WHILE those who appreciate Yes may both agree and disagree on the legacy of 1970s and 1980s, it is aspects of the band’s 1990s output (and beyond) that tend to attract the greatest criticism. I am thinking particularly of the often-maligned ‘Union’ album (1991), with its mixed palette and host of musical acolytes, and the surprise 1997 Eagle Records offering, ‘Open Your Eyes’. Along with 2014’s ‘Heaven & Earth’ (Frontiers Records), these are possibly the most likely-to-be-dismissed recordings in the band’s otherwise illustrious history.
That may partly explain why the first track promoted by the Yes-offshoot band Arc of Life (a new ensemble discussed in more detail here) has provoked such varied and strong reactions, mostly veering towards either devotion or revulsion. I am talking about the single “You Make It Real”, released as a download and video this week, ahead of the first, ten-track, eponymous ‘Arc of Life’ album, which is due to appear in February 2021.
The debut song has more than a passing affinity with the ‘Open Your Eyes’ soundworld, and features Billy Sherwood (bass and vocals), Jon Davison (vocals and guitar) and Jay Schellen (drums) from the current incarnation of Yes, alongside guitarist Jimmy Haun (who played on a good deal of ‘Union’) and keyboardist and sound designer Dave Kerzner (‘Yesterday And Today: A 50th Anniversary Tribute To Yes’, 2018). In my article A next generation Yes? I explore the possible relationship of this new project to Yes itself. The arrival of their first track, and comments attending it in the accompanying press release from Frontiers Records (previously the Yes label, before they signed for BMG recently), have sent out what may come across as rather mixed signals about how this project is going to be framed.
But first, the song itself, which I was careful to listen to on multiple occasions before offering an initial assessment. My first reaction was one of slight disappointment (it is definitely in prog-pop territory), but subsequent hearings indicated that there is a little more going on here than first meets the ear. “You Make It Real” is, in essence, a cleverly crafted, hooky little number. Some have suggested that it has an ’80s feel, but its multi-layered vocal and instrumental treatments are, in fact, more than slightly resonant of the approach that Billy Sherwood introduced to Yes in 1997, utilising an intriguing combination of complex arrangements weaved around more accessible melodic patterns.
Alongside his own chunky, forging bass lines, Sherwood himself takes the lead vocal role on “You Make It Real”, supplemented by Davison (whose acoustic guitar is difficult to fathom in the mix) and Haun. Jay Schellen’s drums operate in something of a holding pattern throughout, and are a little squeezed. Jimmy Haun’s guitar work fits neatly with the elliptical style of the song, but otherwise breaks few conventions. Meanwhile, Dave Kerzner’s keyboard contribution is more textural, though in comments on social media he has made it clear that he will not hesitate to break out the Moog and Mellotron sounds where required for the new music. This suggests that this single (to the relief of many) may be at the more commercial end of what the band intends to create – though their album mostly appears not to be to be promising many longer tracks, apart from “Locked Down” (9’45”) and ‘Therefore We Are” (9’29”).
Elsewhere, Sherwood had suggested that Arc of Life would “push boundaries” musically, generating “a sonic adventure [featuring] dynamic arrangements with peaks and valleys.” This first song, it has to be said, while it is pleasant and memorable enough, and certainly well-produced, could not be said to push far in that direction. As Yes documenter Henry Potts commented on social media, “[it] isn’t screaming ‘next generation Yes’.” The love-themed lyrics have raised a few eyebrows, too. They may be explained by the fact that both Sherwood and Davison seem to have embarked on new relationships with younger suitors recently. The accompanying video clichés are best not dwelled upon from my vantage point.
As for the larger whole, there are further fragments of the album itself, mastered by Maor Applebaum, in the form of samples on iTunes. These point to something a little more in the Circa: vein, but again without a radically fresh approach or sound of the kind that some may have been hoping for. Kerzner has pointed out that he was not involved in the writing process for this first album, which was largely shaped by Sherwood and Davison. But he hopes to co-write on a subsequent recording and to bring something new to the mix. “If I was co-writing with them it would probably go further away from their sound just by nature of blending styles and influences but… hopefully that’ll happen down the road.” This sentiment also suggests a longer-term commitment.
If this new project is dipping its toe in Yes-like waters, then, it is doing so tentatively, around the edges, and perhaps with the purpose of re-energising the musicians more than the main band. In this general vein, Jon Davison has commented: “Each Yes member understands and [offers] support when others may desire to explore and thrive along new artistic avenues. We then each find further inspiration to bring back to the Yes fold.” He adds, interestingly: “Once the world gets over the COVID hump, Arc Of Life will be planning as much touring as we can fit in between Yes and our other projects. Quite honestly, we’re all chomping at the bit to be out performing again.” So this is clearly not a studio-only constellation. Kerzner has also spoken of his and the band’s keenness to get on the road when the opportunity arises. It may be in concert that, like many creative musicians, they find their distinctive style and trajectory.
Over the past year or so, and notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the pandemic, Sherwood, Davison and Schellen have all been busy with various sessions and collaborations. But Jon Davison consciously gave up his involvement with Glass Hammer in 2014, and Sky Cries Mary formally in 2016 – ostensibly in order to be able to focus more fully on Yes. That the three youngest members (relatively speaking) of Yes have now formed a satellite musical vehicle suggests that they may be wanting to operate at a somewhat different pace, and possibly in a slightly different direction, to early ’70s alumni Steve Howe and Alan White. If anything, Geoff Downes is the member of the band cementing the generations together at the moment, therefore.
All that said, there are no evident signs of dissent in the Yes ranks, and it may be that Arc of Life is indeed about rekindling, developing and siphoning particular musical possibilities while decisions are taken elsewhere about the whether, where and when a further recorded offering might emerge from Yes. Equally, Arc of Life are apparently considering the possibility of including some Yes tracks in their own live set list. Maybe they will look at material from ‘Open Your Eyes’ and ‘Union’? (I offer a qualified defence of both these controversial albums in Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes, incidentally.) It’s all rather intriguing, and we will have to wait to see. But it looks as if we may expect a few more plot twists from Yesworld and its associates over the coming year or so.
If you enjoyed this article, please see my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2018). And the other articles on this site, too.