Like many progressive bands from the 1970s, Yes has come in for more than its fair share of flak over the years. As one of classic rock’s most enduring acts, they deserve some respect if only for the sheer bloody-minded determination to keep buggering on.
The need to push boundaries brought them legions of devoted fans
Formed in 1968 by angel-voiced ex-milkman Jon Anderson and public school choirboy Chris Squire, the band may have strayed into rock excess at times with extended twenty minute “suites”, fantastical Roger Dean sets and Anderson’s famously impenetrable lyrics, but an enthusiasm for taking risks is what kept them interesting. Yes, there were some self-indulgent noodlings along the way, but the band was never boring. Despite a lofty disdain for penning three-minute pop songs, they were expert melody makers — I challenge anyone not to sing along to “All Good People” from 1971’s seminal The Yes Album. Long-standing drummer Alan White says of his band that they always tried to “look over the horizon, not at it”. On complex compositions such as “Heart of the Sunrise” and their epic twenty minute masterwork “Close to the Edge”, they were truly out of this world, boldly going where no band had gone before. This need to push boundaries, coupled with some dizzying virtuosity from the nimble fingers of classically trained keyboardist Rick Wakeman and plucky guitar maestro Steve Howe, brought them legions of devoted fans.
But endless line up changes, along with the untimely death of founding member Chris Squire in 2015 and the unseemly replacement of an ailing Anderson with a tribute band sound-alike, has pushed fan loyalty to the limits. Their last outing, 2014’s lacklustre Heaven and Earth, caused consternation amongst devotees for its lack of ambition. Steve Howe and Alan White are the last remaining members from the classic 70s lineup, so a lot is riding on The Quest, their twenty-second studio offering.
The album may go some way to restoring fan confidence, but a dearth of fresh ideas means there isn’t quite enough here to get proggy pulses racing again. Largely recorded during lockdown with band members stranded on opposite sides of the globe, producer Steve Howe has struggled to bring the disparate contributions together to form a cohesive whole. File sharing is of course no substitute for studio jamming so one can only sympathise — perhaps he should have consulted his old cohort and wizard of the mixing desk, Trevor Horn.
Jon Davison’s reedy vocals are no match for Anderson’s flights of ethereal fancy
Howe has said he is wary of falling into conventional verse/chorus structures during the writing process, but some of the songs included on The Quest would definitely have benefited from a bit more of both. Nevertheless, that famous virtuosity is still in evidence on the folksy Crosby Stills and Nash inspired “Future Memories” with its dreamy West Coast acoustic guitar and gentle three part harmonies. Geoff Downes’s punchy synth stabs on eco-themed lead track “The Ice Bridge” is pure 80s cheese, but his shimmering Wakeman-esque glissandos compliment Howe’s duelling guitar breaks. At seven minutes long, the song captures some of the excitement of their earlier work. With “Leave Well Alone” they have combined Simon and Garfunkel harmonising with a funky rhythm section that may sound odd but works surprisingly well. Closing track “A Living Island” laments the pain of lockdown loneliness with some heartrending Beach Boys style harmonies, lush Hammond organ and a bittersweet melody that sees the band in a more reflective mood. Elsewhere there’s the ploddingly forgettable “Dare to Know” (try doubling the speed on Youtube for a more interesting take) and the twee, nursery rhyme twiddlings of “Minus the Man”.
What’s missing overall is the searing gut-punch of an “Owner of a Lonely Heart” or the mad inventiveness of a “Going for the One”. Squire’s thunderously melodic bass, long a hallmark of the band’s unique sound, is sorely missed, while Jon Davison’s reedy vocals are no match for Anderson’s flights of ethereal fancy.
Shortly before he died, Chris Squire made guitarist Billy Sherwood promise that he would keep the Yes fires burning, and to that extent Sherwood has honoured his mentor’s final wish. If only he and the rest of the band could forget about trying to recreate past glories and stick to their original plan of leaping headlong over the creative horizon. It’s not too late, boys.
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