Yes — Mirror To The Sky
Following the disappointing Heaven And Earth in 2014 and a string of live albums, Yes bounced back with The Quest in 2021. Although not in the same league as the band's output in their prime, it was nonetheless a welcome return to form of sorts. Since then, Yes and the rock world has lost one of its finest drummers when Alan White sadly passed away in May 2022. He was the band's anchor for 50 years and prior to joining Yes, he had been a successful session musician, recording and touring with the likes of John Lennon, Alan Price and Joe Cocker.
Unsurprisingly, his replacement is touring drummer Jay Schellen who also played on The Quest album. Schellen follows in the footsteps of fellow American and bassist Billy Sherwood who similarly replaced Chris Squire following his untimely death in 2015. Otherwise, the lineup remains unchanged with Steve Howe on guitars, Geoff Downes on keyboards and Jon Davison on lead vocals. In recent years, as the longest serving and only remaining member from the classic lineup, Howe has assumed the unofficial role of band leader, a position originally occupied by Jon Anderson and Chris Squire.
Dedicated to White, Mirror To The Sky is Yes' twenty-third studio album (including the two Keys To Ascension albums) and commemorates the band's 55th anniversary. The twenty-month time span that separates The Quest and Mirror To The Sky is the shortest between two consecutive studio albums since Keys To Ascension 2 and Open Your Eyes were released in the same year of 1997. Howe returns to the producer's chair, which he occupied for The Quest, and Roger Dean once again provides the album artwork. The cover is not one of his most original designs however, borrowing from his previous work inside and outside of Yes.
Howe, Sherwood and Davison are the principal songwriters and overall, the album has a positive, uplifting vibe. Downes has performed with Yes longer than any previous keyboardist including Rick Wakeman, but like his predecessors, his compositional input is minimal, seeming more like a sideman than a fully fledged band member. Which is a pity because his talents as a composer are clearly evident in his solo work and as one half of the Downes Braide Association as well as with Asia.
Although it lacks the impact of The Ice Bridge that opened the previous album, Cut From The Stars begins with a flurry of strings and motors along at a buoyant, mid-tempo pace. Howe's busy guitar embellishments border on funky at times and Sherwood's bass lines are distinctive. Downes spars with Howe in the instrumental finale with a touch of synth soloing. The melody is not particularly strong however, lacking a distinctive hook. Like Anderson before him, Davison has a penchant for single words and short phrases, memorable for their sonic value rather than conveying a narrative.
Howe's fingerprints are all over this album, and such is his presence, particularly in the instrumental sections, it occasionally brings to mind his solo albums. His slide guitar is especially prominent, bookending the second song All Connected, laying down an engaging instrumental hook. The vocal melody is memorable and as befits its nine-minute length, the song develops through several sections although keyboards are conspicuously low-key. Luminosity brings a more dramatic change of mood with its plucked strings accompaniment and Downes' synth effortlessly colouring Davison's wordless chant. The instrumental coda is particularly memorable with lush strings backing soaring slide guitar. Living Out Their Dream is a lively song driven by Schellen's muscular rhythm with Davison singing in a lower register for the most part. Howe's cascading guitar lines around the halfway mark are novel but effective. This is the only song where Downes receives a joint writing credit.
Yes are no strangers to epic songs, and at nigh on 14 minutes, the title track is their longest since the Fly From Here suite in 2011. It begins in relatively low-key fashion with Howe's stark lead lines backed by acoustic guitar. It soon gets into its uptempo stride with a masterclass in guitar dynamics which introduces the principal melody. Davison and Howe's harmonised vocals at the three-minute mark brings to mind the slow section of Machine Messiah. The chorus is the album's most memorable yet. The orchestra riffs superbly during the instrumental midsection, backing Howe's siren like guitar. Following a tranquil instrumental interlude at the nine and a half minute mark, a touch of classical guitar and orchestra rises to a soaring finale. The album concludes with Circles Of Time, written solely by Davison. It's a gentle ballad that boasts another memorable vocal melody, backed by acoustic guitar and strings.
Disc two features three bonus tracks composed by Howe that to my ears would have sat comfortably on the main album between Living Out Their Dream and Mirror To The Sky. Unknown Place opens with Davison's chanted vocal with Howe occasionally singing counterpoint. Downes cuts loose with a lively organ solo during the lengthy instrumental section and church organ during the extended coda. It's his most inspired contributions to the album.
Organ is once again to the fore during One Second Is Enough where Davison and Howe share vocal honors during the verses and chorus. The melody is vaguely reminiscent of the 1960's ballad The Good Life made famous by crooner Tony Bennett. The concluding Magic Potion benefits from inventive guitar fills and a solid bass riff, but it's the slide guitar soloing that stands out, bringing the album to a memorable conclusion.
There is no doubt that Howe is in the driving seat on this album, and he co-wrote four of the six songs on disc one. Although guitar often dominates, thanks to his transparent production, vocals and instruments are crystal clear throughout. Mirror To The Sky is certainly a significant step up from Heaven And Earth although for me, it falls a little short of The Quest. Nonetheless, a worthy effort that I'm sure will find favour with Yes' dedicated fanbase that have remained loyal after more than five decades of triumphs and turmoils.
In recent years, all has not been harmonious within the world of Yes fandom. Debates on the legitimacy of the current line-up have been consistent, with some suggesting that they are now Steve Howe's cover band. Considering the accomplishments and tenure of most of the band members, that take seems unjust. Obviously, Howe has the most occupancy, but bassist Billy Sherwood and keyboardist Geoff Downes have also been an integral part of past Yes recordings. Jon Davison has been the lead singer for over ten years and the songwriting continues to be a team effort. Ultimately, the song Perpetual Change, has been prophetic, and this is just another chapter in the band's varied history.
Admittedly, I was not wowed by the two previous studio releases, Heaven And Earth (2014) and The Quest (2021). However, the latter was a step in the right direction. That positive progress is magnified on Mirror To The Sky. It is clear that the years of working together have brought an increase in confidence and quality. As Billy Sherwood states, the album "feels like a natural evolution of everyone being comfortable in their chair and bringing their best to the table." Both compositionally and performance wise, this collection of songs represents a true return to form.
The inclusion of both streamlined and long form material, helps to create the aura of a traditional Yes album. More accessible tracks such as Cut From The Stars, Living Out Their Dream and Magic Potion are catchy, yet also creatively virtuosic. Special mention goes to the Jon Davison penned, Circles Of Time, which captures the airy spirit of previous Yes acoustic classics. The most engrossing calling card though is the band's re-embrace of the prog epic. In particular, Luminosity and the fourteen-minute title track, which are as strong as anything the band has recorded in the last twenty-five years.
The performances throughout the album are excellent. Steve Howe's guitar wizardry is countered by Geoff Downes skillful keyboard work. Drummer Jay Schellen creates his own imprint, while also ensuring a respectful nod in style to the great Alan White. Sherwood and Davison greet the occasion by offering up their best ever contributions to Yes. The impressive production by Howe is polished and lush. Perhaps a bit too much at times, as there are moments where additional oomph would have been beneficial. Minimal gripes aside though, this is an exceptional Yes album. In fact, either by intent or coincidence, Mirror To The Sky is a resounding message to the naysayers, that this Yes line up is one to be reckoned with.