Friday, October 15, 2021

Album review: Yes' The Quest isn't worth the effort

The Quest, released Oct. 1 as the 22nd studio album carrying the Yes name, isn't the worst album in the band's catalog. You won't have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find it, but you'll have to dig pretty deeply.

This one was put together in pieces and parts during the pandemic era, with some band members and guest musicians recording their tracks separately in different parts of the globe. Longtime Yes guitarist Steve Howe coordinated this project and is credited as the album's producer.

This particular lineup of Yes includes Howe, drummer Alan White, singer Jon Davison, keyboard player Geoff Downes and bassist Billy Sherwood. The most notable lineup change this time around is that Yes co-founder and bassist Chris Squire isn't present. The Quest is the first Yes album in the entire catalog that doesn't include Squire, who died in 2015.

Squire's absence is profoundly missed here. His distinctively melodic, aggressive bass runs always were such a huge part of the Yes sound, and that is noticeably missing. Current bassist Sherwood doesn't even try to emulate Squire's playing. Instead, Sherwood is content to settle into the more traditional bass player's role of providing foundation, along with drummer Alan White and guest percussionist Jay Schellen.

This album does seem to be a Steve Howe project above all else, for better or worse. His guitar work dominates most all of these tracks, and it's classic aggressive Steve Howe slithering, somewhat disjointed sound. Look at the album credits, and Howe's is massive, listing about a dozen different guitars and other string instruments ... mandolin, autoharp, sitar, Portuguese 12-string guitar, Martin MC-28 acoustic. It's a long and specific list, the stuff of tech geekdom.

Howe also gets credits for being the producer and doing preparatory engineering and guitar recording. He also gets lone songwriting credit on five of the 11 tracks and a co-writing credit on one other. And he does lead vocals on at least part of six of the tracks.

Seriously, this album could just have easily been credited as a Steve Howe solo project if the marketing people would have allowed it. 

But it isn't a Steve Howe solo record. It's a Yes record. And it's not a very good one. Perhaps if Howe would have used the material he directly contributed to this album and not tried so hard to shoehorn it into the Yes canon, it might have been a more successful effort. But by branding this stuff as Yes and trying too hard to make it sound like Yes, and forcing us to compare it so closely to 50 years of Yes, really destroys the credibility of this material.

ca. 2020: Howe, Davison, Sherwood, White, Downes

The opening track, "The Ice Bridge," the first single released ahead of the album, is a pretty good Yes track, good enough to satisfy the longtime fans. It's not among the band's best, but it fits nicely into what you come to expect from Yes.

Unfortunately, that's as good as it gets. For the remaining 55 minutes of The Quest, it's a struggle to find something to like here. Howe drops some really obnoxious string orchestrations on top of a couple of tracks. None of the Howe-written songs are very good -- a couple of them are downright cringeworthy. At least in this Yes context.

Here's a really big problem with this album. Whereas Billy Sherwood makes zero attempt to replicate Chris Squire's sound here, Jon Davison goes far out of his way to sing like Jon Anderson and to write lyrics like Jon Anderson. Problem is, Davison isn't nearly as good as Anderson at either, and his attempts get really annoying really quickly. I don't know if this is Davison's natural element or if he's intentionally trying to replicate Anderson, but either way, you cannot help but compare him to Anderson and maybe Yes might have been better off in the long run if they went a different direction when they hired a new frontman.

The CD issue of The Quest contains two discs. The first disc is the album proper as Howe supposedly originally intended to release it, eight tracks clocking in at almost 48 minutes. The second disc is three Howe-written outtakes, at a little short of 14 minutes total, that are ridiculously bad and close out the streaming version of the album.

The worst of the bunch is the 3.5-minute "Mystery Tour," an embarrassment. It sounds like something Howe might have written in high school, a really clumsy idol worshipping of The Beatles with lines like "They let it be like they'd never been born/We heard the silver hammer till the break of dawn." Some of the lyrics get even worse than that.

Thumbs down for this album. Only that first track, "The Ice Bridge," keeps this thing from being a complete throwaway. It's definitely worth checking out that track for longtime Yes fans. But don't waste your time on the rest of it.

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