Keys To Ascension
CMC International Records, 1996
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/20/1998
British progressive-rock band Yes has been through more personnel flips than your typical roller-coaster. With bassist Chris Squire being the only constant in the ever-changing lineup, Yes should have thought about installing a revolving door on their practice room.
After eight members from various incarnations reunited for the dreadful one-off Union, some people thought the glory days of Yes were over. However, if any band embodied the "never say never" epitomy, Yes did -- Keys To Ascension captures the classic lineup of Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Alan White and Squire live (save for two new cuts), and having lost little of the magic they once showed.
This nearly two-hour set takes seven old standbys from Yes's thirty-year back catalog, and adds two new studio cuts into the mix. And while their true glory years are behind them, the end result here isn't bad at all.
The live material, while good, is nothing more than a retro-act, with most songs dating back to the early '70s. Despite the passage of three decades, Anderson's voice hasn't changed at all -- surprising, only because many lead vocalists experience some sort of change the longer they perform.
In fact, the only real change is in Wakeman's keyboards. In the '70s, they had the bombastic sound familiar to the technology of the times. In the '90s, he has definitely moved away from the Hammonds to the Rolands -- the sound is much more synthesized, and is actually not as strong. In this case, I'll fault the technology -- either that, or he needed to be brought up more in the mix.
Howe remains an amazing guitarist, though it sounds like some of his chops -- especially in the opening and bridges of "Roundabout" -- might be slowing down just a tad. White shows why he remained behind the skins with Yes for so long, and Squire -- well, no one has ever made a Rickenbacker four-string sound so sweet.
Recorded in San Luis Obispo, California, Yes shows why their music was some of the most influential in both the '70s and in the entire progressive rock genre. Cuts like "Siberian Khatru" and "Starship Trooper" have gotten better with age, and I will always love "Roundabout." Even a selection from Tales From Topographic Oceans sounds fresh here -- and long-time readers know how I feel about that album. (I'd rather castrate myself with a steak knife from Ponderosa than listen to that album again... but I think I've gone off-topic.)
Of the live selections, "America" is the only one that disappoints -- even though it sounds almost exactly like the original version. If anything, I wish that more live material had been included on this collection. Then again, maybe that's what Keys To Ascension II (released on a different label) was for.
The two studio cuts here -- "Be The One" and "That, That Is" -- show that some doses of reality have made their way into the cosmic oneness/weirdness that made up part of Yes's career. Both songs have their moments, though neither strikes me as being superior. Still, after almost 20 years of not playing together with this exact lineup, not a bad first effort upon reuniting.
However, a permanent line-up was not to be -- from what I've read, Wakeman departed the band yet again. Then again, this might have been a good thing; does Yes really want to tour the country as an "oldies" band, or do they want to continue developing new material and possibly lead progressive rock back into the public eye? That's really the only problem with Keys To Ascension -- though the playing is good, the band is trying to recapture glories of old with the songs of old. Even the live double-album from Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, An Evening Of Yes Music Plus, mixed the old in with the new. (A studio album, Open Your Eyes, did soon follow, in defense of Yes.)
Those who grew up with Yes being AM radio staples will no doubt enjoy Keys To Ascension, as will those like myself who have enjoyed Yes a good portion of their lives. But even though everything old is new again, one wonders when the focus will shift back to the new.