Sanctuary, 2001

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


“What if?” is always a fun game to play, but few bands in history have had more critical junctures at which something could have gone either way than Yes. What if the band hadn’t decided to record their second album in 1969 with an orchestra, triggering the exit of original guitarist Peter Banks and the entrance of Steve Howe? What if Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White hadn’t booked time in the same studio as the Buggles in 1979, leading to the Drama album? What if after lead singer Jon Anderson nearly died in the hospital in 2008, Squire and Howe had behaved like loyal friends rather than cold-hearted businessmen?

And what if the much-heralded 1995 reunion of the band’s late-’70s lineup of Anderson, Howe, Squire, White and Rick Wakeman had lasted more than two years and two patched-together live-and-studio-combo albums?

The folks at Sanctuary Records were at least able to give a hint of the answer to the latter question by packaging together the studio tracks that appeared, alongside selections from the group’s 1995 live reunion shows in San Luis Obispo, California, on 1996’s Keys To Ascension and its 1997 follow-up Keys To Ascension 2. The resulting album, Keystudio, compiles the only existing post-1978 new recordings from the Yes lineup that many longtime fans still think of as “Classic Yes.” (And no, I don’t count that veritable Frankenstein monster Union.)

The tracks consist of two 18-minute-plus epics (one from each original Keys set), and five shorter cuts ranging from three to nearly ten minutes. One track—the slightly renamed “Children Of The Light”—here adds a brief keyboard prologue that was cut from the my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Keys 2 version. While the Keys 2 studio material is discernibly stronger, the track order is jumbled on Keystudio for reasons that escape this listener.

First, the highlights. Keys 2 cuts “Foot Prints,” “Bring Me To The Power,” and the epic “Mind Drive” all display the vigor and inventiveness and melodicism for which Yes is justly known. The return of Squire’s prominent “lead bass” work is especially notable on these tracks given that he seemed to slumber through much of the band’s previous 15 years of work. There’s one moment in particular—the intense, dynamic instrumental jam between 11:30 and 12:30 of “Mind Drive”—that will have longtime fans like this one pointing a finger and saying “That’s it—that’s the old magic, right there.”

Flashes of that same magic, found somewhere deep in the blend of Anderson and Squire’s layered harmonies, the four instrumentalists’ prodigious musical chops, and Anderson’s mystical-sound-painting lyrics, appear throughout the remainder of the tracks, with mixed results. “Be The One” offers some promising moments but feels overcrowded with lyrics that aren’t among Anderson’s best. Its KTA 1 companion, the epic “That, That Is,” is a hodgepodge of ideas and moments that never achieve the sort of flow that makes the best of the band’s other long-form pieces gel.

The remaining KTA 2 tracks are stronger. The restored opening to “Children Of The Light” adds little to the original, but overall it’s a solid, punchy tune anchored by Wakeman’s rippling piano work, Squire’s ribcage-rattling bass, and Anderson and Squire’s layered harmonies. “Sign Language” offers a pleasant and moody, if somewhat inconsequential, duet between Howe and Wakeman.

What strikes this listener when hearing these tracks again is the way Steve Howe’s playing has changed over the years. Even here, on arguably the best new music that Yes has issued since 1977’s Going For The One, Howe’s playing is more technically proficient than powerful. It seems that joining Asia in the early ’80s changed his playing style permanently, robbing him of the grit and rawness heard on Close To The Edge and Yessongs and Relayer. Some of his lines here are fast, even aggressive, but his tone is so antiseptically clean that the end result doesn’t carry nearly the impact that it could.

On the one hand, Keystudio is a messy jumble of an album, assembled from parts that don’t always fit, in a run order that makes little sense. On the other hand, it’s arguably the best studio album Yes has put out in the last 37 years. As for the “what if” posed at the beginning of this review, while we’ll never truly know, this album offers hints of the magic the band might have been able recapture.

Rating: B

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© 2014 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sanctuary, and is used for informational purposes only.