Saturday 12 December 2020

Arc of Life make it real

We first heard about Arc of Life back in summer 2019, but details were sparse and it was just in December 2020 that we discovered the full line-up: Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison, Jay Schellen, Jimmy Haun and Dave Kerzner. So, three members of the current live Yes band, someone who played on a Yes album, and a prominent figure in the modern prog scene who recently did a Yes tribute album.

To a degree, the news acted as an excuse for the usual arguments in present day Yes fandom to be recycled, but there was a good amount of interest in the new band. People couldn't help but talk about Arc of Life as a possible precursor of a next generation Yes, as with Simon Barrow’s piece.

Then the debut single, "You Make It Real", came out.

I've rarely seen the enthusiasm for a project drain away so fast. Sounding (and looking) like a forgotten pop song from 1990, even many of those who were looking forward to the new band seemed taken aback. iTunes samples for the full album suggest something more 'proggy', perhaps akin to CIRCA:, so I don't want to judge the album by the single. But someone chose to lead with that song.

There are two (separable but intertwined) issues here. The style of the song, and whether it's a good song within that style. The latter is subjective, so I want to start with the former: the style and its fit with the marketing of the new band.

When Yes-adjacent musicians go out and say they are deliberately making an album in a '70s prog style – as with Rick Wakeman's The Red Planet, CIRCA:'s own Valley of the Windmill, or Kansas's The Absence of Presence – it tends to go down well with the fans. Deviate from that style (as perhaps with Steve Howe's Love Is) and you get a muted reaction.

I'm not saying musicians should stay in their lane for fear of fan rejection. Levin Torn White is getting a re-release on vinyl and there's an album that surprised people with its style very successfully. Nor do I have anything against pop: I love pop (Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia would be my pick of the year). The point I want to make is about marketing. Arc of Life must have realised that people will see them through the prism of Yes. They have definitely been marketed that way by Frontiers: Yes are explicitly mentioned 7 times in the video's blurb, including saying "that YES would be a clear point of influence". Promo talks of a "progressive rock philosophy, to craft creative, challenging, and ear-pleasing music that pushes boundaries" and a "grandiose and epic approach to music". So, if people are going to see you in those terms, if you are presented in those terms, wouldn't it make sense to pick a lead single that plays to that angle? Or, if nothing on the album does, to make sure the marketing feeds the message that this is a project in which the band members are doing something different from what you might expect. 

Kerzner online has pushed back on expectations of something Yes-like. He said on Facebook: "It's Billy and Jon's new tunes with a new line up. [...] I arrived late in the game after the songs were already written. If someone came to me and said "Dave what would you do IF you were wanting to make a sort of next-generation Yes album" that would be different. That was never mentioned whatsoever. These are just my pals from the latest Yes line up who asked me to join their side project band". Musicians should follow their muses: if Erato whispered in Sherwood and Davison's ears the words to "You Make It Real", I'm not saying they shouldn't record such a song. But maybe don't release that as your lead single while your label declares that "YES is clearly the main point of comparison".

Just before the release of the debut Arc of Life single, we had the single for the new Downes Braide Association album, "Love Among the Ruins". Here is a Yes member with a successful side project with a different sound to Yes. DBA offer something much closer to mainstream pop than Yes normally do, and do so successfully. But then Chris Braide is a massively successful songwriter/producer in modern pop music. I ran a quick Twitter poll of "Love Among the Ruins" versus "You Make It Real": DBA are ahead 11:2. We're into subjective territory here. Any song, some people will like it, some won't. I'm not a fan of "You Make It Real", although most of the iTunes samples for the album sound more interesting.

So, what were you expecting from Arc of Life? What did you think of "You Make It Real"? Are you looking forward to the album, Arc of Life, or indeed to the new DBA release, Halcyon Hymns?

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