An album review?! Okay, yeah, I just had to get this out of me. I am a huge fan of the band Yes. I know, nerdy ol’ me liking prog rock?! Who could’ve guessed? I have parsed through their music like how Hassidim read the Torah. So much of what I know and appreciate about music came from them that their positive contribution to my life has been inestimable.
I listened to the new Yes album “The Quest” and it has presented me with a question. Is an album supposed to fill you with anger and disappointment?
This has to be said right away: this doesn’t have anything to do with Jon Anderson not being in the band, or Chris Squire not being in the band, or whoever. The whole “Yes isn’t ‘Yes’ without <fill-in your preferred musician>” is an ignorant argument to me because it isn’t judging music by its merit, its only judging by its roll call.
Like Chris Squire once said, “‘Yes’ is whoever shows up.” I don’t care who is in Yes as long as the songs are there.
The songs are not here.
With one exception, it came off to me as a medium-tempo concept album about “phoning it in.” The lyrics are filled with cringe-inducing cliches, and the album as a whole isn’t a progressive rock album because it is neither progressive nor rocking.
Incidentally, “The Ice Bridge” is the good song.
The words don’t match the music. For instance, the song “Minus The Man,” a song about the worries of AI taking over (Artificial Intelligence, not someone named, “AL”…. damn you, sans serif fonts!), is done in a slow-tempo, light-orchestral piece. If you removed the lyrics to the song and had to guess at what the song is about, the best guess would be “a love ballad between two people who are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.”
There is a song named “Damaged World”, yet the music wouldn’t sound out of place on a Herman’s Hermits album. It’s an up-tempo, bright shuffle. If they were doing this with a sense of irony like “They Might Be Giants” do, then that would be… okay. Off-brand, but okay. But no, they are serious. They put lyrics ostensibly about saving the world to a tune you could tap dance to.
As any Yes fan would attest, you don’t listen to them for the lyrics. But even Jon Anderson’s word gumbo could taste delicious with the right music. When I saw a song titled “Music To My Ears” I wanted to punch something breakable and irreplaceable. The title alone, without hearing a single note of music, set me into a rage state.
The lyrics are vague, but not Jon Anderson vague where he scrambled up words in a verbal Rorschach and you had to figure just what the hell the words were telling you. These lyrics are so tepid that they don’t really say anything at all.
For instance, from the aforementioned “Damaged World”:
In the light of what’s been said
Am I the one who’s been most misled
Never knowing where to stand
On the stormy sea or the shifting sand
Out across the wind-blown shore
The sea so blue, white waves galore
Dreams so clear but almost lost
Over words either dotted or crossed.
Tell me, you who are undoubtedly smarter than I am, what are they singing about? “Shifting sand,” “wind-blown shore,” “sea so blue, white waves galore,” etc. etc. etc. They’re slinging so many cliches at me that I am dazed by the descriptions that have no bearing to whatever it is they just sang.
But don’t you worry, there are plenty more cliches to hear! “Hang by a limb,” “reflected in the mirror the longings of the heart,” “many moons ago,” “heart full of song,” ad infinitum. It’s like they were stuck for lyrics, so they scoured LiveJournal entries on Wayback Machine.
And the song “Mystery Tour”….
“Mystery Tour” almost ruined The Beatles for me.
This album absolutely infuriates me. Why?
These people have chops I can only dream of having. They are talented beyond compare. Jon Davidson’s voice has matured nicely. I don’t think it is nearly as nasal as it was in the beginning. This isn’t damning with faint praise. His voice has grown into a crystalline mezzo-tenor that sounds exquisite.
Billy Sherwood does more than try to channel Chris Squire’s spirit. I haven’t heard enough of him to peg a distinctive style, but he doesn’t rely on the higher end of the fretboard as much as Squire did. Although you have to work hard to get to this conclusion because the bass is buried in the mix.
Geoff Downes absolutely has the chops and has been a fantastic songwriter in the past. The man co-wrote Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell” as well as The Buggle’s “Video Killed The Radio Star.” I’ve seen him play live and can absolutely attest to his talent as a keyboard player.
Steve Howe is, well, Steve Howe. “Guitar Player” magazine had to make special rules for their “Guitarist of the year” award because Howe kept winning over and over again. Weird, but true. But Howe will never, EVER choose a guitar tone that doesn’t allow you to hear each and every note clearly and with no room for error. This makes a lot of his tones sound anemic. He can do anything he wants to on a guitar, play any genre as if he played a part in inventing it (and in some cases, he did), and he does THIS?
And Alan White is an amazing drummer (listen to “Gates of Delerium” and try to air-drum your way through that), but here, the performance is “workman-like.” The drums here only do the job of peddling the song but there’s nothing in the music that caused me to stop the song and rewind it so I could pay closer attention to the song. I sometimes had to remind myself that the drums were there.
The experience of this album to me is like having fallen in love with an actress and, decades after her heyday, you meet her in a down-market Safeway where she is wearing piss-stained pants and yelling unpublishable things about Black people. It is like expecting a glorious birthday present that has been hyped up for months, but it turns out the present is one of those wall-mountable robotic fish you can get a WalMart, except instead of singing some dopey song, it recites every edition of the Reader’s Digest from 1954 at you. It is as impactful as a gingerly-tossed balloon.
This is not, as some Yes “purists” have claimed, a Steve Howe solo album. It takes an entire band of extraordinarily talented musicians to mess up like this. This was absolutely a collaborative effort from amazing musicians resulting in something as challenging as a warm glass of tap water.
BUT I could be wrong. Listen to it yourself! It is available on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever else music is sold.