Sunday 30 April 2023

First thoughts on Mirror to the Sky

InsideOut kindly sent me the new Yes album. It’s a strong release. While recognisably the same band (almost) as on The Quest, Mirror to the Sky is a big step up. We have better drums, better vocals, better tempo, and no tracks you want to skip. The band sound more integrated; the long songs are more coherent. It’s an album I keep returning to with much pleasure.

This is a new incarnation of Yes. While it harks back to prior Yes output in places, they are doing their own thing. On one side, we have the propulsive Sherwood/Schellen rhythm section, on the other we have Howe’s steel guitar entwining with Joyce’s string arrangements. At the centre is Jon Davison, who is becoming more assured as a writer and arranger. We have big, twangy guitar sounds, frequently evoking the American West. We have lyrical themes about our connections with the stars.

It’s not a perfect album. I’d like to hear some more classic riffs and melodies from Howe; there’s a tendency towards simple ascending or descending motifs. Davison occasionally skirts cliché in the lyrics. Downes is rather absent, spending much of the album in the background.

I’m never certain what Yes fans want. Maybe we all want different things? But I think most fans wanted this: more rock, more oomph, more epic. Now, let’s go through the songs one by one.



You’ve all heard the two ‘singles’. I wrote about “Cut from theStars” here and “All Connected” here. I first heard the album as a whole before “Cut from the Stars” was released and it took me the longest to get into. I still feel it has a certain angular feel to it, but that works.

The two singles to date have prompted a few comparisons with Arc of Life. I think Sherwood and Schellen are shining in the Yes environment. I can hear similarities to Arc of Life, but there are multiple Sherwood-led albums since The Quest (via the Prog Collective and Arc of Life) and they all pale compared with the work he’s doing here. And while the singles have foregrounded Sherwood’s writing, it is Howe who is still the main composer on the album.



This is an album that ebbs and flows, within songs and across songs. Compared to the tracks before and after, “Luminosity” begins in a statelier fashion. The opening with guitar, orchestra and drums, keeps things slow, before we move into a jauntier section. The main theme is then introduced instrumentally, before Davison sings mostly unaccompanied. It’s a strong vocal line, with a Celtic folk feel. Wasn’t Davison living in Ireland for a period? The lyrics return to the stellar theme: “Like the stars, we are luminous”. We also reference extraterrestrial life, a common Yes theme (compare “Arriving UFO”). Sherwood’s backing vocals are strong again.

This was one of the first two pieces the band worked on, before The Quest was even released, and in some ways it sounds most like the material on The Quest (compare “Dare to Know” maybe). Both this and “All Connected” contrast Davison/Sherwood with Howe/Joyce/orchestra, with Schellen’s drums providing the important linking element. Howe’s playing is slow and heartfelt, Joyce’s arrangements add colour and variation, leading to an uplifting conclusion. “Luminosity” also stands out as the first time Downes comes to the fore.

“All Connected” and “Luminosity” are rather alike. I wonder whether moving one of the pieces to elsewhere in the running order would work better?



This is the odd one out, which isn’t a criticism. I think its oddity fits well into the flow of the album, a break from the bigger pieces. At first, it’s quite a confusing listen. Structurally, it’s a straightforward tune, with a nice, plaintive Howe solo towards the end. It sounds almost like a Rolling Stones pastiche, with a hint of Americana. The vocals are much lower, with Howe and Davison in close harmony producing a “third voice”. It’s the lyrics that stand out. They are almost absurdist, shades of Zorbonauts, who Downes plays with. Davison has said the song is a critique of modern weddings, but I feel it goes further, lamenting the divisions of society caused by social media. There’s a line that reminds me of t.A.T.u.’s “Craving”. And then into a deliberately downbeat – musically and lyrically – ending.

I don’t think this is simply the short rocker on the album. I suggest the music is deliberately a pastiche to match the lyrics. It’s akin to “Money” or maybe “Countryside”. Possibly, the song needs just slightly more energy to pull off its message?



This is the title track, the centrepiece of the album, the one garnering most attention in reviews. It’s a statement piece and it works. All the ingredients come together. We start with a big, phat riff from Howe, evoking the wide open skies of the American West. Other instruments come in, including some tasty piano from Downes. Then the drums kick things up a notch. Howe brings a dirty sound on the electric guitar. Sherwood gets to state the bass part unaccompanied. The music builds into a groove, Howe wailing away. The whole thing builds to an early climax less than three minutes in.

Then we’re stripped right back to an acoustic guitar motif, and Howe sings one of two key vocal motifs, “Dreams of a sky without fire”. Davison then takes over as vocalist. He sings of the “currents of chance”, somewhat obvious lyrics, but nicely accompanied by an orchestral part depicting the “leaves in a storm”. The energy builds back up and we repeat the vocal line: we’re rocking, but we’ve also got the horns in the orchestra adding colour.

Around four and a half minutes, we get the second key motif, “you are my mirror to the sky”, introduced instrumentally on electric guitar first, then Davison sings. We repeat this motif with variation.

A bit after five minutes, we get what I hear as the centre of the song as we contrast our two lines: “You are my mirror to the sky / Still I dream of a sky without fire”. It’s anthemic, evocative, beautiful, aided by a certain mystery as to what it all means! Davison’s “mirror to the sky” seems to be romantic in intent, the words coming from something his new wife said, more personal than much of the lyrical content that has come before. But Howe wrote the “dreams of a sky without fire” line and there’s a certain narrative tension between this and “mirror to the sky”. Do we want some fire in the sky; why are we dreaming of its absence?

The orchestra comes more to the fore, and we’re in another steel guitar and orchestra section, something of a recurring pattern for the album. We get slow but emotional playing from Howe against fast, lively orchestrations.

We move into one of Davison’s lyrical islands and a sudden flurry of words when before they were used sparsely. Davison sings of metaphysical mysteries, before we re-visit the opening guitar part, Howe building the tension. Another vocal highlight as Davison sings, “We are star fire”, tying us back to “Luminosity” and “Cut from the Stars”. It’s a great moment, yet the line only occurs once. The song deliberately holds back on these moments of emotion when the vocals break in.

We go back to that stripped down acoustic guitar part to introduce the slow movement, guitar and orchestra. The song is in a contemplative mood, bringing us back down carefully. The acoustic guitar motif again heralds a final change, with the orchestra taking over for a recapitulation of the main themes, with swells of strings and rhythmic horns. The band re-join for an energetic coda.



This is the comedown song after the epic, a chill out room for the ears. A pretty song, lyrically it’s another “Roundabout”, a song about missing one’s lover while on tour. It’s a ballad, but with subtle backing from strings, extra guitar parts and moments when Davison double tracks himself.



When I first heard the album, I thought the bonus disc was fine, but very bonus track-y, a bit disposable. With The Quest and Heaven & Earth, there were a few songs that people felt belonged on a Steve Howe solo album rather than a Yes album (“It was All We Knew”, “Damaged World”). With Mirror to the Sky, had Yes gathered all those songs and put them on the bonus disc?

However, over the weeks, I’ve found myself listening to the bonus tracks as much as the rest of the album, more than some of the main disc. I’m not saying “One Second is Enough” or “Magic Potion” are going to go down in history as classic Yes songs, but they’re fun, they’re very listenable. “Unknown Place” is very good for much of its runtime. I don’t think now that they are disposable. I think this is just another side of the current Yes.



The obvious comparison for “Unknown Place” is “Mirror to the Sky”. It feels like a spare: in case you lost “Mirror to the Sky” down the back of the sofa, you could substitute in “Unknown Place”, with similar sounds and grand design. There’s a lot to like about it. I love the introduction, the playing, and a luscious ending highlighting Downes’ organ playing, his standout moment on the album. But the basic song at the centre of it just doesn’t do much for me; we lack the anthemic lines of “Mirror to the Sky”.

The opening twangy guitar part brings us back to the American West, while vocals evoke Native American rituals, and then we’re into the main part of the song. Over the album as a whole, Howe is less prominent as a vocalist than he was on The Quest, but a middle section here uses Howe the singer more. The piece turns more instrumental and we then have two significant sections, both with Downes to the fore. The second leaves the American West for a baroque and Gothic horror feel led by Downes, while Howe is doing Bach-like guitar exercises, making for a great ending.



A simpler song. A nice intro from Downes leads into the main part, which bounces along. Howe’s message is about the fleeting nature of happiness.

The chorus vaguely reminds me of “I’ve Got a Theory” from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical “Once More with Feeling”, which was written by Joss Whedon, who is a Yes fan, so maybe his writing was influenced by Howe and whatever my brain is picking up on all makes sense?

A nice Howe solo at the end and into a clock ticking as the ending.



“Love is a magic potion”, Howe tells us. We have similar lyrical themes to The Quest’s “Music to My Ears”. It’s all fine, if a bit forgettable. But it’s all worth it for a delightful, groovy bass line, written by Howe, played by Sherwood, and which Downes doubles on a couple of bars. Just extract that, I could listen to that on a loop all day.


To summarise, “Mirror to the Sky” is the best track, where the pieces all come together to make a substantial piece of music that can stand in the Yes canon. “Cut from the Stars” is a good single, a concise statement of what Yes can be. I enjoy listening to “Luminosity”, “All Connected” and “Unknown Place”: they’re close to capturing the Yes magic, but maybe they’re not quite there.

Living Out Their Dream” and “Circles of Time” are songs to themselves, doing something specific on their own terms. “One Second is Enough” and “Magic Potion” are cute, simpler songs – very listenable.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It flows well as an album, the lyrical themes draw the experience together. It’s an album to be savoured, headphones on.

The band are already working on a third album in quick succession. If they can keep up the momentum, who knows what they can achieve?

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