May 6, 2023

Forgive the pun, but Yes have tottered close to the edge of producing a brilliant album. The title track is a superb piece, and Howe is in tremendous form throughout, but the failure to excise some less inspired moments leaves it falling just short of a classic to these ears.

Over the last two decades we have got used to new Yes albums being few and far between. And let’s be honest: they’ve not been chock-a-block with outstanding material. One could argue that Yes were well aware of that fact which is why their recent touring setlists have been dominated by full-album renditions of their 1970 masterpieces. But Mirror To The Sky follows hot on the heels of 2021’s The Quest, so something seems to be stirring in terms of creativity in the Yes camp. This of course is despite the sad recent losses of Squire and White, leaving Steve Howe as the last active member of the 1970’s line-up. So, the ever-changing Yes line-up now consists of Howe, singer Jon Davison, Billy Sherwood on bass, Geoff Downes on keyboards, and newly appointed drummer Jay Schellen.

The first single, Cut From The Stars, gets things underway and it’s a concise five-minute Yes boogie with a catchy opening melody and a good strutting bass line. The bass is more prominent in the mix than Howe’s guitar which is a little curious given that Howe does the production work for the album. Here, as in most of the songs in this set, Downes’ keyboard sound is a little thin and rarely does he do anything more than politely filling out the sound. O for a Wakeman! Even so, Cut From The Stars is an energetic starter and also a good prelude to the first lengthy piece, All Connected. This nine-minute track begins with a lovely stately rising guitar theme. Davison then comes in with a splendid melody that sounds as if it would have sat comfortably on Tales From Topographic Oceans. After that gripping start, the music loses a little focus as different melodic ideas are thrown into the mix without any of them being outstanding. Fortunately, two-thirds of the way in, the opening melody returns, followed by Howe’s rising guitar theme to cap the piece. It’s an excellent song but I couldn’t help thinking that a briefer middle-section would have resulted in a better outcome.

(Photo: Gottlieb Bros)

Luminous, another nine-minute track is next up. As with All Connected, Howe opens with a good guitar refrain. Keyboards and vocalising lead to a slow and pleasant vocal section with Davison sounding particularly angelic. Unfortunately, we then reach the rather limp chorus with Davison trying to convince us we are all luminous while Downes bangs out some inelegant staccato keyboard notes. This sucks the energy out of the song totally. There is the expected return of the guitar refrain later and that is followed by Howe’s heroic attempt to save matters with a very impressive solo, but the damage has already been done. Putting two nine-minute mid-paced songs with similar structures back-to-back is also a questionable piece of sequencing. In addition, neither of these songs benefit from outstanding lyrics. Davison does try to respect the Anderson tradition of writing weird yet somehow inspirational lyrics, but sometimes he slips into predictability or downright cheesiness (for example: ‘We are connected; respect it, the collective; like satellites passing in the timeless night’. So, if we are satellites passing in the timeless night, how are we connected, I ask myself). I have the suspicion that if you fed Anderson’s Yes lyrics into ChatGPT and asked it to generate something similar then out would pop a set of lyrics indistinguishable from anything Davison would write. To be fair on Davison, he does pick an original subject matter for the next song, Living Out Their Dream, which apparently is a commentary on modern weddings. It begins quite well with an upbeat guitar riff and a decent melody that rises up for the chorus where it is rudely interrupted by a bizarre guitar phrase which is something like a musical imitation of a laughing hyena. It’s very unusual. I was left concluding that the song is intended as a light tongue-in-cheek slice of fun to offset the more intense material elsewhere. If so, then I guess it serves its purpose.

The centrepiece of the album is without doubt the fourteen-minute title track. The opening guitar refrain is brilliant. It is cinematic, evoking a spaghetti western image in my mind, and quite unlike anything Yes have ever done before. It is immediately replaced by a fast and dynamic instrumental section – something akin to the opening of Close To The Edge – with some further brilliant guitar work by Howe. Acoustic guitar then introduces a fine melody, sung surprisingly by Howe. The mood is still a little dark, but a brighter section enters as Davison sings ‘you’re a mirror to my sky’ accompanied by symphonic strings. There’s another excellent solo from Howe, backed mostly by swirling strings, which is very effective. At the eight-minute mark the opening guitar refrain returns and the pace slows for a reflective piece of steel guitar work that feels far from the usual Yes paradigm. The song builds to a climax (via a strangely bombastic orchestral passage) of one last guitar flourish by Howe. Wonderful stuff.

Circles Of Time closes the album with a beautifully sung ballad. It’s just what the doctor ordered after the drama and intensity of the title track. It also includes a gorgeous piece of acoustic guitar picking from Howe around the three-minute mark which is curtailed all too soon despite it having the potential to be extended into a lengthier coda to gracefully close the album. Not for the first time, I was left feeling that a song on this album was over-wordy and prevented the instrumental side of Yes to really emerge.

We are also treated to an additional three songs – lasting barely 16 minutes – as part of a bonus CD or second vinyl disc. Unknown Places is the clear pick of the three. It’s an ambitious piece, lasting eight minutes, with a handful of different themes and melodic lines (including a weird vocalised one), sometimes with a jazz-rock undercurrent. Downes’ use of a real or synthesised church organ adds an epic feel towards the end (yes, there are ‘parallels’ with another earlier Yes song!). It’s a strangely understated piece – no big climaxes or guitar solos – but it does get under your skin very quickly. As with the title track, it feels as if this is Yes trying to be adventurous and do something slightly different here, and that’s very welcome news. Cynics might say that One Second Is Enough is the right title because that might be how long it takes to decide to hit the skip button when the chorus starts. It’s a routine pop song with a chorus that sadly sounds like Toto on a very bad day. Despite being graced by a pleasant enough guitar tune from Howe, Magic Potion is perhaps the strangest of the bunch as it rolls along with a distinctive bossa nova feel to it.  

Forgive the pun, but Yes have tottered close to the edge of producing a brilliant album. The title track is a superb piece, and Howe is in tremendous form throughout, but the failure to excise some less inspired moments leaves it falling just short of a classic to these ears. There’s also the question of whether they picked the best six songs out of the nine available. In my view, Luminous and Living Out Their Dream could have been dropped in favour of Unknown Places. The result would have been a five-track album, similar to Going For The One in format, and just about as good in quality. But, even though I sense Mirror To The Sky could have been better, it might still rank as the best Yes album of this millennium, and that’s surely something for Yes fans to cheer about.