Sunday 29 August 2021

First thoughts on The Quest

 InsideOut kindly sent me a copy of the new Yes album, The Quest. I presume, reader, you've heard "The Ice Bridge" and, to let you know where I am coming from, I enjoy it. I don't want to give away spoilers to the rest of the album. It's an album where it's nice to go in cold. Tracks like "Dare to Know" and "Leave Well Alone" have twists and turns that are worth hearing without knowing where they are going, while "Mystery Tour" is worth encountering fresh for the lyrics. But should curiosity overcome you...

This is proper headphones in a darkened room music; it's not going down the gym music. The first half is strong. Tracks 1-5 make for a good Yes album that can stand up to comparison with other Yes releases of the last 30 years. I'm sure opinions will be divided, because they always are, but these are interesting compositions, full of 'Yessy' arrangements, including lovely use of orchestra. The core of the album for me are the two big Howe compositions, "Dare to Know" and "Leave Well Alone", that combine dynamic arrangements, harmony vocals and esoteric lyrics in an effective way. At 6-8 minutes, they are not long by Yes standards, but they still take you on a journey. They feel like only Yes could have recorded them. The decision to add orchestra has paid off, adding an extra dimension.

Interleaved with those two are the Sherwood/Davison co-writes. Sherwood's songwriting is familiar from his solo albums and many other projects, and we've been introduced to the pair's writing in Arc of Life. "Minus the Man" and "The Western Edge" are recognisably from the same pen, yet benefit from Howe's production and the performance of the whole band and orchestra. I like the chaos of "The Western Edge", but it is the second shortest song on the album and I wished it had space (that's a joke you'll get when you hear the album) to go somewhere more.

I am guessing the latter half of the album will be more controversial. I enjoy "Future Memories" and "A Living Island", but they show a more romantic and lyrical side to Davison's writing. I loved "It was All We Knew" on Heaven & Earth, but many people said, while they enjoyed the song, it didn't belong on a Yes album. I can see the same complaints may arise here (not that I agree). "A Living Island" is interesting as a disc closer, travelling to unexpected places as it goes on, a bit yacht rock, a bit Queen, with a waving-lighters-in-the-air-at-the-end-of-a-gig vibe.

The bonus disc is just that. This is b-side material, nice to have as extras. "Damaged World", with a Howe lead vocal, is the strongest. "Mystery Tour", the weakest.

People felt Heaven & Earth was compartmentalised, Davison working with each other member, but the band not coming together to make an "Into the Storm". With the band divided by a pandemic, there's a worry of the same again. And it does still feel compartmentalised to a degree. This is the Howe song, this is the Sherwood song, this is the Davison song. There isn't a "Homeworld" here. But you do hear a band supporting each other. Sherwood's bass elevates "Leave Well Alone", while Howe's guitar lifts "The Western Edge". Downes and White do a nice intro for "Music to My Ears". "Future Memories" is Davison's but wouldn't be the same without Howe's input.

Overall, The Quest doesn't sound a lot like any prior Yes album while also being the sort of thing only Yes would do. It's a sincere album: this is who they are. They're not trying to have a hit single, or doing an 18 minute epic because the label wants one. A Yes without Squire or Anderson was always going to be a difficult sell. It won't heal divisions in Yes fandom (nothing could). The single LP version of the album, the first six tracks, might make for a stronger experience. But it is an album I am enjoying, and an album that finds new things to say after a 50+ year career.

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