Every new album which comes out has to be judged first and foremost on its own merits, it goes without saying. However, there are some releases whose significance make it impossible not to factor in to any assessment such things as how it is likely to appeal to the target audience, and how it fits into what the expectations and preconceptions of that audience might be. Arc Of Life are a case in point, as they are very much a spin-off from the Yes orbit, containing in their ranks vocalist Jon Davison and bassist Billy Sherwood from the current Yes, as well as the band’s touring drummer Jay Schellen. Guitarist Jimmy Haun also has Yes history, having played on the ill-starred Union album, with keyboard man Dave Kerzner rounding things out – so it is entirely reasonable to expect Yes fans to be circling this one like sharks in the water, though hopefully not scenting blood.
The band – for they have every avowed intention of going forward as an entity beyond this release – have very much tried to distance the music from Yes, without entirely deserting the mothership. In this aim it has to be said that they have been partially successful, and indeed that ‘partially successful’ label can be applied to the record as a whole, which is simultaneously possessed of some true highlights while also having inescapable flaws. Let’s quickly run through the contents before assessing the overall impression.
Opening track Life Has A Way is, happily, a wholly successful way to start the album. It has the Yes template very much in its heart, yet it also manages to sound vibrant, commercial and yet not in the least disposable. It’s a direction that Yes could go in if they wished to follow the simpler, more poppy road that Genesis travelled back in the ’80s, and would, one would think, be successful in its own way, with the musicianship top-notch and Davison showing what a great replacement for Jon Anderson he has been, and also what an excellent singer he is in his own right. Unfortunately – and this is where the sequencing of the album’s running order does it no favours at all – the next chunk is a run of the album’s four weakest tracks one after another. Talking With Siri is a definite low point, full of sequenced voices trying to sound futuristically ‘robotic’, while the subject of the song, the Apple ‘virtual assistant’ Siri, is such old hat a decade after its launch that the whole thing has passed from cutting edge science to sitcom references, and the song ends up sounding rather like some middle aged men picking up technology years after their kids have been using it. One fears an ode to the Celeron Processor or Nintendo 64 on the next album. Ill-judged to say the least, it also musically evokes some of the would-be edgy sound that Peter Gabriel was doodling with in the early ’80s – and to be honest, nobody needs a rehash of Shock The Monkey when the original wasn’t all that much to write home about itself.
The following three tracks – the saccharine balladry of You Make It Real and the bland facelessness of Until Further Notice and The Magic Of It All – drift by in a professional yet dull haze, and patience begins to wear as thin as the listener’s expectations. And yet, suddenly and unexpectedly, things take a turn for the better. Just In Sight, at over six minutes, packs more energy and inspiration than the previous four tracks combined, with the band getting to stretch out a little in the instrumental section, and it’s genuinely exciting. It’s back to the overt chasing of a hit single again for the following I Want To Know You Better, but while it may be anathema to the prog-heads, it is an excellent song for what it is. It’s well-crafted, catchy and will, without a doubt, deliver an earworm that will lodge in the brain tenaciously. If it had been released in the ’80s, it would have been a Top Ten single, of that I have no doubt – and one cannot criticise it, because that is its full intention. It’s mature, intelligent pop music which does exactly what it sets out to.
After this, however, for the final three tracks, we finally hit prog-land, with the next two songs both coming in at just under ten minutes, The lazily-titled Locked Down is a multi-part effort which promises more than it delivers, though still manages to retain the interest throughout, but Therefore We Are is undoubtedly the album’s jewel in the crown. Taking off and delivering quite unexpectedly (a little like Subway Walls did, as the final track on the last Yes studio release, the otherwise crushingly bland Heaven And Earth), there are moments of thrilling ensemble playing which could at times comfortably sit on the debut Starcastle album – ironically, as they themselves were dismissed as Yes clones, though they were also quite superb. This track alone shows just how good the band can be when they want to be. The final track The End Game is another six-minute piece which does the ‘edgy’ thing infinitely better than Talking With Siri, and finishes off an album which has shaken off its early malaise to finish with quite a sprint.
Does that strong tail save the album though? Well, in a way it does, as the length of the stronger tracks gives you more than half an album’s worth of excellent material. The problem is the dangerous tactic of front-loading the album with safe, undemanding material. Clearly they have wanted to avoid putting off the casual listener with too much ‘prog content’ too early, but this is ignoring the fact that, with the best will in the world, when a band made up of of middle aged men from Yes there isn’t going to be a whole lot in the way of casual listeners. What there will be are a lot of curious Yes fans, and they may well make up their minds before the good stuff even gets served up here. One of the longer tracks should have been moved to about the third song in, rather than piling them up together at the end, and that way nobody would have to wait too long for something they like to come up.
The other big problem with the album is the overall sound, which for some reason is rooted so much in the early ’80s that it could come in a Deluxe edition with some Arc Of Life legwarmers and a T-Shirt reading ‘Frankie Says Listen To Prog’. 90125-era Yes, Asia and early It Bites are all over this like a rash, and it makes for an oddly disconcerting listen at times. During the Locked Down track, Haun goes all Discipline-King Crimson with his guitar, and Davison’s voice is often smothered with a treatment similar to John Wetton’s on Asia’s Heat Of The Moment, and it neuters his fine voice tragically in places. Add to that Sherwood’s insistence on sharing so much of the vocal duties, with his far weaker voice, and Davison ends up as a rather under-utilised asset.
Overall this is an album which doesn’t quite know who to appeal to. There’s too much in the way of prog and Chris Squire-esque bass runs to appeal to ‘Mr And Mrs Mike-And-The-Mechanics-fan’, but there is also too much over-produced gloss and safe songwriting to fully draw in the Yes crowd. It’s likely to have a lot of people saying it’s a decent enough album, but unlikely to have very many extolling it as a masterpiece. To these ears, a missed opportunity when they clearly could have created something unique had they tried to do so.
If you’re a Yes fan – and you very likely are – I must stress that you will in all likelihood really like much of this, and that it is far better overall than the cotton-wool blandness of Heaven And Earth. Try not to go in with preconceptions and see how you go. It’s not Vintage Yes, but then again, who would expect it to be?