Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 16: Keys to Ascension (1996).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"If what Yes is, is a progressive rock band, then starting an album and looking back to Close to the Edge, or even 90125, and saying, 'That was great. We should remember to put some of that into it,' I think then you've got to call it regressive rock as opposed to progressive rock, because you're going backwards."
-- Trevor Rabin, Yes Magazine (1994)

Keys to Ascension
CMC International 1996
Rating: ***
Produced by Yes
Engineered and co-produced by Tom Fletcher
Cover and logos by Roger Dean
Assistant engineers: Kevin Dickey, Zang Angelfire

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, bass, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Rick Wakeman: keyboards
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Studio tracks (standouts in bold):
Be the One:
a. The One
b. Humankind
c. Skates
That, That Is:
a. Togetherness
b. Crossfire
c. The Giving Things
d. That Is
e. All in All
f. How Did Heaven Begin
g. Agree to Agree

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It turns out that the Big Generator line "break high, let go" did carry some meaning after all, as Trevor Rabin quit while he was ahead and bowed out from Yes following Talk, his greatest artistic achievement with the band. Tony Kaye followed Rabin out the door, originally planning to work behind the scenes in Yes management but instead leaving the music business altogether.

That left Yes short two members, following an album and a tour that fell far short of sales expectations and a record company that went out of business. This band that once ruled the rock world in the 1970s suddenly saw itself being greatly humbled. Something drastic would be necessary to keep the band alive.

Something like resurrecting one of the "classic" '70s lineups: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Alan White, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe.

But how would the fans respond to yet another playing of the reunion card, following ABWH in 1989 and the Union tour of less than five years previous? To their credit, Yes managed to reach their remaining core audience and notify them, in part via the Internet, of a trio of reunion shows to be played in San Luis Obispo, California, in March 1996. This would allow Yes to test the waters for a full-scale reunion.

The band went for broke and wheeled out the epics: "Close to the Edge," "Awaken," "The Revealing Science of God." Of course there were the old warhorses like "Roundabout," "I've Seen All Good People," "And You and I," and "Siberian Khatru." And there were even a few surprises, like "Turn of the Century," "America," and a reworked version of "Onward." Although the SLO performances revealed a band that needed to shake off some rust, the fans welcomed the reunited Yes with open arms. The next order of business, then, would be to assemble a few new studio tracks to signal to the world that "classic" Yes was indeed back to stay.

Beginning a relationship with a series of small, DIY-style independent record labels, Yes presented its fans a two-CD set called Keys to Ascension. The first disc and nearly half of the second one showcased highlights from the SLO concerts, with some heavy studio overdubs to clean up the gaffes, according to some who heard the flubs at the original shows. But what's of greater interest here is what Yes chose to make as their statement of moving forward: outside, another Roger Dean landscape, and inside, two new tracks, one of which propels them directly back into the 1970s.

The offender in question is "That, That Is," an ambitious 19-minute epic that starts off promisingly enough but ends with the feeling that we've somehow been sold a bill of goods, for this isn't really a modern-day Yes epic but rather bits of shorter songs intentionally made to sound like '70s Yes and tied together and artificially stretched out, in the forgettable spirit of Topographic Oceans. Let's take a look at what we have here: First, some dreamy Wakeman synth lines lead into Howe ruminating on acoustic guitar, in the classical spirit of "Mood for a Day." Very nice so far. Wakeman then returns with a gentle, unobtrusive accompaniment, followed by some simple lines from Squire. But while this is all very pleasant, it's like the Energizer bunny -- it just keeps going and going and going, without any kind of substantial thematic development. Finally, at a little past the 3:00 mark, White enters to break the monotony with some soft, uptempo tapping on his snare drum, signaling a shift in the music to come. But it takes almost another 30 seconds before anything happens, and at that point we finally hear the new theme emerging, and it's well overdue, as Howe's beaten-to-death guitar line dissolves under a rhythmic chant from Anderson, which locks into a groove with White's insistent pattern, which itself has now grown from gentle taps into muted rimshots. And now this bit goes on interminably, until at 4:20, White moves from snare down through his tomtoms, signaling the overdue end of what amounts to an introduction of the introduction.

Now, finally, we're getting somewhere! Moving along briskly at about 120 bpm, Squire enters with a snakelike bassline built around a 16th-note pattern. Yes! The Squire of old is back, once again playing his bass like a lead guitar and no longer limiting himself to simply playing root chords under lead-guitar-dominated compositions. Indeed, the "democratic" Yes of the band's heyday, in which all the instruments share an equal voice, seems to be back in all its glory. Howe enters to double this line, but then things start to fall apart all over again, just when we thought they were improving.

First, Wakeman adds an incredibly cheesy-sounding synthesizer punctuation that sounds uncannily like someone tooting the horn on a Yugo. And then Anderson lets loose with his first verse. Hoo boy. Well, this is a "hip" Jon Anderson once again, and we all know how foolish our cosmic visionary sounds when he tries to tackle concrete issues. This time around, instead of harpooning whales, the subject is gang life, drugs, drive-by shootings, and crack babies. Yes, that's right -- against a (mostly) lovely backdrop of intense otherworldly "classic" Yes music, we get Anderson, probably unintentionally, in a completely contradictory role, taking a cosmic landscape and making it entirely late-20th-century earthbound, ignoring the reality that the best Yes music is timeless rather than timely, and that the best Yes songs are those in which the lyrics don't draw attention to themselves. We're introduced to two main characters, Julie and Shirley, the latter of whom, we're told, is "strung out on crack time." Huh? I've heard of Miller time, but what the heck is "crack time"?

Well, these embarrassingly "relevant" lyrics lumber on until the 7:00 mark, the only thing making them bearable being Squire's sinewy bass line and White's accompanying drumbeat. At that point, the bottom drops out and we revisit the interminable guitar theme from the introduction while Anderson sings some more hopelessly clumsy lines over the top. And we wait and wait, until, at 8:42, a new direction! Okay, so where are we going this time? We're in a slow-cooking, almost funky kind of mood, but Anderson is still trying to be relevant -- "that talk is just a worry and a worry in a man/That life is just is just a worrying and getting in a mess/That deal is just awakening..." Well, you get the idea. A musical theme tries to develop but never gets off the ground, and before we know it, we make a clumsy transition into another classical-sounding section led off by Wakeman's piano, where the lyrics are a little more bearable but the music once again tries to branch off and expand into new venues but seems to always get dragged back down to the original idea. In Topographic Oceans style, the boys seem to have thrown in every musical idea they could think of, regardless of whether the themes are properly developed, whether they go anywhere, whether they flow well from one to the other, or whether they're overdone.

After all this, we go back yet again to the introductory guitar, and this time we also revisit White's pounding rhythm and Anderson's chant, and then...that wonderful bass line again! OK, so maybe the coda will help redeem the rest of what came before it, right? Well, it again goes on just way too long, for no more than is being stated musically. Howe and Wakeman simply trade off a series of flat, uninspired licks, before Anderson returns for more talk about -- *sigh* -- gang lords, and we finally wrap up with an ending that's ripped right from the pages of Tormato.

Can anything save this contrived, disorganized mess of '70s redux? Well, yes. The other new track, "Be the One," is yet another testament to the power of the old KISS Principle that made "Shoot High Aim Low" and a few other unfettered Yes moments through the years so enjoyable. Quite simply, "Be the One" is one of the finest Yes moments post-Drama and certainly one of the band's brightest spots after the crowning YesWest glory of "Endless Dream."

"Be the One" opens in regal form, with Howe's chiming notes bringing to mind a host of trumpets proclaiming the entrance of a king into the court. An effective transition with Squire on piccolo bass (Howe doubled on conventional bass guitar for this piece) leads into a simple, focused, uncluttered arrangement, with plenty of breathing space and soaring vocal melodies and harmonies that find Anderson in more familiar territory, singing of the power of "the gift of love." "I'll be there to bring you this love in the morning/I'll be there to bring you the stars at night," Anderson sings delicately, and soon we build smoothly to the chorus, where the line "be the one" is interweaved with Anderson's simple but memorable statements of hope and determination: "Never let the fools destroy your dreams," he says, for "without love our dreams become illusion!" This is absolutely beautiful singing!

All that drags this song down is an unfortunate fast-paced middle section that sounds sorely out of place amidst the beauty of the rest of the piece -- the tone turns harsh and gritty, with Anderson suddenly adopting a forceful persona as he belts out lines about "all this senseless killing, and all these chains and lies," as well as something about "the children of the crucified" being "better off, better dead." Now, this wasn't necessary, just as the hard-rocking bridge in "I Am Waiting" wasn't necessary. It serves only to detract from the lovely romanticism and simple wonderment of the rest of the piece. Ah, but Anderson saves the song by closing it out with singing even more gorgeous than what he offered in the beginning: "Giving into real love/to rescue you, rescue you, rescue you!" he sings, with an emotional, heartfelt passion that rivals anything he's ever done with Yes. Howe wraps things up by returning with some more majestic guitar lines, ending with a high, dramatic trill that launches us flying weightlessly through the air, preparing us for the cooling-off period at the end, where Squire's piccolo bass returns to bring things full circle.

The wonderful thing about this piece is that it's one of the best examples of how fewer, simpler ideas are often more satisfying than a dozen half-baked ideas that have no direction and step on each others' toes -- much like "That, That Is." When I was new to the world of progressive rock, I thought the "best" musicians were the ones with the classical training, the greatest dexterity, and the ability to rip through a series of 64th notes in 27/32 time, but slowly I began to realize that in something as subjective as art (which includes music, of course), the only true barometer for who is the "best" is simply a recognition of which artists touch your heart most deeply. That could be the classically trained speed demon, or it could be someone with no formal training at all who has a limited knowledge of musical structures but who writes, sings, and plays from his heart. Prog-rock musicians, and many of their fans, are notorious for looking down their noses at "lesser" musicians and "simpler" songs, but if they'd listen openly to something like "Be the One," where the emotion not only complements the music but even supersedes it, they may discover a whole new realm of enjoyment. Don't misunderstand, though: A complex piece of music that takes multiple listenings to absorb and dissect and appreciate can indeed be an enjoyable experience ("Close to the Edge" and "The Gates of Delirium" being two shining examples), but so can the immediacy of emotional richness complemented by musical simplicity.

The next album, which saw this same lineup returning to the studio, would serve up a mixture of the simple and complex, with fairly satisfying results.
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