Tuesday 21 December 2021

Yes - The Quest (2021)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Oct 2021
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Yes were a busy band indeed half a century ago. In 1971, while I was being born, they were releasing both The Yes Album and Fragile. They'd put out two albums in the two years prior and would add a trio in the three years after. They're not so busy nowadays, but they're still going and still doing it well and in their very own unmistakable style. This is their twenty-second studio album, even if it's also only their fourth this millennium. They get around to things when they're ready.

I say they, but I should explain who's in the ever-changing Yes line-up nowadays. Steve Howe is the focal point now, I think, on a wild variety of guitars, but Alan White has actually more years with Yes, having taken over the drumkit from Bill Bruford as long ago as 1972. Howe was already there then but he's had gaps since. Billy Sherwood joined on bass in 2015, though he'd contributed in an array of ways previously, whether vocals, guitars or keyboards. Geoff Downes is on his second stint behind the keyboards, as he's been since 2011, following a brief stint in 1980. And, on vocals, is Jon Davison, formerly of Glass Hammer, who's almost racked up a decade with Yes at this point.

The Quest starts off wonderfully with The Ice Bridge, a song that's exactly what I expect from Yes, a complex but melodic prog rock track that rolls along nicely through multiple movements. It does rather a lot, especially given that it wraps up just shy of the seven minute mark. It's very strong in every way, including the production by Howe, which is crystal clear, and the keyboards, which are a constant joy. Had the album maintained this level of quality, it would be a modern day Yes classic. Looking back from the other end, which is an hour later if we count the three bonus tracks on the second CD, nothing comes close to it.

Dare to Know starts out well, but it gets all orchestral in the midsection, something that does add to the sound but not in a way I really wanted. It feels light to me. Part of that may be because Jon Davison sounds a little smooth to me generally and especially on smoother songs like this one. He has all the range he needs to sing in a band that everyone knows with Jon Anderson, but he seems to be missing something that's hard to define. It's like a difference in the resolution that becomes noticeable when you upgrade to BluRay but have to go back to a DVD. Anderson is the BluRay and Davison is the DVD.

A caveat to that paragraph is that A Living Island is surely the smoothest thing here but I loved it anyway and primarily because of what Davison contributes to it. Trust me, I'm not knocking any of his talent, and he's exactly where he needs to be.

Another song that stands out but not in ways I appreciated is Leave Well Alone, which is a hundred things at once. It starts out with Howe on koto, I believe, but then things get down and funky. The vocals are unusual and told in duet between Davison and Howe, the latter not remotely as strong vocally but able to bring a warmth to proceedings. All that's fine, but it changes. Again and again. I ended up imagining that the band were playing live on a a late night talk show but shifting styles every thirty seconds when the host pressed a button on his electronic style generator. What is it? It's world. It's funk. It's folk. It's disco. It's rock. It's jazz. It's prog. It's the history of music. I have no idea what it is but it's too much.

Enough with the negative. For me, the highlights after The Ice Bridge are the constant flourishes by Steve Howe that decorate every song here. They could also have become too much but they are always appropriate to my ears. I like the vocals on Future Memories, which are partly Davison in a still high but lower voice than his norm for this album, and partly Billy Sherwood. The catchiest of the eight songs proper is Music to My Ears, very well titled as arguably the only song with honest to goodness hooks. Certainly nothing else here is going to become an earworm. And then there's A Living Island, which is a bit of a departure from the Yes norm but a very welcome one by me. It's more like a prog take on the Eagles's serious closer from Hotel California, The Last Resort.

So, this is a mixed bag. Nothing is bad, but quite a few songs struggle to find their identity and so end up getting lost amidst the really good stuff. Sure, the bonus tracks fit that bill and could have been safely left off the package titled The Quest, but there are earlier songs that fit it too. Some songs are notable but simply didn't work for me. Maybe they'll work for you instead. A few songs work well enough to be net positives, but The Ice Bridge is the only one to stand out as a highlight for me. And so this is a welcome album but one to which I think I have to give only a 6/10.

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