Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 19: The Ladder (1999).

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.


"...There was no keyboard player around (during Open Your Eyes). ... So, Jon pulled out a tape of a keyboard player, Igor Khoroshev, this young guy who sent him a tape years ago. ... After that process, then touring that album, we became friends, and he became musically cohesive with the band. We knew, let's just go write an album with the six of us and see what happens, and we came up with The Ladder."
-- Billy Sherwood, Music Street Journal (2000)

"I'm enjoying this particular incarnation of the band. ... I think we have to thank Billy Sherwood. ... He's brought a lot of enthusiasm with him and encouraged us to write new songs. A lot of the energy comes from him."
-- Chris Squire, Innerviews (1998)

"Personally, I would be thrilled if we could deliver Close To The Edge -- The Sequel, but I think this is no longer possible. The Yes AlbumFragile, and Close To The Edge are the result of a very close collaboration of people who were much younger than they are today, of people who had a huge ambition. ... It would no longer have the chemistry like we used to have. That's a fact we have to live with."
-- Steve Howe, Progressive World (1999)

The Ladder
Beyond 1999
Rating: ***
Best song: "Homeworld (The Ladder)"
Produced by Bruce Fairbairn
Cover and logo by Roger Dean
Engineer: Mike Plotnikoff
Second engineer: Paul Silveira
Horns by Tom Keenlyside, Derry Burns, Rod Murray, Tom Colclough, Neil Nicholson
World instruments by Randy Raine-Reusch
Dance loops by Rhys Fulber

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Billy Sherwood: guitars, vocals
Igor Khoroshev: keyboards, vocals
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Homeworld (The Ladder)
It Will Be a Good Day (The River)

Lightning Strikes
Can I?
Face to Face
If Only You Knew

To Be Alive (Hep Yadda)
The Messenger
New Language
Nine Voices (Longwalker)

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

It's hard to know what to make of this album. To its credit, it presents a fresh Yes sound that is really neither "Trooper" not "Generator." One track is brilliant; a few others are very good. And overall, it was probably the most collaborative band effort since Drama, with every other Yes album since that time never quite having been made equally by all the members, from a clean slate, in a single setting -- traits that marked all the band's "classic" albums. (Yes, even as a huge fan of Talk, I'm admitting this.) Yet there is a downside to The Ladder as well: Sometimes it sounds more like a Jon Anderson solo album, at other times it's just dull and lifeless, and in its worst moments it rips off the band's own history. No doubt thanks to high-profile producer Bruce Fairbairn (who, sadly, died during the recording of the album), The Ladder has a pronounced laid-back, smooth, polished, and almost "hip" feeling to it, sounding so adult-contemporary in overall style (even on the "progressive" tracks) that one could be excused for thinking that the whole album was tailored toward the VH1 nostalgia scene. In all candor, it's even more nostalgiac than the Keys to Ascension albums, because while the Keys discs strongly referenced the spirit of '70s Yes, many parts of The Ladder blatantly recycle Yes's own '70s work lock, stock, and barrel and just repackage it. Hardcore fans have pointed out a bass line on "New Language" that's lifted directly from "Roundabout," while "Nine Voices" regurgitates "Your Move," and "Can I?" is"We Have Heaven," with some really embarrassing scatting thrown in and the tempo slown down.

Nonetheless, upon its release, The Ladder was met with great anticipation as a first listen to the new lineup of the band that had been touring together since 1997 but never had the opportunity to work on an entire album from scratch in the studio. Billy Sherwood still hadn't shown what he was capable of doing (Open Your Eyes was certainly not indicative of his abilities), and Igor Khoroshev held great promise as the new keyboardist.

For most of its first half-hour, the album doesn't disappoint. But what's interesting is that it seems the best ideas on The Ladder do indeed originate from the new kids on the block -- Sherwood and Khoroshev. After taking a listen to Sherwood's excellent 1998 solo album The Big Peace, one can immediately hear his songwriting stamp all over The Ladder's opening, and best, song, "Homeworld." Here he proves he's able to compose within the framework of the "classic" Yes formula and move it forward with exciting new ideas. His strength in the band was unquestionably as a songwriter and, possibly, even as an arranger, for even though he may not have made a noticeably audible statement through anything but his effective backing vocals, he did have a knack for blending traditional progressive-rock song structures with modern-rock sensibilities. Meanwhile, Khoroshev quietly goes about his work on the album, sounding very much like Rick Wakeman in spots, but with an added bonus -- Khoroshev knows when to solo and when to back off and be an accompanist. What's more, he masterfully blends classical grace and beauty with traditional prog-rock keyboard sounds and styles, and also with contemporary -- and highly danceable -- synth-pop. Rivaled only by Sherwood, his contributions seemed to go the furthest on this album toward trying to keep Yes relevant and up-to-date.

At the same time, however, it was clear that not every member of the band even wanted Yes to be relevant and up-to-date. In addition to the blatant '70s repackagings in the music, we see that Roger Dean has returned to paint the album cover. This wouldn't be so bad, except that it's yet another one of his now-generic molten-rock landscapes on yet another blue background that does nothing to set this album apart from other recent ones featuring his artwork. If not for the "block" Yes logo replacing the "classic" logo at the top, you wouldn't know at a quick glance that this wasn't one of the Keys to Ascension albums. As for the band itself, Steve Howe proclaimed in interviews at the time that this album had to be successful in order for Yes to survive, which seemed to be his way of justifying the more accessible style of The Ladder. However, his heart is stuck in the '70s, as he seems to be the only reason Dean is kept around (Howe is good friends with Dean), and of course he has always been quick to let people know whether he deems the music Yes is creating to be really Yes music -- read, long-form '70s redux -- or not. In fact, it was quite amusing at the time to see Howe backpedaling and trying to justify the new direction being taken on The Ladder after slamming so many previous Yes albums as being "not Yes" if they were too pop-oriented and/or didn't feature him on guitar. So, who else in the band seems stuck in the past? Well, Jon Anderson's aforementioned vocal collage "Can I?" (a title that begs the question, "did you have to?") kind of speaks for itself.

Chris Squire seems to be somewhere in between, never missing a chance on The Ladder to stroll down memory lane but still coming up with fresh ideas on his bass and also apparently hungry for a return to rock superstardom that he briefly enjoyed in the wake of "Owner of a Lonely Heart." And to his credit, he has also, in at least one interview, questioned the wisdom of continuing to use Dean for the album covers.

And then we have Alan White. Alan White is Alan White -- he's the Yes diplomat who seems to merrily go along with what everyone else wants to do.

So out of this mixed bag of goodies we get The Ladder, which is somewhat similar to Talk in its approach in that it seems to be trying to please fans of both the "Trooper" and "Generator" eras. The difference between the two albums' approaches, however, is that while Talk actually melded the style of both eras into single song structures, The Ladderalternates between pure adult-contemporary pop tunes ("If Only You Knew," "It Will Be a Good Day") and "progressive" compositions ("Homeworld," "New Language"), with not a whole lot of middle ground. The intention in this approach, at least in this album's case and judging by Howe's "Yes must succeed" proclamation, was certainly to try to get the band noticed again on the popular scene.

Of course, that didn't happen. Not Fairbairn, not a tie-in with a video game, not a free concert on satellite TV, not a concert DVD, not even a two-CD live collection from the tour bumped the disappointing sales of this album. But that doesn't mean this album is disposable by any means. On the "pop" side, "Face to Face" deftly acknowledges modern dance-rock trends, even if it does sound more like Starcastle, a '70s Yes ripoff band, than it sounds like Yes itself; "It Will Be a Good Day" is prime soft-rock-radio fare; and "If Only You Knew" is an unabashed VH1-ready adult contemporary ballad that's actually very pleasant, thanks to some subtle steel-guitar embellishments and Anderson's often moving vocal performance. "Lightning Strikes" is good fun, too, with the opening flute doodles (presumably played on a Mellotron) followed by a short bossa nova groove recalling the whimsy of the jarring horn blasts from "Owner of a Lonely Heart." The song continues with Howe playing a jangly 7/4 acoustic-guitar rhythm to set the stage for a joyous African-township atmosphere that begs comparison to Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al."

And for the diehard proggers, we have two mini-epics: the marvelous "Homeworld," which takes the traditional expansive, adventurous, exploratory fashion of vintage Yes music and propels it into the future, with colorful instrumentation and great harmony vocals (all six members sing on this album!); and the disappointing "New Language," which tries to do the same thing, and even has a creative, energetic introduction (with a high-octane organ solo by Khoroshev) to build up our hopes, but it ultimately loses its way, suffering from the dreaded Topographic syndrome of sounding like a forced, overly long, unfocused collection of aimless noodling, unrelated ideas, and failed attempts to be cute.

The rest of the album just sort of sits there, lacking in anything that makes you sit up and take notice and compels you to want to listen to it again. None of the music on The Ladder is offensively bad, as opposed to much of Open Your Eyes; it's just that a lot of it seems flat and uninspired, sounding like a band that's going through the motions of being Yes, rather than challenging each other to bring out the best in each musician -- which also was a defining trait of every great album from the "classic" era.

Even the duller moments are bearable, if nothing else, but there certainly are plenty of offerings here that could just as easily been left on the cutting-room floor without detracting from the finished product. In fact, without three or four tracks seriously dragging things down, I would give this album a higher rating than I did. But, in the age of 74-minute CDs, bands seem to feel compelled to tack on pointless filler that would have had to be sacrificed in the days of LPs.

The other problems, of course, revolve around Anderson and Howe's nostalgiac mindset. And musically, White is very disappointing through most of the album. He doesn't move much past very pedestrian drumbeats that any computer could have churned out. It sounds as though he's on autopilot through most of this recording.

But at least he's in better musical shape than Howe, whose talents have been eroding for several years, which everybody but Howe seems to notice. In fact, one of those unintentionally funny Yes moments crops up on "Face to Face," where Anderson chimes in with an exuberant "C'mon, Steve" before Howe breaks into a remarkably forced, lifeless solo that sounds as if he's struggling with all his might to release each note from his guitar -- in this context, it's almost as if Anderson isn't encouraging Howe so much as he is begging him to play something fresh and fluid. It's tempting to have pity on the guy, except that he's such an insufferable prima donna -- he's never been one to be associated with the concept of humility, but in recent years he seems to have become a true legend in his own mind...sort of the Deion Sanders of rock music. In addition to shooshing and snapping at audience members from the stage while he ruminates on his self-important solos (I've witnessed this myself), a legendary burst of obscenity at a light operator during a soundcheck, a refusal to shake hands (according to Peter Banks, who says he endorses the policy in Howe's case), and an unwillingness to play any other Yes guitarist's parts, he has also said openly that he didn't like sharing the guitar spotlight with Sherwood -- onstage or in the studio -- when Sherwood already had been handcuffed into playing rhythm guitar on the album and could take a solo onstage only during the Rabin songs, which Howe won't, and in actuality probably can't, play. In one interview, Howe went so far as to try to take credit for playing "all the guitars" on The Ladder, and he even made sure we notice all the different kinds of guitars he plays on the album by listing them in the liner notes. All the while, he kept churning out the same old tired ideas from those same old tired guitars, and he couldn't even pull them off as well as he could in the past. The next album, Magnification, finally suggests that maybe he got the hint, and rather than continue to try to play the way he did in his prime, he settles back a little bit, plays like a member of the band rather than a soloist pushing others aside, adds a few new instruments to the repertoire, and even sounds more tasteful and accurate in his playing. But even so, he still remains the band's weakest link, and at the time of The Ladder, his intransigence toward Sherwood was reportedly a factor in Sherwood's decision to leave the band after the ensuing tour was finished.

At least Squire still showed a creative spark among the band's "old guard" on this album. His lead-guitar-playing style still resonates, as he continued to push forward and simply sounds like he was having a ball coming up with his invigorating lines on "Face to Face," "Lightning Strikes," and the otherwise forgettable "The Messenger" -- a wickedly sinewy line on that last one to boot.

The vocal harmonies here were vastly improved over those on recent Yes albums as well, thanks in part to the addition of Sherwood and Khoroshev's voices, as well as Fairbairn's expertise, which no doubt was what helped give every voice a chance to breathe rather than be crowded out.

Fairbairn told the members of Yes when he began working with them to simply make the best Yes album possible. In truth, the band probably could have done much better than this, for although many of the songs here are indeed interesting, it's hard to consider any of them timeless Yes classics, outside of "Homeworld." Given that the album didn't propel Yes back into stardom, as seemed to be the hope, it didn't seem likely that the band would make another album that chased mainstream acclaim and radio play, as The Ladder did.

And they didn' least not with their next release. But in the meantime, it appeared that the band's immediate response to the lack of Ladder success was to jump back on the retro bandwagon, offering nothing in the way of new ideas. The "Masterworks" tour, performed after Sherwood's departure, focused entirely on the mid-'70s Yes catalog, the setlist allegedly having been based on fans' song requests taken from a poll at Yesworld. Even "Owner of a Lonely Heart" was nowhere to be heard on the tour. Interviews at the time suggested that Anderson and Howe in particular wanted to move Yes back into the "classic Yes" vein of songwriting displayed in "Masterworks" classics such as "Close to the Edge" and "The Gates of Delirium," while Squire didn't seem to be quite sold on the idea. Squire's collaboration with Sherwood on the Conspiracy album, in fact, shows where Yes's recent commercial leanings had found their base. But it was clear that chasing hit singles hadn't brought Yes back into the public spotlight, and the Yesworld poll emphatically showed that Yes's remaining fan base wasn't interested in seeing the band continuing to move in that direction anyway. Although a Yes that is purely retro-'70s, a la Keys to Ascension 2, wouldn't say much in the way of true progessiveness, it seemed to be the only way Yes could hold on to its core base of fans as the band headed into the twilight of its career. Fans could only hope that the music would be done only in the style of "classic" Yes, rather than as a pure rehash of old ideas, as heard on many portions of The Ladder.

But as it turned out, Yes would surprise everyone by not chasing hits and not going purely retro. After the "Masterworks" tour, Yes conducted another poll at Yesworld to see whether fans would like to see the band work with an orchestra. Although the poll result was far from a resounding "yes," the band went ahead and embarked on a tour utilizing local orchestral groups in the towns they visited, performing orchestrated versions of many old Yes classics but also tossing in a few songs from their upcoming album that also would feature an orchestra. It's a safe bet that Yes decided to go this route despite a tepid showing of fan support becuase it needed something to fill the vacant keyboard slot after Khoroshev and the band parted company following the "Masterworks" tour. In effect, then, the orchestra became the keyboardist, even though Yes also brought along a hired gun, Tom Brislin, to handle some of the keyboard duties onstage.

Nobody could have known what to expect from Anderson, Howe, Squire, and White working with an orchestra, other than possessing the knowledge that Yes's last attempt at orchestral collaboration back in 1970 left something to be desired. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that the follow-up to the so-so Ladder project would qualify as a monumental artistic success.
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