Band: Yes | Album: The Quest | Genre: Soft rock, Progressive rock | Year: 2021
From: London, UK | Label: InsideOut Music
Yes have returned after a seven-year absence to deliver an album no one was asking for. 2014’s Heaven and Earth was a terrible, ignominious end to Chris Squire’s impressive career. That record sounded like Air Supply doing a Yes cover album. In a contemporaneous review on my personal Facebook page, I remarked that that album “… is beyond bland. It makes milk seem spicy. This is beyond paint-by-numbers. This has less soul than a ginger.”
Unfortunately, The Quest continues in a pretty similar vein to its predecessor. This album is an improvement over their last release, but that is a pretty low bar to clear. Yes brings absolutely nothing new to the table here. The ills which plagued Heaven and Earth also hobble The Quest, a trend which seems to imply that there are inherent problems with this version of the band.
Vocalist Jon Davison appears to be a big part of the problem, but he’s not the only problem. As much as I would love to blame Glass Hammer (Davison’s former band and my favorite contemporary prog punching bag) for all of Yes’s ills, I cannot do so in good faith. Some of the worst songs on the album were written solely by longtime Yes guitarist Steve Howe.
Maybe Yes are just getting lame in their old age. The Steve Howe present on this album sounds nothing like the Steve Howe who furiously shredded on “Sound Chaser”, or who would exchange solos with Rick Wakeman in live renditions of “South Side of the Sky” barely a decade ago. Certainly Chris Squire’s passing in 2015 couldn’t have helped the band, but he had his own history of writing absolute crap. (He and current Yes bassist Billy Sherwood were the primary architects of Yes’s worst album, Open Your Eyes.) Moreso than either of these aforementioned factors, vocalist and founding member Jon Anderson’s continuing exile from the band seems to be the primary factor hampering Yes.
Before I discuss the specific songs, I want to cover the weird structuring of this album. It’s a bit over an hour long, but it was released on two discs: the primary, 47-minute disc, featuring eight songs; and the shorter, three-song, 14-minute second disc. Yes’s label wanted a sub-50-minute album, but they also suggested that a second disc of additional tracks be added to the release. As an outsider, it’s impossible to know what was in the InsideOut executives’ minds when they made this bizarre request, but it feels like a way to milk extra cash out of the Boomers who will shell out extra money for a physical two-disc release just because they saw Yes was putting out a new album. I’ll be covering all 11 songs from the two discs in this review.
The Quest features two songs which I would say are “good.” Not great, but good. One of those songs is the opening “The Ice Bridge”. Geoff Downes’s synth tones in the opening moments are atrocious — a recurring theme on this album — but at least Billy Sherwood is doing a decent Chris Squire impression with his bass tone. The opening section of this song is fairly engaging and one of the more energetic moments here, and we are treated to some fairly nice synthesizer arpeggi. Howe does some good soloing near the song’s end as well. It’s attention-grabbing and technically impressive. Despite these good elements, this song feels awfully long. Not so long that it’s ruined, but long enough to notice a drag.
“Dare to Know” opens with slow and sweet guitarwork and sporadic stabs of orchestral strings and brass. The harmonized vocals are too light and sentimental, and the strings don’t add anything substantive. The orchestral sections feel thoughtless and purposeless, and the coda feels pointlessly tacked-on. This is a conspicuously repetitive song, which makes its six-minute runtime feel interminable.
“Minus the Man” is even lighter and willowier than the preceding song, and the music is near sleep-inducing. The vocal harmonies are stronger, at least, but that cannot make up for the instrumental laziness. Alan White is barely present on this track. The strings are schlocky and uncreative, and it all sounds like a crappy version of something off Keystudio. Despite some flashy guitar flourishes, this is just a generic soft rock song. And Yes, you know you can write short songs, right? There’s no need for this to be five-and-a-half minutes.
The other good song on this album is “Leave Well Alone”. I hate Steve Howe’s plinking koto, but this song features one of the rare moments of propulsion on The Quest. Downes deploys more regrettable synth tones, which feel like they’d be more at home in an ‘80s action movie soundtrack, but I can overlook that for the time being. The quiet, acoustic opening verse contrasts well against the energetic intro, and the oscillation between acoustic and electric is done well. There are some more nice harmonized vocals around the midsection, though the transition into the third section of this song is disappointingly simple. I expect more from these guys. You’re Yes, dammit. Be flashy! At least Howe’s closing guitar solo is pretty decent. I wish it had a bit more muscle to it — maybe a rougher tone with a more energetic backing. Upon repeated listens, though, this closing movement feels like a watered-down retread of the “Würm” section of “Starship Trooper”. All things considered, I’ll take what I can get.
The first words in my notes for “The Western Edge” are “gutless, fluffy bullshit.” It’s a bad song, plain and simple. It is gutless, fluffy bullshit. At least White provides a pretty good performance on drums. In my Yes Deep Dive, I mentioned that moments on Heaven and Earth reminded me of Christian worship music, and I’m getting those same vibes here. This piece isn’t too far off from something I’d expect to hear the pastor at a youth group playing. Howe’s soloing feels (especially) derivative of his own past performances, most notably on “Soon”.
The acoustic guitar-and-vocals opening of “Future Memories” isn’t bad. This is helped by the fact that Davison sounds more distinct here. He doesn’t just sound like a Jon Anderson impersonator. Unfortunately, this sorta-promising opening dissolves into dull, sappy balladry. This song is long, insipid, and self-important.
“Music to My Ears” opens with similar uninteresting balladry, but this time piano-led. There are more worship music vibes here too. Who thought this stylistic shift was a good idea? I’m going to blame Davison. The verses give me flashbacks to my time in religious school, and it makes me want to vindictively worship Satan, even though this song isn’t explicitly Christian, and I’m an atheist. The chorus is surprisingly decent, featuring slight hints of jazz. There’s also a cool discordant moment with downward-swirling guitar and synth. Despite the good composition, this passage lacks any impact. It’s too clean.
Disc one of this 1.5-disc release ends with “A Living Island”. It’s more insipid soft-rock, adult-contemporary inanity. It sounds like music I’d expect to hear in a commercial. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but that impression just goes to illustrate the safe blandness of this song. The lyrics don’t help either, as they’re both self-important and vapid.
Disc two is mercifully short (three songs, 14 minutes) but features some of Yes’s worst music. “Sister Sleeping Soul” has vaguely “Eastern” vibes and sounds like a much worse version of “Nine Voices”. Yes has previously pulled off this vaguely “Eastern” aesthetic many times. I think a reason it falls flat here is that Jon Anderson is a huge hippie who is super into that sort of stuff. There’s no passion behind cuts like this in Yes’s current incarnation. It’s just a stylistic veneer trying to cover for the band’s lack of ideas. The synth part on this song is better than I would have expected, though.
What follows may be the worst song in Yes’s discography. To quote my first-reaction notes again, “This is cringe.” Prepare yourself for the worst Beatles homage ever, with “Mystery Tour”. This is more bland, soulless, uninspired acoustic pop-rock, but now it’s been blended with “Tee-hee aren’t I clever?” lyrics that shoehorn Beatles song titles into the lines. We get it, you like The Beatles. I like The Beatles. Most people like The Beatles. They were an immensely influential musical act for multiple generations. But writing a song this bad feels like an insult to their legacy. True, The Beatles wrote songs with goofy lyrics sometimes, but they were known as an act capable of having fun. Yes is not. Yes is a famously pretentious band with songs about metaphysical nonsense.
I would expect a song like this to be written by a high schooler who thinks all modern music sucks, there’s been no good music since 1980, and that they’re being creative by using well-known song titles as lyrics. But at least a teenager would put out something with more energy, spine, and genuine enthusiasm than this piece of crap.
It’s not like what Yes was aiming for is impossible to pull off, either. King Crimson’s song “Happy Family” is about the break-up of The Beatles. A section of the song “Octavarium” by Dream Theater has lyrics not-dissimilar to what we find here. The big difference here is that both of those songs have well-written, original music that doesn’t sound like it was farted out by a creatively-devoid chimp with an acoustic guitar.
“Damaged World” sounds just like the previous two songs on this mini-disc. I don’t have the energy to bash it after writing the above paragraphs. Just trust me. It’s bad.
The Quest isn’t good. Don’t listen to it. I doubt you’ll like it. It’s low-energy, it’s uncreative, and it doesn’t even have the aesthetic trappings of Yes’s usual sound on most songs. There are a couple of good songs here, but the bad far outweighs the good. Had they omitted disc two, the score would be higher, but not by much.