Album review: Yak - Quest for the Stones (2015)
Quest for the Stones
I was one of those who put in a pre-order for Quest for the Stones, Yak’s 2015 follow-up to the sublime Journey of the Yak and despite a last minute hold-up from the CD manufacturer that delayed its delivery to Martin Morgan, keyboard player and keeper of the Yak flame, it duly arrived in the same week as promised.
How could I not like Yak? This is keyboard-led instrumental progressive rock par excellence that references Tolkien and CS Lewis and has been endorsed by Steve Hackett. I first saw adverts for Journey of the Yak in early editions of Prog magazine and ordered my copy after hearing portions of a couple of selections from the yaksongs.com website, donating £10 to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in return for the CD (a second pressing dated November 2009) and then spreading the word as best I could, buying a copy for one of my brothers and encouraging friends to give them a listen.
The trio of Morgan, Dave Speight (drums) and Gary Bennett (bass) produce a melodic blend of prog that occupies the same territory as Steve Hackett, Genesis just before the departure of Hackett, Camel and Danger Money conformation UK. To anyone who hasn’t heard any Yak, suggesting that a keyboard trio sounds like Steve Hackett may appear far-fetched but Morgan employs a synthesizer patch that genuinely sounds like Hackett’s portamento guitar.
Quest for the Stones carries on where Journey of the Yak left off though the six longish tracks that featured on Journey have been replaced by two long-form compositions, Quest for the Stones at a couple of seconds short of 24 minutes, and Veil of Aeternum which lasts over 19 minutes. Veil of Aeternum is a play on words on Aeternum vale (Latin: farewell forever) There is a very strong stylistic link between the two albums and the music on Quest is instantly recognisable as being Yak. The blend of old and new keyboard technology gives some haunting Mellotron sounds and some classic synth and organ tones; there’s slightly less organ on the new album but the technique and attack still remind me of Eddie Jobson. The inclusion of more piano together with the cover artwork, give an overall feel of a piece of late 19th Century or early 20th Century Romantic music, quintessentially English, where melodic motifs line up in succession and the pastoral impression is further bolstered by natural sounds at the end of the title track.
Although there aren’t many quiet interludes, variation comes through multiple changes of tempo and there are even a couple of passages in 7/4 time. Morgan adds keyboard saxophone to his sonic armoury and Gary Bennett, who is solid and mostly understated throughout, adds some funky bass lines. It goes without saying that the drumming of Dave Speight, former band mate of Enid alumnus Nick May in symphonic prog outfit Whimwise, is absolutely perfect so it comes across as a bit of a surprise that the three musicians only get together for a few days once every six years or so to record an album!
The title track on the new release revisits another familiar Yak theme, and this is another reason why they’re my kind of band: ley lines. There’s a Yak live jam from October 2005 called Does Your Yak Bite? which includes the piece Leylines of Yak; the sleeve notes for the new album refer to finding a significant monolith, the Easedale Yakstone in Langdale.
There’s yet another association between the live jam CD and Quest for the Stones that relates to the rather exquisite pre-Raphaelite style cover painting by Laura Knight that depicts an Arthurian hero on a quest for The Stones astride his trusty yak where close by, hiding behind a tree, is a strange, stripy rabbit-like creature. This is Tog from the BBC children’s series Pogles’ Wood made by Oliver Postgate’s Smallfilms between 1966 and 1968. Tog, formerly a stuffed toy brought to life by magic in a battle to defeat the Witch (a character who appears in series forerunner The Pogles), is given a credit on the back of the CD for co-owning the copyright to the recording; Does Your Yak Bite? includes a track called The Battle of Pogles Wood.
The sense of humour displayed in the sleeve notes has historic precedence. Prog bands may have been derided for being serious about their music but Pythonesque absurdity made its way onto releases by bands like Hatfield and the North, and Michael Palin actually wrote the back sleeve notes for Do They Hurt? by Brand X. Take note, NME, humour and serious musicianship are not mutually exclusive.
The excellent, bucolic Quest for the Stones can be obtained from the Yak website www.yaksongs.com and, like that for its predecessor (which can still be bought from the website) the purchase is actually a donation to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary. If you love melodic, instrumental prog featuring lots of keyboards, I’d recommend you make that donation: you get a brilliant album in return.