Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 17: Keys to Ascension 2 (1997).

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.


"I had to make some decisions in my life, and I felt Yes had gone as far as it could go."
-- Rick Wakeman, from Chris Welch's Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes (1999)

Keys to Ascension 2
Purple Pyramid 1997
Rating: *** 1/2
Produced by Yes and Billy Sherwood
Cover and logos by Roger Dean
Engineer: Billy Sherwood

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

Studio tracks (standouts in bold):
Mind Drive
Foot Prints
Bring Me to the Power
Children of Light:
a. Children of Light
b. Lifeline

Sign Language

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Rick Wakeman in particular seemed enthusiastic about the first full album of new music from "classic" Yes in 19 years. But by the time Keys to Ascension 2 was released, it was Wakeman who would once again walk away from the band, disillusioned.

The dissent in the ranks began with the title and marketing of this project. Wakeman was keen on selling the new studio album on its own, under a new title to distinguish it from the first Keys project -- Know was the name being tossed around at one point. But that idea was scrapped in favor of another double album, Keys to Ascension 2, which would feature Roger Dean cover art that was very similar to that of the first Keys set (in fact, the actual CD covers, inside the outer cardboard slipcovers, are virtually identical), as well as a similar musical format: live cuts from the SLO shows combined with new studio material.

Having a whole CD worth of new music concealed in a package with a live disc of greatest hits material, which was similar in look and in title to the set released just one year earlier, certainly couldn't have helped the sales of Keys 2. And it's a shame, because the new music, though clearly retro-'70s in style, made for an enjoyable listen.

Even the new studio material starts out in a style that makes you wonder if you're listening to the first Keys disc again: As on "That, That Is," the 18-minute "Mind Drive" kicks off with atmospheric synthesizers and a delicate acoustic guitar meandering about for the first few minutes of the piece. But then "Mind Drive" establishes its own personality, as Chris Squire introduces a trebly one-note riff in 7/8 that has been compared both to "Mars, the Bringer of War" and Genesis' "Watcher of the Skies." Actually, the riff originated during the failed 1982 "XYZ" sessions, when Squire and Alan White teamed up with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page in an attempt to form a new band. White already had used this riff as the basis for his drum duet with Bill Bruford on the 1991 Union tour.

As White enters the proceedings on "Mind Drive," Squire drops an octave, Wakeman adds punctuation to the charging rhythm, and Steve Howe ruminates over the top of it all with a long electric solo -- and, notably, the first one in which Howe begins his current trend of sounding very lifeless and forced. It's as if every note from his guitar is something we've heard before, only we've heard it done better, and more fluidly and with more spontaneity, in the past. Howe's style was always brittle and a little sloppy, but beginning with Keys 2, one is left with the impression that his once notable skills were beginning to slip.

Still, the band charges along impressively, with a xylophone now joining the rhythm, and the tension builds until White's drums lead us at the 4:00 mark blazing into Jon Anderson's opening stanza, sung with a confident force against the still-driving 7/8 rhythm. The lyrics themselves? A more comfortable area between nonsense sound poetry and vague interpretation ability, thank you. Anderson once said the song has something to do with advancing technology (possibly artificial intelligence or virtual reality?), but as with all the finest Yes lyrical moments, the words become just another instrument in the band, with their lack of immediate meaning keeping them from distracting us away from the music lying beneath it.

After the 5:00 mark, the band powers down and begins alternating between two sections for just a little bit too long, given that neither one ever really develops but simply keeps falling back on the other for support. This potentially endless cycle -- a gentle acoustic section with pleasant follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics followed by a plodding electronic section, and then back to section 1 -- is eventually changed only by a modulation into a new acoustic-guitar lick that has a bit of a Spanish flavor mixed in with echoes of the song's opening section. A darker scene is set as Anderson returns with a distant, plaintive intensity to his voice. Afterwards, Squire joins Howe, and the two of them lead into a new, hurried pace, established by a syncopated 16th-note pattern on hi-hat. This new urgency set against the juxtaposition of a gentle, quiet, acoustic guitar gives way with a splash to a frenzied synthesizer break, backed by bass and drums, and then joined by a very unfortunate solo by Howe that sounds extremely sloppy and brittle, as the guitarist trips over a brisk fingerboard run, misses beats, and slurs notes. But again, the rest of the band saves the day, as a series of strong triplets hurl us back toward...

...the second of the alternating passages we had before the middle break, leading after a full stop into the first passage, which itself leads back into a softer version of the second passage, which Anderson closes out with the words "entering the mind drive." And with that, the initial 7/8 riff returns with all its intensity. Howe's labored chicken squawks are almost painful to listen to, but his soloing is put out of its misery soon enough with Anderson's return, singing the same lines as he did at the beginning of the song. When he drops out, the band launches into a three-minute instrumental coda.

Now this is where the fun begins. These last three minutes kick some serious butt -- Yes definitely saved the best for last. Even Howe sounds uncharacteristically powerful here, with a haunting, hard, wailing sound reminiscent of Mike Rutherford's work in late-'70s/early-'80s Genesis. White is brilliant, popping his snare drum, pounding a cymbal bell and smashing into his sizzle cymbal, as Squire alternates octaves with that insistent marching groove. Suddenly everybody launches into the main 7/8 riff in unison with him, playing it four times before Wakeman takes the reins with a wild pitch-bending solo. And then...oh my, and then, into a sustained series of in-your-face, fist-pounding, sucker-punching power chords that would have sounded right at home on any of the harder-rocking moments of the YesWest albums. Yeah! Rarely has "classic" Yes shown this kind of piledriving intensity -- there is absolutely nothing subtle about this musical moment, and it's simply wonderful to hear.

But then we stumble across a rather rough transition -- a singular chord hit four times in succession by Howe -- which propels the whole band into 4/4 overdrive, with Wakeman again taking the lead on a synth solo that sounds like something taken from Topographic Oceans (one of the enjoyable moments, that is). But...again, just as we're settling into the groove, the landscape changes yet another time. In this case, it sounds as though someone has pulled the power supply, and the sound melts away, oozing slower and lower as a gong splashes in the distance. And then, an eerie, echo-laden Wakeman line subtly grabs us and takes us back with it into the blackness as it fades away. Wow. If only the whole song had shown this kind of creativity and fire -- the last three minutes alone are enough to drain you!

Next up is an even brighter spot on the album -- mainly because it's more consistently entertaining all the way through: "Foot Prints." This one opens with an a cappella sction that recalls those on "I've Seen All Good People" and "Leave It," although the harmonies here are nowhere near as bright and impressive as they were during the YesWest years -- Howe's voice is simply no match for Trevor Rabin's, and anyone who's heard him try to sing lead can attest to that. Anyway, after the opening line is sung and repeated, Squire steals the show, establishing a happy, bouncy, airy mood that will prevail through the entire nine minutes, calling to mind the innocent spring-in-your-step joy of "Sweet Dreams," from 1970's Time and a Word. The opening vocal line is again restated against this musical backdrop, and then we head into the song proper, where Anderson sings clearly above the bouncing bass, crisp drums, and effective organ fills from Wakeman -- notably a descending line above which Anderson happily tells us, "Never let the grass grow over your soul/Only time will tell/Leave good footprints behind." Then Squire introduces another upbeat theme in 5/4 above which a surprisingly good vocal harmony (for this lineup, that is) sends us skipping into a couple of bright instrumental breaks -- first, a double-tracked steel guitar run by Howe (he still excels on steel and acoustic, without a doubt), then a tasty run by Wakeman, and then a Brian May-style double-tracked lead guitar line from Howe, before the harmony vocals re-enter, followed by (once again) the simple but awe-filled opening lines of the song: "My eyes see the coming revolution/My eyes see the glory of the world."

At this point we get to the only part of the song that's a bit overlong -- a series of start-stop rhythms that probably should have ended a few bars before it did. At any rate, we then get kicked back into the 5/4 section and some more notable solos from Wakeman on synth and Howe on steel guitar before the trio of singers breaks into a slow burst of emphatic triplets: "Don't-for-get-to-leave-good footprints behind!" The music stops briefly, and out of the quiet comes a soft acoustic guitar, joined by a delicate synth line, a harmonica, a mandolin, and White's merrily tumbling drums, and before we know it, Wakeman shuts everything down on an upbeat note. And that's it! Just like that, nine very enjoyable minutes go whizzing by your ears.

The rest is a mixed bag: "Bring Me to the Power" is the most straightforward pop tune on the album, opening after some Howe harmonics with a punchy power chord (nowhere near as breathtaking as the ones at the end of "Mind Drive," though). But, aside from a couple of great funky bass-driven grooves in mid-song (and some quick vocal lines that sound uncannily like Trevor Rabin, of all things), there's just not enough material here to hold up the piece for its 7 1/2 minutes -- the Topographic syndrome strikes again. Nobody needs to hear Anderson sing "cover me up and bring me to the power" as many times as he sings it here.

"Children of Light" is another of Anderson's goofy stabs at social relevance ("equal rights for equal people"), although the second half is a perfectly lovely array of moody, floating atmospherics in the spirit of vintage Yes. And the closing piece is a throwaway -- an instrumental titled "Sign Language" that starts as a call-and-response between Howe and Wakeman and sounds like a cross between modern-day Pink Floyd and the "Happy Holidays from Budweiser" commercial before things get really bad, with new-agey faux strings and harps. Howe doesn't get off the hook either, as he seems to reckon himself here as a cross between Wes Montgomery, Peter Banks, and Robert Fripp and doing them all very badly, with a cold, harsh stiffness to his playing that almost leaves you feeling sorry for the guy.

In summary, then, Keys 2 is a '70s-retro album and doesn't even try to conceal that it is -- but it's good retro, for what it's worth. Personally speaking, if I want '70s Yes, I'm more inclined to just go and pull out an actual '70s Yes album, but this will do when I want a change of pace.

As for the sales, well, it still didn't set the world on fire. If there had been a tour to back the new material, maybe both of the Keys albums would have done a little better than they did. But plans for a tour were put on hold after Wakeman left yet again. With his history of health problems, and several commitments to his solo work and his private record label, he wasn't especially keen on touring anyway, and that, combined with some shady management deals that ultimately left Wakeman out in the cold, culminated in a situation in which Yes and Wakeman simply couldn't work together any longer. The rest of the band seems to have exacted its revenge on him for leaving by wiping out his extended introduction to "Children of Light," a piece that Wakeman had raved about in at least one interview prior to the album's release. In 2001, that introduction -- a short and rather unspectacular synthesizer rumination that sets up the song's primary musical theme -- was restored to the song and released on Keystudio, a single-CD compilation of all the studio tracks from both Keys albums.

Now, with one of its key '70s members missing, promoting the return of "classic" Yes was going to be even tougher. But the band was eager to get on the road and re-establish a name for itself if that was still possible. The first order of business would be to find a replacement, and the second agenda item would be to put out an album of all-new fresh material on which to tour, at management's prodding. Yes has had a history of letting managers and record companies push them around and compromise their music, and the following album, sadly, would be no exception, as it was ultimately done for all the wrong reasons.
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