Damian Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/13/1999
Fellow Yes fans, with release of The Ladder, it's officially time to face it: the '70s are over, and they're not coming back. (And I know what some of you are going to say, but no, flashbacks don't count.)
For many of us, this is hard to accept. We grew up grooving endlessly on Steve Howe's electrifying guitar excursions, Chris Squire's thunderingly original bass lines, Alan White's brawny yet intricate drumming, Rick Wakeman's otherworldly keyboard textures and Jon Anderson's soaring stream-of-consciousness vocals. Our dreams these past few years have been of a return to the epic style of classic '70s albums like Close To The Edge, brimming with bravura progressive rock musicianship.
After taking a couple of stabs at it, though -- including 1996's tantalizingly strong Keys to Ascension 2, featuring the aforementioned group of reunited '70s-era Yes-men, the band seems headed in another direction. Wakeman left (yet again) and was replaced by guitarist/vocalist/composer Billy Sherwood and keyboard player Igor Khoroshev. The new line-up's rushed first outing, 1997's Open Your Eyes, felt like a retreat to the band's more commercial '80s style. With The Ladder, though, Yes seems to be pointing not back at the '70s, nor (thankfully) the '80s, but forward, toward a new definition of "The Yes Sound" that aims to encompass everything they've done to date.
One thing this album's opening cut makes clear is that the band can unquestionably still tackle the sprawling, multi-themed rock numbers that were once its bread and butter. The nine minute-plus "Homeworld" kicks off with a spacy, ambient intro that gradually builds a heavy bottom end, Howe soloing sharply behind Anderson's vocals as the rhythm section pounds along. Squire and Sherwood provide soaring harmony vocals that fill out the sound and help obscure some of the range Anderson's lost over the last 30 years. Then Khoroshev tosses off a couple of flashy organ and synth solos -- at times sounding more like Close To The Edge-era Wakeman than Wakeman himself has in a long time -- and you're thinking "They still have it."
Well -- to commit the obvious pun -- yes and no.
This band is still, after 30 years, struggling to define itself. The '70s editions of Yes valued musical space and virtuoso jams over tight song structure or other commercial constraints. The '80s band leaned hard in the other direction, moving from loose ten- and 20-minute bouts of transcendence to calculated five-minute rock singles. While both perspectives are apparent on this album, to the band's credit, they seem to have been able to meld the two approaches much more effectively on this album than on Open Your Eyes. One of the side effects of the ongoing low-grade struggle, though, seems to have been the renewed ascendance of Anderson, long the bridge between the two camps. The first clue to this comes toward the end of "Homeworld."
Seven and a half minutes in, the band is cooking along when they suddenly ramp the music down, leaving the close to Anderson, singing alone over Khoroshev's piano. And here's the problem: Anderson's lyrics, once full of intriguing imagery and an almost hypnotic reliance on sound over meaning, have lately become dominated by chirpy New Age blather. "Truth is a simple place / Here for us all to see / Reach as it comes to you / As it comes to me." Sincere? Undoubtedly. Gripping? Not so much.
Next up, "It Will Be a Good Day" is another showcase for Anderson's airy optimism, relegating the band to the background. Only Howe's minor, but pretty guitar fills provide any real interest. In fact, the song sounds like nothing so much as an outtake from Howe's old Top 40 prog-lite band Asia, the biggest commercial success -- and creative nadir -- of his career.
Batting roughly .500 at this point, Yes moves into the trilogy of "Lightning Strikes," "Can I?" and "Face to Face." After opening with a purposefully bizarre ten-second bossa nova sample, "Lightning" bounces along nicely with Howe hitting strong riffs on acoustic and electric, Khoroshev contributing more lively organ and synth runs, and Squire and White running a double-time Cuban-flavored beat under it all. If that all sounds a little different for Yes, "Lightning" also adds a horn section… which works surprisingly well on this frothy tune.
"Can I?" is a brief polyrhythmic chant/interlude in which Anderson too-urgently reaches back for a piece of classic Yes glory by directly quoting his solo track "We Have Heaven" from 1972's Fragile. "Face to Face" echoes the tempo of "Lightning" but moves it into more a mainstream rock setting. With strong performances from everyone, the song ends up doing a fair job of merging the band's multiple personalities together by giving Squire and Sherwood the chance to pound a few power chords, while leaving Howe and Khoroshev room to get their more imaginative licks in. You're left wanting more when the song finishes prematurely just as Howe is really getting moving.
What follows is maybe the last thing you ever expected from Yes. "If Only You Knew" is an unmistakably adult contemporary ballad. Its gentle beat, synthesized strings, crooning harmony vocals and unabashedly sentimental lyric would sound perfectly at home with Phil Collins (that other prog-rock apostate) on lead vocals. Only Howe's soaring slide-guitar trills and Anderson's voice give you any hint this is Yes. Maybe the hardest part to accept for a long-time Yes fan? It's actually a pretty good adult contemporary ballad. Scary thought, that.
The second half of the album plows more familiar territory without resolving the larger questions about the band's direction. "To Be Alive" has some interesting Howe tones, but is dominated by excessively rah-rah New Age lyrics. "Nine Voices" is essentially another Anderson solo piece, a multicultural folk tune whose mandolin melodies and harmony vocals reminded me of "Your Move" from 1971's The Yes Album.
Meanwhile, "Finally" and "The Messenger" both rock hard in the Sherwood/Squire/'80s-Yes vein that dominated 1997's Open Your Eyes -- for three or four minutes apiece, anyway, at which point in both cases they hand the song off to Anderson, Howe and Khoroshev for quieter, more atmospheric codas. It's as if they took the '70s Yes pattern of stitching together multiple song ideas into 20-minute symphonies and telescoped it down into the '80s band's five or six-minute maximum run time.
Then, just when you're thinking the grander vision displayed through the first three-quarters of "Homeworld" was just a tease, here comes that old feeling again. "New Language" opens with two minutes of driving, shifting rhythms under dynamic Howe solos, threatens briefly to falter in the early verses, but then follows through with a series of brief but varied and very energetic instrumental segments. Even bassist Squire, who for most of the album reverts back to his plodding '80s style, gets into it with a muscular riff that you're so glad to hear you don't even care that it sounds just a note or two off his memorable runs on the classic "Roundabout."
Ultimately, The Ladder makes headway but doesn't completely succeed in resolving the internal musical tensions the band is trying to work through. It's evident that one camp within the band places adventurous musicianship first, while another clings to the illusion that they can recapture a broader, younger audience.
Here's the deal I'd propose to Yes as a long-time fan: we'll accept that the '70s are over, if you'll accept that the '80s are, too. Another chart success on the scale of "Owner of a Lonely Heart" isn't in the cards, but there's still plenty of glory and satisfaction to be had playing music that challenges both the audience and the players. The Ladder has just enough of it to keep us waiting, wondering and hoping a little longer.