Classic Rock Review

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Yes Keys To Ascension (1996)


Finally, not a moment too soon, the ‘prog come back’ movement seems to have reached Yes as well. Quite suddenly, we find out that the Eighties Yes are gone! It’s almost as if 1983 and its weaker follow-ups never existed, along with Rabin, Kaye and Horn. Instead, what we have on this record is the ‘classic’ Yes line-up minus Bruford plus Alan White (and indeed the record could have featured Bruford if he were not busy touring with the ‘double trio’ of King Crimson).

More importantly, they throw away all the unnecessary garbage they’d collected all the way – like electronic drums, heavy metal riffage and cheesy hi-tech synths. Those who threw away all hope that Yes would eventually go back to its roots again, rejoice! This is a three-quarters live album plus two new studio tracks that run for the good old standard Yes running time – respectively, one for nine and the other for nineteen minutes. To be honest with you, though, I’m not as overtly pleased with the album as everybody else is, for my own specific reasons. First of all, whatever you might object, its release was totally predictable.

Everybody with at least a decent sense of the laws of the genre should know that, if Yes were ever to continue (and they were to continue – all the famous bands that work according to the ‘revolving door’ principle are close to immortal), they were bound to return to their roots. Nostalgia sucks people in, you know. Show me a band that exists for more than twenty years and still hasn’t gone back to the source, at least once. So I really wouldn’t run around crying, ‘Hey! Isn’t it a wonder they’re back?’.

Second and worse, the live tracks are utterly dispensable. Oh no, they’re not bad at all, on the contrary, they’re fantastic. Not all are my favourites, of course: I still don’t like some of the bombastic numbers like I didn’t like the originals. ‘Siberian Khatru’ and ‘Awaken’, for one, still don’t do anything for me. And ‘The Revealing Science Of God’ is just as mind-numbing as it was in 1974. But ‘Onward’ never ceased being pretty (and here, in its tasty acoustic rendition, it’s even more pleasant than in the studio version), ‘Roundabout’ never ceased being catchy and rockin’, and ‘Starship Trooper’ never ceased being impressive, especially the ‘Wurm’ coda, of course.

Plus, they do a ten-minute version of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’ (previously only available on the Yesterdays compilation that otherwise featured excerpts of the band’s first two studio albums) that sounds totally great: Steve Howe plays some of the most polished, sharp, crystal clear guitar lines in his career, once again showing us that at heart he’s just an exuberant lightning-speed jazz/boogie ‘shredder’; and the re-interpretation of the song as a whole, from a romantic, sad ballad into a soaring hymn is at the least amusing. Isn’t it? It actually reminds me of the way Yes used to reinterpret all those Beatles and Byrds songs at the beginning of their career… Nostalgia again.

What I really meant to say when I mentioned the word ‘dispensable’ was that most of the songs sound not a bit different from the studio versions. Okay, I don’t claim full responsibility to this phrase: I’m not in the mood to pick up the originals again and to spend a whole day comparing the versions. But even if there are differencies, they’re minimal. There is none of that brilliant spontaneity and improvisation that made Yessongs sound so involving.

My major complaint lies with Steve again: he seemingly hasn’t lost anything, but he just refuses to liven up the atmosphere. Instead, everything is screwed and tightened up to the utmost level, so that at times it’s damn impossible to tell the original from the copy. So who needs this copy? And why? No, I’m not telling you not to buy this – there is a guilty pleasure in collecting such undistinguishable live versions, and the game ‘Find Ten Differences’ is also fun to play. But you know, one could expect more creativity from these guys than the live material actually suggests.

So you understand, of course, that I was really curious about the two new tracks (not that I expected something which I’d fall in love with: if I don’t even like ‘Close To The Edge’, how could I expect to love ‘That That Is’?) Sure enough – they do sound like classic Yes more than anything else since Tales From Topographic Oceans, at least if we judge by the instruments and the atmosphere. The generic Rabin Riffs and the robotic hi-tech synths are gone, replaced by more acoustic guitars and more keyboard diversity from Wakeman (who actually overdubbed his parts after the recording, never playing with the band at all). But there’s just nothing exciting about these tracks – ‘Be The One’ gets duller and duller on every new listen, and ‘That That Is’, even if it does have a beautiful Howe acoustic intro and lots of twists and turns typical for the usual Yes complexity level, is little better.

The instrumental work isn’t stunning – nothing like a ferocious guitar solo or keyboard workout is presented; the riffs are almost non-existent; and the lyrics are in the best tradition of ‘Close To The Edge’ (as in, ‘raving nonsense’). Perhaps, well, I don’t want to be mean, but perhaps they should have started their ‘studio revival’ with a bunch of shorter tracks, don’t you think? Or is it now a general presupposition that the first desire of any Yes fan is a new ten-minute Yes composition? Do five-minute compositions qualify at all?

What this actually means is that the guts are still there but the flame is gone. Get me? They are still able to get together and make up a complex, multi-part composition, but they’re unable to make it come alive, to get it lighted up with the same youthful flame that they shared long ago. Nobody really wants to play this stuff – they seem to think that writing it is enough. Let me just tell you that if their material from the early Seventies had been played with the same level of ‘energy’ and the same carelessness as on the original tracks on Keys To Ascension, no way they’d become the leading stars of progressive rock. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to give the album anything less than an 7 because if this doesn’t get a 7 then what does? A fine effort, lads.

And maybe I forget the ‘psychological’ effect – how does it feel to listen to this after listening to Union? Let us appraise the album for the psychological effect! Okay?

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Yes Keys To Ascension | | Leave a comment