YES – The Quest

‘Heaven & Earth’, the twenty first studio album from Yes, seemed to spend most of its natural life lurking under a cloud of negativity. The last recording to feature founding member Chris Squire and the first to feature vocalist Jon Davison, it was criticised for “not being proggy enough”, “sounding like a lightweight Yes tribute band” and worse. None of the criticism was especially warranted. ‘Heaven & Earth’ featured some lovely sounds; tunes that featured lots of Yes hallmarks blending with a few poppy flourishes to create an almost spiritual and reflective piece.

It must be difficult for Yes having such demanding fans (and by “demanding”, that means people who constantly demand they record something that sounds stuck in 1972; a ‘Close To The Edge II’ and nothing else). Looking back, there are people who disliked ‘Tormato’ for attempting to recreate ‘Going For The One’ too quickly, people that hated ‘Drama’ for not featuring Jon Anderson or Rick Wakeman, and a core of very vocal fans who wrote off the brilliant ‘90125’ as a pop record (it’s called progression, people; without it, Yes would’ve died in 1981). You have to wonder if some of the most negative fans continue to hang around, and whether they have genuinely liked anything the band have recorded since 1977. Those people will likely hate ‘The Quest’ too…and it’ll be their loss.

‘The Quest’ certainly isn’t a straight follow up to ‘Heaven & Earth’ and some will certainly see that as a good thing; it isn’t a basic rehash of a Yes past, either, which is also a commendable trait. There are times when the album is as different from ‘Heaven & Earth’ as ‘The Ladder’ was from ‘Keys To Ascension’, yet at the same time, there are many elements that are unmistakably…Yes. That will be enough for the more open minded fans to dive in and enjoy its multi-layered, sometimes other-worldly elements, and even latch onto a few of its more song-based treats along the way.

This musical journey begins with ‘The Ice Bridge’, which wrong foots the listener into thinking they’re in for something quite AOR based, as Geoff Downes leads off with a keyboard fanfare worthy of Asia in their full pomp. However, the arrangement quickly takes a left turn into some great prog rock, with a jagged, almost dancing rhythm contrasted by a soft vocal. Jon Davison’s voice darts in and out of the harder edges with ease, showing why he’s actually a good fit for the band, but in some ways, his vocal is the least important part of this opener. The real star here is Steve Howe, whose electric guitar throws out barbed, jazzy notes in a way that seems to link the disparate elements and yet occupy a space of its own at the same time. Moving into something resembling a chorus, the music swells and the effect is like hearing later Yes works augmented by bits of Billy Sherwood’s World Trade. This is fully understandable, of course, since Sherwood’s bass has its own distinct tone – different to Squire’s, yet still as muscular – and his backing vocals also lend a very 80s feel. Appending an already great track with a lengthy instrumental jam, Howe and Downes trade riffs, constantly shifting between an AOR-ish hook with multi-tracked guitar sounds, sharp lead guitar notes and unashamed proggy keyboard flourishes. Immediately, it conveys an energy that ‘Heaven & Earth’ didn’t always have, but then, it was created without its predecessor’s cloud of reflective sadness. On a basic level, it really conveys the sense of enjoyment this line-up obviously has when playing together, but on a broader note, it opens ‘The Quest’ with something that’s both accessible and complex. The much gentler ‘Dare To Know’ first suggests Yes have channelled The Flower Kings, with Howe offering a soft, almost floaty guitar line. Immediately, it has an old prog heart, and it’s a pity this mood is so quickly shattered by some abrasive horns. Despite a brief misstep, the track slowly builds into something special when a punchy bassline underscores various vocal harmonies and Davison’s high tenor latches onto a great melody. This would be enough to make it one of this album’s highlights, but the bits tacked onto the end in typical Yes fashion raise the bar considerably: orchestral flourishes call back as far as ‘Time & A Word’ and a quiet instrumental break presents some absolutely classic Howe when his soft jazzy notes almost appear to have been lifted from ‘Relayer’s ‘To Be Over’. Closing with an acoustic passage that allows Howe to tip the hat to a couple of his solo works and hint at the beautiful ‘Turn of A Century’, ‘Dare To Know’ is a number that looks back as much as it moves the band forward, but these unmistakable hints of nostalgia help to create something of pure magic, whilst also suggesting this current line-up has so much more to give. Simply put, this is classic, classic Yes for the twenty first century.

Changing the mood, ‘Minus The Man’ showcases Howe as if he’s contributing to Jeff Beck’s ‘Guitar Shop’ with some lovely vibrato-fuelled notes, before a some fine pop-rock with occasional proggy tints more than shows Sherwood’s guiding hand. Those looking for complex prog epics may well sneer as this melodic shift, but the way Davison and Sherwood’s voices blend creates something beautiful in its own way, and Howe’s featured solos – although a little busy for the job in hand – retain most of the classic tones that drove ‘Tormato’ back in the 70s. As an insight into how a more obvious follow up to ‘Heaven & Earth’ might’ve sounded, this works well, but in bringing Sherwood’s Conspiracy and ‘Citizen’ works further into the Yes-sphere, it’s perhaps more important than first hearing suggests. For those who’ve always loved the band’s more song-oriented works – ranging from bits of ‘Union’ to ‘Open Your Eyes’ – this could become a real favourite. As if to provide the ultimate contrast to that, ‘Leave Well Alone’ clocks up an impressive eight minutes, pulling together a world of ideas that shouldn’t really live together, but through sheer chutzpah, Yes make it all seem so natural. The opening groove finds everyone tackling a prog-funk hybrid, almost as if Howe has decided they should jam on an old Bee Gees riff; Davison’s quieter tones are augmented by an almost folky melody during some of the early passages, creating an unexpected homage to Simon & Garfunkel, and later instrumental pieces throw out shimmering guitar and organ lines that appear to be completely unconnected. Taking the three elements in hand, Yes make the patchwork arrangement flow, but what’s more, somehow they turn it into another album stand-out. The way Davison harmonises with Howe over the number’s rockier parts brings forth a sound that’s far more obviously “Yes” and since Howe’s lead work could’ve been drawn from almost any part of the band’s history, there are certainly moments with a classic feel here. It all pales into insignificance by the time the second half takes hold, though, with the band settling into a slow rhythm that’s a direct throwback to their 70s grandeur with Alan White boosting the wandering, almost dream line music with some solid snare work and Howe having a very confident presence. Much like ‘Dare To Know’, fans will definitely take comfort in some very familiar sounds scattered throughout this track, even if some never take to ‘The Quest’ as a complete work.

There’s even more of a nostalgic feel running through ‘The Western Edge’ for a variety of reasons. With Davison evoking the floatier aspects of old Jon Anderson vocal passages, in some ways, it quickly creates some the most Yes-like music this time out, and that is further amplified by Howe adding some lovely soaring melodies that aren’t a million miles away from the quieter parts of ‘Relayer’. The past collides with the present at various points along the way, and although Geoff’s louder synths stick out a mile at times, they still lend an important texture, whilst occasional shifts into busier AOR moods finds Sherwood leaning heavily upon a couple of old World Trade hooks and harmonies. Although these busier, techier ideas are not obvious bedfellows with Davison’s new age vibes, the push and pull between the two moods accentuates the retro prog mood in a way that just works. More of a slow burner, the soft ‘Future Memories’ puts the vocals squarely into the spotlight and although Davison’s performance is flawless, the hushed tones and shimmering semi-acoustic music feels a bit too sedate. Subsequent listens allow more of the underlying textures to cut through and Howe’s all too brief solo hints at something better that might not have been pursued, but everything hits its stride again once ‘Music To My Ears’ offers a curious blend of stately piano work, rigid basslines and strong harmonies. There’s something here that’s a little poppy chorus wise, more in keeping with ‘Heaven & Earth’, but that’s balanced out by Howe overlaying the melody with busy guitar noodles which peak with a brilliant descending scale that fuses a Spanish theme with jazzy electric tones in a way that only he can. By the time you’ve heard this a few times, the simple vocal hook becomes one of the album’s best – something that’s memorable long after listening. In closing the first disc, ‘A Living Island’ brings everything to a quiet end where light prog collides with more obvious pop, but within the gentle music – driven by more acoustic guitar and piano, before Sherwood’s arrival with a warm bassline – there’s a real feeling of hope. As Davison sings of “learning to be wiser by next year” and questioning whether the world is “paradise or a prison”, we’re reminded that this creative beauty came from a very tumultuous time, but the music itself – eventually layering thoughtful guitar lines over even bigger layered pop – couldn’t seem any more at ease. Eventually breaking into a huge melodic crescendo where Howe’s electric really soars, Davison delivers the most heart warming sentiment of all: “Here’s to the frontline saviours”, he sings with confidence, “and every day heroes unseen…their courageous story shall be told”. Over the years, Yes haven’t really been known for being messengers conveying a socio-political angle (with ‘Don’t Kill The Whale’ being a notable exception), but they’re definitely making this rare foray into humanity’s problems count, and as the last notes fade, there’s little doubt you’ve been absorbed by something quite moving.

A three track bonus disc (included with the special edition) offers lighter listening, with Yes exploring more of their retro pop side. ‘Sister Sleeping Soul’ is the most complex of these tracks, mixing the signature prog/pop sound with lutes and tabla, before blossoming into an AOR inflected tune that sounds more like a ‘Heaven & Earth’ callback. Armed with a great vocal throughout, Davison has more of a presence and that’s perfect for the job in hand, despite everything feeling a little lightweight. Closer inspection shows how the music is just broad enough to host a few classic Yes nods, including a wordless harmony that places Howe’s voice much higher in the mix than usual, and Sherwood very much channelling Squire’s more melodic works. A couple of retro synths have more in common with the prog revival of the 80s and bands like Jadis along the way, and its easy to see why this isn’t part of the main song cycle, but there’s no mistaking it for anyone other than Yes. ‘Mystery Tour’, meanwhile, sounds more like a Gerry Rafferty tribute, but played back through a Yes prism with punchy bass and extra harmonies. Its concession to retro adult pop is guaranteed to raise the hackles of some narrow minded fans, but it is impeccably played with some pleasing musical hooks. Last up, ‘Damaged World’ opts for something most unexpected when Alan White and Billy Sherwood drive everything with a Colin Moulding-esque rumpty-tumpty rhythm, over which Jon and Steve share vocals in a very natural way. The lyrical themes are a sister piece to ‘A Living Island’ with thoughts regarding rebuilding and living in the now, but these topical ideas are never forced or unnatural, despite never really being a big part of the band’s remit. As the tune progresses, there are extra layers that have more in common with “typical Yes”, firstly via some very prog-centric synths and latterly with Howe bringing in the same, gorgeously distinctive guitar sounds that soared throughout the main album’s best tracks. It goes without saying that those hoping for massive side long epics will feel the band are selling themselves short, but as has been said before, it can be harder to deliver great concise rock-pop and make an immediate impact and this leaves ‘The Quest’ in a very upbeat mood. It will certainly divide opinion, but those who like it will utterly love it.

After spending over a half a century creating music with something of a fluid line-up and varying sound, you might think that Yes have nothing more to prove. Sadly, at this late stage in their career, it’s almost like they have everything to prove…and if ‘The Quest’ proves anything, it’s that Yes seem practically unsinkable. Featuring a few of their finest tunes since the ‘Keys’ set, ‘The Quest’ offers more than enough enjoyment for the bigger Yes fan; a comforting familiarity juxtaposed with a feeling of embarking upon the new. More than any other Yes release since the late 90s, it’s a great reminder of the band’s musical heart; proof that Howe is still capable of weaving some wonderous [sic] and intricate guitar lines, that Squire’s faith in Sherwood has never been misplaced and that Yes – regardless of whom may be in the band at this point – can still deliver some marvellous, atmospheric prog sounds.

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August/September 2021