Yes — The Quest
What can one say about Yes that's not already been said countless times before. Despite the absence of all the founding members, they continue to plough their symphonic rock furrow with the release of the first studio album in over seven years.
Wind the clock back half a century, and you will find a band very much in the ascendancy. Their fourth album Fragile was released to great acclaim in November 1971. Nine months earlier, The Yes Album breached the top 5 of the UK album chart. Close To The Edge, arguably the quintessential prog rock album, was less than a year away and would be followed by the ambitious, four-part Tales From Topographic Oceans.
Only guitarist Steve Howe remains from the Fragile era, and even he was absent from the band throughout much of the 1980s. Alan White joined in 1972 and remains the longest continuous-serving member. Although years of touring have taken their toll, he's the drummer on the latest album. Keyboardist Geoff Downes' on-and-off tenure with Yes dates back to 1980, while Billy Sherwood was the obvious replacement following Chris Squire's untimely death in 2015. While many die-hard fans still bemoan the absence of Jon Anderson, it's easy to overlook that sound-alike Jon Davison has been fronting the band for the last 10 years.
Before proceeding, it's worth reflecting that Yes' last full-length studio album Heaven And Earth in 2014 received a critical hammering from many quarters, not least here at DPRP. It attracted the attention of no less than six reviewers and an average rating of 5 out of 10. The final line of my contribution ('It feels devoid of content'), summed up the team's thoughts. It was a far cry from the positive reception I gave the Songs From Tsongas DVD in 2005, my very first review for DPRP. But that was then and this is now. Can Yes still cut it in the third decade of the 21st century?
The Ice Bridge gets things off to a cracking start, dispelling any lingering memories of the previous album. Downes' synth fanfare is reminiscent of the intro to Emerson, Lake & Powell's original version of Touch And Go and Howe weighs in with siren-like guitar fills. It's an engaging song, helped by a classy promotional video, and kudos to Davison for probably being the first singer ever to incorporate “exponential” into a song.
It's the aptly-titled instrumental section Interaction that stands out however. Here the dexterous synth and guitar exchanges are a throwback to the live performances of Würm from 50 years earlier. Dare To Know is a laid-back Howe composition that benefits from his majestic guitar soloing and a stirring orchestral arrangement. The mood and orchestra is maintained for Minus The Man which boasts a more than decent choral hook.
The eight-minute Leave Well Alone is the album's centrepiece and although it succeeds on several levels, it's a curious concoction. Howe's oriental-flavoured, plucked koto opens proceedings but is swept aside by a funky groove that harks back to the 1970s and the Bee Gees in their disco prime. The White and Sherwood rhythm partnership really swings, and a Bo Diddley style shuffle rhythm is thrown in for good measure. The harmonised vocals combine Howe and Davison to fine effect, while the ascending instrumental coda brings to mind the aforementioned Würm finale to Starship Trooper.
If Downes' contributions were relatively low-key on the previous track, his keyboard strings and woodwinds come into their own during The Western Edge, as does Sherwood's co-sharing lead vocals and nimble bass lines.
Based around a 12-string guitar phrase, Future Memories could easily be early Genesis, although the vocal harmonies and weeping steel guitar are most definitely Yes. Those same lush harmonies are to the fore in the aptly Music To My Ears where Howe adopts a Mark Knopfler-like guitar tone, and is that a vintage Mellotron I can hear simmering in the background?
Although the concluding A Living Island takes the isolating effects of the Covid epidemic as its subject, it's an uplifting song that builds from gentle acoustic beginnings, to an inspired finale with Davison's layered voices complemented by Downes and Howe's stately melody. White's drumming has been meticulous throughout, and he doesn't let up here, providing a worthy ending to a worthy album. Howe should be applauded for his role as producer, with guitar, drums and vocals in particular benefiting from a crystal-clear sound.
The second CD features three cuts that didn't make the final eight but the band felt were worthy of inclusion nonetheless. Howe's Portuguese 12-string picking during the breezy Sister Sleeping Soul will bring a smile of recognition to those with fond memories of Your Move. The title of the penultimate Mystery Tour is a give away, with Davison reeling off a succession of Beatles song titles with suitable reverence, even though the Fab Four imploded the year before he was born. The set concludes with another Howe song, Damaged World, a poignant reminder of his guitar hero Chet Atkins.
As you will have gathered by now, I rate The Quest highly and for once, fans have cause to celebrate. It has a contemporary, cutting-edge sound whilst acknowledging the past with songs, arrangements and performances worthy of the name Yes. While it may not scale the lofty heights of their 1970's prime, it's the best we have any right to expect from a band that's been in existence for 53 years and whose members have a combined age of 320.