Here it is, friends: the long-awaited twenty-second studio album from Yes. As one of the few bands who pioneered the form we now call Prog and are still making new music, this is a momentous release. Revered, adored, critiqued, obsessed, Yes is a band who have made their mark several times over and yet somehow keep resurfacing for more. Most of you are likely coming to this review with hopeful anticipation and/or cautious trepidation, wondering if your favorite band is still up to snuff, or at least has anything worthwhile to share over 50 years after its inception. While it’s true that the current lineup contains none of the original members from those first two albums over half a century ago, make no mistake about the street cred of Yes: Alan White (who is indeed the only drummer at the drum kit on this album) is the longest-serving member in Yes’ history – Yes, even longer than Chris Squire at this point; Steve Howe, of course, is the band’s most celebrated guitarist, having co-penned and played all of the 70s classic material and being lauded as one of rock’s most innovative players; Geoff Downes, although appearing on only 4 studio albums, has been in the band longer than any other keyboard player; Billy Sherwood’s name first appeared on the “Union” album credits after which he started touring with the band as early as the 1994 “Talk” tour and has been an official member for 2 studio albums, producing and assisting on others, as well as collaborating with just about every Yes member in side projects; and finally Jon Davison, who has been in the lead singer role for nearly a decade.
Yes stands out from the progressive rock crowd not only on account of their legendary music but also in regards to the daunting size of their family tree. Sporting a band roster which is over twice the length of most of its closest competitors, this might be one reason that Yes also carries the most contentious fan-base in the Prog world. With the 5 current members representing the 19 total official members over 53 years’ time, it’s no wonder that fans will have their say about who is included or not, who their favorites are, and even what constitutes “real” Yes. This album review does not aim to address such endless and soulless debates but, as a side note, perhaps one should take a moment to actually celebrate the amount of music being created by many of those 19 members in current time: Tony Kaye is releasing his first-ever solo album, Steve Howe released his fine “Love Is” in 2020 and “Homebrew 7” this year, Geoff Downes teamed up with Chris Braide to release a remarkable new DBA album this year, Rick Wakeman released the lauded prog instrumental album “The Red Planet”, Sherwood/Davison/Jay Schellen actually started an entire new band Arc of Life in addition to Sherwood’s Prog Collective and other one-offs, Patrick Moraz has been popping up lately as a guest on various projects, Trevor Rabin is reportedly finishing a new (vocal) solo album and of course Jon Anderson recently released one of the finest solo albums of his career which featured cameos from many Yes alumni including a new guest spot from Howe. Bountiful indeed is the music produced by these aging Prog rockers, and so now we turn our sights onto a fresh album bearing the Yes name. Without further preamble, let’s dive right into the music.
A clear highlight of “The Quest” is Steve Howe’s production. Crisp, spacious, lively and uncluttered, Howe’s mix gives the music room to breathe and make the most of what the musicians have to offer. The band wisely realized this isn’t the time to redefine their sound, as Trevor Horn and Bruce Fairbairn had successfully done in the past (Roy Thomas Baker, less successfully so). Rather, what was needed was a balanced playing field which supports the band’s strengths and that’s exactly what Howe, along with engineer Curtis Schwartz, have been able to achieve. Opening track “The Ice Bridge” carries this ethos, winning a warm reception from fans for its heavy interplay between Howe and Downes during extended instrumental passages amidst a driving rhythm. Davison takes the road less traveled with unexpected melodic phrasing but after repeated listens, it proves to be a bold move which mostly pays off, securing his unique stamp on Yes music. His environmentally-aware lyrics are poetically drawn so as to paint within and outside the lines established before him. As he sings “All eyes to the east,” buoyed upon Downes’ keyboard runs, we almost feel as if we are back in classic Yes territory. Unfortunately the uncertain authorship of the music cast a shadow over its initial release as the lead-off single. Apparently the core theme had been re-discovered by Downes on an archived tape which held many of his ideas from decades ago but it just so happened that this particular theme was actually authored by Francis Monkman and included on the same tape. Unaware of that fact, Downes assumed the original idea was his own and it took sleuthing fans to discover the actual tale of the tape. No harm intended and the two amicably resolved the issue by changing the writing credits to Davison/Monkman/Downes. But what a way to launch a new album.
Somewhat surprisingly, two aspects where “The Quest” shines most brightly comes courtesy of the “new kids”. Let’s establish right from the get-go that Billy Sherwood completely claims the bass throne, doing justice to Chris Squire’s dying wish that the band continue on with his younger disciple taking his place. Sherwood has gone the extra mile to create inventive bass lines very much in the spirit of Squire, and Howe’s production ensures that the bass finds its rightful place in the mix. And while “The Quest” may be bereft of Squire’s classic backing vocals, Sherwood does a decent job here as well. Just take a listen to his backing choices on “Future Memories”; you might be fooled into thinking you hear the ghost of Squire lending his voice here. Speaking of which, this Davison-penned love song is a clear highlight of the album, a gorgeous ballad which features a spine-tingling mix of 12-string arpeggiated guitar, brilliant bass support, Howe’s heavenly electric noodling over-top, understated organ and the aforementioned vocal magic. When the final chord is left hanging without resolution, it’s almost too exquisitely perfect. This is what Yes music is all about, in the tradition of “Wondrous Stories.”
Sherwood and Davison co-wrote two of the songs on the main album and they turn out to be a winning combination when given the full Yes treatment. Indeed, this may be the direction that many were expecting their Arc of Life band to head. “The Western Edge” proves to be another peak moment, wielding themes which call forth Yes’ most classic sound as Howe’s pedal steel lines beckon the listener to swoon. Sherwood is no stranger to this territory, his Yes off-shoot band Circa: having achieved similar heights with songs such as “Brotherhood of Man”, but it’s nice to see him bring this quality here on a proper Yes album. Happily, Alan White sounds fantastic in the mix, too, both on this track and throughout the album. While he may not deliver a revolutionary performance at this point in his career, this is a very satisfying and impressive recording which solidly retains his legacy. “Minus the Man” is the other Sherwood/Davison track, receiving the added benefit of full orchestral support. It’s a nice touch although just following Sherwood’s rambling bass line alone makes the song worthwhile, musically speaking, along with Howe’s satisfying lead lines. Lyrically the tune explores the dangers of artificial intelligence, a subject that Sherwood has recently taken to in his own compositions “Sophia” and “Talking with Siri”. Considering the three songs mentioned above, it’s encouraging to see the “youngin’s” working well within a Yes context, casting a hopeful sign if someday Yes actually chooses to outlive all the first-generation members, as Wakeman and Squire have both previously mused.
Though it’s painful to admit, the three Howe-penned songs are less consistent. Their commonality is that by and large they carry an approach more akin to a Steve Howe solo album than a Yes album (read: “Bumpy Ride” from “Fly From Here”). If that seems like a foregone conclusion, keep in mind that “Siberian Khatru,” “Tempus Fugit” or even “Magnification” have a much wider grandeur and scope than the melodic themes that Howe explores on his own albums. Perhaps that’s because he had Jon Anderson and other band members to collaborate with and push him further in those days, whereas on “The Quest” they’re just Howe-submitted tracks without enough tension to raise the bar higher to Yes levels. The 8-minute “Leave Well Alone” exemplifies this dynamic, starting out with musical ideas that would fit on any of Howe’s solo albums of the past two decades. There’s a charming first verse which brings to mind Simon & Garfunkel but the magic isn’t sustained for long, followed by a patchwork of ideas that fail to coalesce in a meaningful way. The latter third of the song features a repetitive guitar progression which, under better circumstances, could have led to a modern-day “Würm” but instead just kind of stands there. No, not like mountains coming out of the sky, either. There’s some nice Howe lead lines here but is “nice” really all we want at this juncture?
“Dare to Know” and “Music to My Ears” both feature lead vocals sung as a “duet” between Davison and Howe. You have been warned. Seriously though, Howe’s voice has greatly improved as evidenced on his solo “Love Is” album, but there’s really no need for this kind of approach on a Yes album. Both of these songs would have fit in well on “Love Is” but in the context of Yes they are a stretch. Of these two songs, the former features some fine Howe playing and a full orchestra which helps uplift the piece but the quality of songwriting is just nowhere near what an orchestra did with the material on the “Magnification” album. Both songs could benefit from being played at a much faster tempo with “Music to My Ears” especially feeling like it plods the life out of whatever promise it may have held.
The finale of the album, a Downes/Davison piece titled “A Living Island”, develops into a heartfelt love letter to the world, offering a touching tribute to those impacted during this past year of lockdown and suffering. Taking inspiration from the coral island he was living on during the moment of lockdown, the lyrics expand to include the whole planet as a living island. It’s an uplifting, artful piece of songwriting supported by layers of Downes’ keys, Howe’s acoustic and electric playing, tasteful percussion from Jay Schellen alongside White’s drumming and creative arrangements of vocal harmonies and counterpoints. While it closes the album on a high note, and is a good song in and of itself, at this point the thought starts occurring to the listener, “Well, this is quite nice but how many slow tempo ballads have I been listening to on this album?”
The choice to include a 15-minute second disc of music when the initial disc only runs 45-minutes is curious, though not unprecedented (e.g. Porcupine Tree’s “The Incident”, Spock’s Beard’s “Noise Floor”, etc…). The reasoning usually revolves around wanting to present the proper album on its own, unencumbered from bonus-track-quality material, or songs that don’t fit the theme of the main disc. On “The Quest”, the answer reveals itself quite simply: two of these tracks should never be on a Yes album. “Mystery Tour” is a fun but completely forgettable ode to The Beatles (a.k.a. “Magical Mystery Tour”) and “Damaged World” is yet another Steve Howe solo-album-worthy track, this time featuring Howe clearly on the lead vocals. On the other hand, “Sister Sleeping Soul” is an absolute charmer, an acoustically-driven piece that boasts a fantastic chorus, brilliant bass lines and the whole band shining. Really, Inside Out’s decision could have been easy here: add “Sister” to the main disc and ditch the bonus disc completely.
Now that we’ve completed our Quest, what have we gleaned? One conclusion is that this incarnation of Yes is capable of enjoyable, pleasant material which continues the Yes legacy, though without elevating it. “The Quest” is uneven largely due to Howe’s songwriting contributions – sad to say – though he excels in his playing and production. The band sounds good all around, there are several inspired moments and at the very least, this surely is a step up from the much-maligned “Heaven and Earth”. But is it much more than that? On its own, it’s a decent album. But if we dare put “The Quest” in context of Yes’ rich discography, the summation won’t be as rosy. One can’t help but bring to mind Jon Anderson’s recent plea to rejoin Yes, saying “To me, a great [Yes] album has to be made.” “The Quest” is clearly not that album. And while history has shown that Anderson doesn’t need to be in the band for a great Yes album to result, perhaps it is the very friction that Anderson or Squire brought which led to something truly special. No drama in…no drama out, if you get my meaning. Howe, Downes and White have all said that the current incarnation of Yes has been the most enjoyable, well-working version of the band ever. While we all would wish them a happy working environment, it could be this very pleasant environment which leads to music that is…”pleasant”. And has that adjective ever been used in describing why Yes is one of Prog’s most legendary bands?
So, what are we to conclude regarding this latest offering by Yes? Respectable outing? Sure, bravo to the band for that. But…triumphant final oeuvre? To answer that question in the affirmative would require a different quest.
Released by: Inside Out Music / Sony Music
Released on: October 1st, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Jon Davison / Lead vocals
- Steve Howe / Guitars, vocals
- Geoff Downes / Keyboards, synths
- Billy Sherwood / Bass, vocals
- Alan White / Drums, backing vocals
- Jay Schellen / Additional percussion
- Paul K. Joyce / Orchestrations
- FAMES Orchestra (Oleg Kondratenko / Conductor)
“The Quest” Track-listing:
1. The Ice Bridge
a) Eyes East
b) Race Against Time
2. Dare to Know
3. Minus the Man
4. Leave Well Alone
5. The Western Edge
6. Future Memories
7. Music to My Ears
8. A Living Island
The long-awaited studio album from one of Prog’s most legendary bands finally arrives with mixed results. Benefiting from skilled production under Steve Howe’s guidance, thankfully the band sounds resilient and strong. The signature bass and guitar sounds are all here, with good performances across the board. What would catapult this from a decent effort to a great one would be more fire in the songwriting department, as there’s only so many middle-of-the-road ballads and songs one expects from Yes, no matter how good they might be. Still, the band easily springs off the lows of their past album and lands somewhere in the middle, where most of us might have expected at this point in their career