First Thoughts on ‘The Quest’

Album_CoverWHILE I am working up a full chapter on ‘The Quest’ for the new and considerably expanded version of my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes, here are ten initial, brief reflections on what it might help to look out for in approaching Yes’s brand new studio recording, released on 1st October 2021.

First, this is an album that reflects the particular leanings and sensibilities of the current line-up of a band which is now (extraordinarily) in its fifty-third year. That will not please those who hanker for a different Yes, or the Yes of some golden yesteryear – but it’s today’s band seeking to be fully themselves; one possible reason for the choice of album title. There are also a number of references to earlier eras, and additional touches of colour and texture from Paul K. Joyce and the Fame Studio Orchestra, echoing both ‘Magnification’ (2001) and ‘Time and a Word’ (1970), though in a quite different style.

Second, the production, engineering, mixing and mastering are all terrific. ‘The Quest’ really works aurally:  it’s a great-sounding album, with an interesting blend of acoustic instrumentation, electronic components and vocal treatments. I am now very much looking forward to getting my ears around the 5.1 mix and the additional Blu-Ray instrumental versions of the tracks on both CDs. Part of that overall sound quality derives from the fact that contribution of each musician comes through in a clear and well-defined way, but still fully in the service of a collective musical endeavour. Coherence matters.

Third, excluding the bonus CD (which I think is best treated as such, perhaps with the exception of the luminous “Sister Sleeping Soul”), the longest track on ‘The Quest’ is just over eight minutes and the shortest is a little under four-and-a-half minutes. Yet each song is packed with ideas, textures, colours, tones and segues. This album has a good deal to offer throughout.

Fourth, whatever one’s first instincts, it may be advisable not to offer a solidified personal judgement on ‘The Quest’ until you’ve listened really carefully, at least five or six times. It will take multiple hearings to really absorb the details of this music and how it all fits together. That is how it should be for any Yes album.

Fifth, there’s a significant emphasis on melody, sometimes more evidently or anthemically (as on the  beautiful closer, “A Living Island”), but often – as on “The Ice Bridge” – with unexpected curves and contours that defy instant gratification and take longer to adhere in the memory. In other words, there is much on this record that will unfold its deeper gift with further listening. Your level of appreciation can and should change.

© 2021 Gottlieb BrosSixth, as might be expected, given his pivotal role in this project, there’s a good deal of Steve Howe (left) on ‘The Quest’, incorporating a wide variety of guitars and sounds, allowing for plenty of acoustic spots, and featuring the use of the koto at the beginning of “Leave Well Alone”. Steve is not as fast on the frets as he was in his youth, for sure. But his style has matured with age and he is still inventive, elegant and interesting.

Seventh, Billy Sherwood, in addition to his particular compositional contributions (“Minus the Man” and “The Western Edge”), channels part of the late Chris Squire’s approach with some well-crafted, stand-out bass lines. Equally, however, he also channels his own, distinctive style and tone with some fine playing on his preferred Spector bass set-up. That’s as it should be. Indeed, for me, the bass could have been a little more prominent in the mix in a number of places.

Eighth, Alan White’s drums (assisted by new member Jay Schellen’s additional percussion on a couple of tracks) are solid, well balanced and effective on this outing – though maybe accenting the obvious elements of the beat a little more than is necessary for a band like Yes at times.

Ninth, Jon Davison absolutely shines on this album. So please stop comparing him to Jon Anderson. He has the necessary top-of-the range alto finesse, but also a distinctive resonance of his own, great vocal control, and beautiful articulation and modulation. His writing contributions are also positive, not least with the charming “Future Memories”, and via lyrical imagery that explores the environmental, technical and human challenges of the early twenty-first century.

Tenth, there are some fabulous vocal harmonies and combinations to be found across ‘The Quest’, utilising the different pitch and tone combinations available from Jon’s, Billy’s and Steve’s voices. That includes a nod to the early Yes sound and to classic Simon & Garfunkel on “Leave Well Alone”. Meanwhile, Geoff Downes adeptly adds different types of texture, tone, light and shade on keys – but also pleasing little retro touches realised in a modern fashion. There are a number of Wakemanesque Moog ornamentations, for example, as well as Kaye-like organ touches, Rhodes piano, and some pitch-bending which may remind us of Patrick Moraz.

Yes_TheQuest_DeluxeBox_MockUpOverall, then, this is a good new-style Yes album. Not without its flaws, some will say, and perhaps a little too easy going for a band with a pioneering tradition – but I would prefer to dwell in the first instance on the numerous strengths of ‘The Quest’. It doesn’t sound much like anything the band has done before, which is what you would always hope from Yes. (For that same reason, as I indicated above, it will not please everybody, naturally. That’s fine too.)

Would I personally have liked something rather more musically adventurous and left-field, with a couple of extensive, exploratory pieces? Of course… But on early contact I am very happy to receive this first, well-considered studio offering from the present (and surprisingly stable looking) Yes line-up. The days of Yes as progressive pioneers may be past, but they continue to lean popular music towards art, beauty, grace and finesse. And that matters. Equally importantly, ‘The Quest’ is a definite advance on the mixed results of ‘Heaven and Earth’ – with the promise, maybe, of even better to come. Let’s hope so.

Photo credits: © Yes and GottliebBros.

This is a slightly extended version of the thoughts I offered on the edition of Yes Music Podcast (no. 502) which coincided with the release of ‘The Quest’ in multiple formats, including CD, MPs, vinyl and 5.1, on 1 October 2021. Insightful comments from Kevin Mulryne, Henry Potts and Mark Anthony K on that episode. Thanks also to Tim Webb for a useful social media exchange while I was finalising this piece.

If you enjoyed this article, please see my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2018). And the other articles on this site, too.

A more detailed analysis of the latest studio album from Yes will appear in the new, revised and extended version of this book, due at the end of the year in paperback and (for the first time) on Kindle.

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