Tentative Review #142

Steve Howe
Quantum Guitar

(released 1998)

1. Walk Don't Run
2. The Collector
3. Light Walls
4. Mosaic
5. Suddenly
6. Country Viper
7. Mainland
8. Knights Of Carmelite
9. Paradox
11.Sleep Walk
14.Solid Ground
15.The Great Siege
16.Cacti Garden
17.Southern Accent




While largely ignored by casual Yes fans, Steve Howe's Quantum Guitar indicates that the veteran progressive group can still have an artistically viable future ... if they pool their talents wisely.

Steve Howe was, of course, a tangential player on Open Your Eyes (1997), the most recent Yes studio album. His contributions to the album were generally limited to tacked-on guitar parts, and one track co-written quickly with Jon Anderson ("From The Balcony"). At least one report suggests that Howe doesn't like anything on the work; in public, the most diplomatic thing Howe has said about the album is that it was the best they could come up with under the constrictions of the recording process. Suggestions have been made that the direction of the album was largely determined by corporate officials, and one suspects that Howe shed few tears when the album proved a commercial failure -- certainly, there is little on Open Your Eyes that he should feel much affinity towards.

In contrast to this, Howe appears to have put considerable time and effort into Quantum Guitar. Each track on this release features a fair degree of textural diversity, the result of several overlapping guitar sections (see "Sharp On Attack" for further details). Recorded without company pressure for tailor-made "hit material" [and, to be fair, it was intended for a smaller audience], the album shows Howe playing in a wide range of styles (rock, country, folk, classical, Spanish, etc), providing melodies and arrangements that rank with the best of his solo career. It isn't clear to this reviewer why the album hasn't received greater attention from the hardcore Yes following.

A comparison of these two recent albums drives home a very obvious point: that Howe still has enough creative energy to assist Yes, if its leaders are ready to stop undermining his position in the band. Fans wishing to discover the potential of the current Yes lineup should be directed to Quantum Guitar (and the Keys To Ascension albums) instead of Open Your Eyes.

In the context of Howe's solo career, Quantum Guitar appears as a cross between The Steve Howe Album and Turbulence. Like the former, it's an eclectic mix of styles; like the latter, it's a largely D.I.Y. creation featuring considerable interplay between the various items in Howe's guitar collection. Fans of either of these albums should find something to like here [though it must be admitted that those who were put off by Turbulence might also be put off by some parts of the work]. Concerned fans should also note that the album is entirely instrumental.

The album begins with a bit of a surprise -- a cover of Johnny Smith's "Walk Don't Run" (a track also recently covered by the California Guitar Trio, oddly enough). Beginning with a brief Spanish-guitar section, this track soon mutates into a forceful romp through the original, with several rock-guitar lines in the foreground. Dylan, if not a world-class drummer, nevertheless manages to put in a decent accompanying role here (as he does on most of the album, actually). Some might argue that there's a bit too much "flash" here; even if so, however, the performance fits the track perfectly.

"The Collector" is another surprise, of sorts. While Howe has recorded several country-infected tracks in the past, he's never released such a completely C&W/pedal-steel performance as this -- once the shock of initial impact wears off, however, there's little to fault in his playing. I wouldn't want to own too many tracks like this, but this piece nevertheless makes for an interesting excursion into the troubled genre.

The next few tracks are more typical Hovian creations. "Light Walls" (co-written with Keith West) is a Turbulence-esque number with a diverse array of guitar leads (including the telecaster), and some impressive melodic work. Some country elements remain, though not quite so openly as on the previous track. The semi-strut section in the middle is a highlight. This is followed by the briefer "Mosaic", a more progressive/"grandeur-oriented" selection. The tympanic additions fit the stately guitar lines rather well; a bit of the melody seems to be recycled from "The Inner Battle" (from Turbulence). Both tracks are extremely worthwhile.

Clocking in at over ten minutes, "Suddenly" is obviously intended as the "epic" track of the work. While such extended ventures are fully in keeping with the progressive tradition, however, I can't help but wonder if this one could have been cut back a bit -- the first four or five minutes of the track aren't developed as well as they could be (both Steve and Dylan seem to be playing it too "safe"), and it probably could have been summarized more coherently. The second half of the track is quite good, with echoes of Howe's better solo recordings of recent years making fleeting appearances.

"Country Viper" is a brief country-picking number that compares to "Cactus Boogie" as "Ram" compares to "Clap". If not the most original recording of Howe's career, however, it's still pretty impressive, with Dylan making up for his lapse in the previous track. This is followed by "Mainland", the introduction of which strikes me as vaguely similar to "So Bad" (though the rest of the track is entirely different). Not overly distinguishable from the rest of the album in form, its content is nevertheless interesting.

"Knights Of Carmelite" is a high point of the album, a classical- esque (naturally) work featuring some sturdy lead motifs over a fairly gentle backing melody. Quite different, but also a high point, is "Paradox", a track calling to mind the better numbers on Turbulence ("Sensitive Chaos" comes to mind, in particular). The diverse guitar settings work incredibly well on this song, perhaps the best on the album.

"Momenta" is a Spanish guitar feature, with strong and fairly authentic playing from both Steve and Dylan. The following track, "Sleep Walk", is a decent cover of the Santo & Johnny standard, with Steve handling the Pacific/soul influences of the track rather well. In keeping with the eclectic nature of the nature, this cover is then followed by "Sovereigns", which features a "Mood For A Day"-esque introduction leading into a seering electric section.

"Totality", one of the more "rock"-centred tracks on the album, thankfully avoids descending into heavy-without-a-cause riffage, and comes up with some solid playing in a fairly heavy style. "Solid Ground" is a somewhat more ambiguous piece -- similar to the material on Turbulence, this track doesn't distinguish itself in terms of form (and constitutes a minor drop in quality in any event).

"The Great Siege", as the image of the title may suggest, combines a semi-classical guitar introduction with expansive electric chords, and is a fairly impressive number as such. This is followed, somewhat appropriately, by "Cacti Garden" [could the title be indicative of a personal hobby on Howe's part, we innocently wonder?], which begins with a semi-apprehensive folkish melody, and soon develops into a more typically Hovian primary section. Both works are worthwhile.

The final track on the album may strike come serious collectors as rather familiar -- and with good reason. "Southern Accent" is an instrumental arrangement of "God With A Southern Accent", one of the works prepared for the second Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album (which, of course, was never completed). The Telecaster provides the lead melody for this rendition, which compares favourably with the original. Some might note the appropriate "twang" in the chorus tone. Whether or not Dylan plays on this version isn't entirely clear, given that the instrumental backing seems directly transposed from the original -- one way or the other, though, this seems an appropriate way to end the album.

Quantum Guitar deserves more attention than it has received. Recommended for serious Yes and Howe fans.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 31 Jan 1999)

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