IN AND OF itself, Yes’ new album, The Quest, is significant as it ends one of the longest gaps between studio recordings for the progressive-rock legends (the last time they released a studio effort was in 2014, with Heaven & Earth). Guitarist Steve Howe acknowledges the fact that the band’s fans have been clamoring for new music, but he also defends the decision to hold off and not hurry.
“I’m not the guy who will say, ‘Let’s rush and make another record,’ because I’ve had my fingers rapped too many times with the outcome of that,” he says. “I’ve been disappointed with some of the recent albums Yes recorded, starting with [1997’s] Open Your Eyes. I mean, they all had their merits, but I think to make a really good album, you need the proper circumstances and atmosphere. Everybody has to feel really ready. So as far as the long gap, all I can say is, some things are worth waiting for, and I think this album is worth the wait.”
The Quest is notable in other ways. Not only is it the first Yes album on which founding bassist Chris Squire doesn’t appear (he passed away in 2015), but it’s also the first record to feature a lineup devoid of any original band members. Howe and drummer Alan White are now the two elder statesmen [Howe replaced Peter Banks in 1970; White replaced Bill Buford in 1972] in a group that consists of singer Jon Davison, bassist Billy Sherwood and keyboardist Geoff Downes.
“It’s certainly a different dynamic in the band these days,” Howe says. “In terms of Chris Squire, we obviously felt the loss, and we know the scale of what losing him means. But what we’re trying to do is not wallow in regret. When we tour, we pay tribute to Chris by playing his song ‘Onward’ and showing pictures of him. The legacy of what he left us is immense.”
The guitarist is effusive in singing the praises of Sherwood, who began an on-and-off association with Yes back in 1989 and continued through various incarnations of the group (including spin-off projects), sometimes serving as additional guitarist and keyboardist before assuming full-time bass duties following Squire’s passing. “Billy’s really done an amazing job,” Howe says. “As most people know, he was one of the biggest Chris Squire fans in the world. The two of them worked together in Yes and in other things for a long time, so if anybody was equipped to step into this role, it’s definitely Billy. Losing Chris left us in a difficult position, but Billy stepped up to the game. I can’t say enough about him.”
Clocking in at just over 60 minutes, The Quest is a sprawling work that recalls the sound of classic Yes — there’s heaping doses of Hammond organ and spiraling vocals — done up in a starkly modern and sometimes edgy way. It’s grand without seeming pompous, reverential without being dreary. Even when the band employs a full orchestra on the sumptuous ballad “Minus the Man” or the progressive-rock thriller “Dare to Know,” there’s not a whiff of pretension — it’s theatrical, not showy. Throughout the album, but especially on the widescreen epic “The Ice Bridge” and the surprisingly soulful “Leave Well Alone,” Howe is a dominant presence, spinning webs of cleanly articulated riffs and solos that touch on jazz, blues, rockabilly and even twang. On one of the record’s delightful highlights, “Mystery Tour,” an unabashed tribute to the Fab Four, he manages to capture George Harrison’s distinctive soloing style — there’s a sweet warble to the sound — with his own fleet-fingered approach.
In yet another first, Howe took on the role as sole producer, which he says isn’t really a big deal (“I’ve always been part of the production team”), only this album presented him with an unexpected challenge as it was recorded during the time of COVID. Because of travel and safety restrictions, various band members were sometimes together in studios in America and the U.K., but other times recording was done remotely.
None of which fazed Howe at all. “As a producer, my biggest role, beyond certain decisions that I had to make, was in setting a proper atmosphere, and that only comes through one’s communication skills,” he says. “If I can steer people’s performances in a good way and answer their questions, that’s half the job right there. As for file-sharing, that’s been around for over 10 years, so there was no strangeness to that aspect at all. It’s been perfected to a degree that there’s no loss of audio. If you can communicate to somebody what you’re looking for, you can work with them wherever they are, and in a way they can have even more freedom. It’s not a bad way to work.”
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about your influences as a guitarist, but you have to know that you’ve had an impact on so many players over the years. Do you ever hear from some of them?
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