to/MirrorToTheSky