Classic Rock Review

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Yes The Ladder (1999)


Finally! The good balance between the pop and the prog has been found… or has it?

I’m in a good mood today, so that is probably why this album does not offend me in the least.

Actually, at some point I almost ended up giving it an eight, but that would probably cause too much friction between me and ‘classic Yes’ fans, so no way. Anyway, the songs may be good, but really few of them are memorable, so I guess a seven will do for it quite fine.

The Yessers didn’t really like the final results of Open Your Eyes (neither did I, so we’re pals), so they re-worked their sounds once again, adding Igor Khoroshev on keyboards as a regular member and moving Billy Sherwood on to second guitar, and came out with an album that’s loads more fun and enjoyable than its predecessor. Now I may be on my own here, as I haven’t yet seen even a vaguely positive review of Ladder; and it’s more or less explainable.

The sound is much more simple and straightforward than on OYE or any ‘classic’ releases; while it’s still quite far away from your average modern pop ditty, most of the melodies aren’t convoluted or cunningly twisted at all. If anything, Yes sound pretty normal – do not be fooled by the pretentious Roger Dean cover, this sure ain’t no Tales From Topographic Ocean.

But you know, I have always loved Yes when they were pretty normal. To me, it always seemed like they were the kind of a band that was always intentionally moving away from what they deemed as ‘conventional’ songwriting, but their few attempts at ‘conventional’ songwriting, amazingly enough, always worked – ‘Time And A Word’, ‘Going For The One’, ‘Wonderous Stories’, all that crap, I actually loved it. It’s only when they added the Eighties’ cheesiness to the ‘conventional’ sound, resulting in Rabin-style garbage, that I began, sorta, you know, waxing nostalgic about eighteen minute long tracks… But Ladder certainly has none of the Eighties’ cheesiness.

It isn’t, in fact, even particularly keyboard-oriented: the sound is dominated by the guitars (although Howe still is nowhere near his best). Jon shows that his voice is still ‘great’, having lost none of its range or power; and, since the lyrics are more or less decent, I can certainly tolerate his singing more on this one than on Close To The Edge. But the biggest surprise, yeah, the biggest and by far the most pleasant one, is the return of Chris Squire.

Yes, you heard right: Chris is back! The bass work on this album is awesome, his best in at least twenty years and maybe more. Check any randomly selected track and you’ll see it for yourself; I would primarily suggest the mad pulsation of ‘Face To Face’ and the awesome funky riff of ‘The Messenger’. The bass alone pumps up the rating of this album a couple of points, I say.
Of course, if the aim was, once again, to emulate the Yes of old, it’s another failure. But somehow it seems to me that the guys really tried to go for something different. And do not forget, that, after all, it is Ladder, not OYE or the studio tracks off Keys To Ascension, that marks the radical departure from the Eighties – early Nineties style. If you’re looking for booming electronic drums, hi-tech synths or metallized generic guitar riffs (although why in the world you should ever look for these just baffles me), go somewhere else, please.

This one’s a surprisingly mellow album, and not at all rooted in the Nineties. Well, perhaps it is; the pathetic, echoey balladeering of ‘If Only You Knew’ or the slickly produced Latin rhythms of ‘Lightning Strikes’ do reek of the Nineties, indeed. But not in a bad way. And most of these songs cook – they’re quite enjoyable while they’re on. I still can’t remember even a single melody, of course (apparently, three times is not quite enough for such an album), but while they’re on, I remember really getting my kicks out of ’em. There’s also a couple of longish, nine-minute tracks, and the second one of them, ‘New Language’, ain’t that attractive, but ‘Homeworld’ is a great tune – built on a solid, stable dance-style melody and leading us through several complex, not uninteresting instrumental passages before dissolving in a charming little piano coda.

Truthfully, there’s little to complain about here. Even the ridiculous little ‘Fragile tribute’, ‘Can I?’, which recreates the innocent fun of ‘We Have Heaven’, has its merits. Apart from a general, not to say generic, feel of Yes-induced boredom that can’t help but grab me towards the end, I have no complaints. The songs jump, bounce, pulsate, vibrate, they’re quite lively and energetic and the band members don’t sound washed up at all. I feel a bit sad about Steve Howe, though: his presence is indeed marked by several stupendous guitar passages on some of the tracks, but overall, he still does not show up for the guitar god he is (or was? I’m starting to doubt his talents already).

Maybe this, in fact, is why people are sometimes so disappointed about latter days Yes releases: it’s not the dance beats or the straightforward melodies, it’s the lack of fascinating guitarwork. But I guess we’ll just have to take it as it is. In the meantime, just buy this album; this might well be a stable formula to which Yes will stick for a few more years now, if, of course, they don’t shift their line-ups once more. Which wouldn’t be at all surprising. And where the hell is Wakeman, by the way

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Yes The Ladder | | Leave a comment