Keys To Ascension 2


Cleopatra Records, 1997

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Leave it to Yes to put out two double albums in a row ( Keys To Ascension and Keys To Ascension 2) that feature one disc of live "greatest hits"-type tracks and another of brand-new studio material. After all, what band has better captured the concept of duality -- yin and yang, chaos and order, profound prog-rock and pasteurized pop -- in its now 30-year career?

Settle down, it's a rhetorical question.

KTA 2 is the second in a pair that captures both live and studio tracks from the "classic Yes" reunion of 1995-96, which brought together for the first time since the late 1970s the lineup of Jon Anderson (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Chris Squire (bass and harmony vocals), Rick Wakeman (keyboards) and Alan White (drums). Given that this is the line-up that created one of the all-time great live albums (Yessongs) and one of my personal favorite Yes studio albums ( Going For the One), when this album came out in October '97, my expectations were high. I was not disappointed.

Not that the live tracks are any real revelation. "I've Seen All Good People," "Close to the Edge" and "And You and I" have each been featured on multiple prior live albums. Still, it is reassuring to hear that the band doesn't seem to have lost a step in recreating these complex pieces -- especially the vivid, intense "Edge," the band's signature 20-minute opus.

What's more of a treat is getting a rearranged rendition of "Time and a Word," an early tune that shows off the band's folk roots, here augmented with a very pretty piano intro by Wakeman. And "Turn of the Century" reveals here why it is one of the band's most-loved album cuts, as Howe carries the song with his exquisite classical guitar playing until, at the climax, he moves seamlessly into a series of gorgeous electric trills, every note sweet and perfect.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The true revelation here, though, is the studio tracks.

The first KTA's two studio tracks harkened back to the early years in length (one clocking at 19 minutes and the other at 10), but the songs didn't feel well thought-out; more like a quickly-assembled melange of decent ideas that could have matured into something memorable with more time.

Apparently they were just getting warmed up on the first KTA, though, because KTA 2's studio tracks constitute the best new material Yes has recorded in 20 years.

The opener, "Mind Drive," bears all the hallmarks of the epic Yes style, with its distinct movements and multiple variations on the same melodic themes. Howe's soft, precise acoustic prelude segues surprisingly smoothly into a thunderous Squire/White bass/drum theme that allows the other players opportunity after opportunity to elaborate on and then return to it over the course of the song's 18-minute girth. In less-than-stellar players' hands, this would likely end in disaster -- repetition and boredom. But when you put together four musicians with the world-class chops and creative interplay of Howe, Squire, White and Wakeman, it qualifies as near-nirvana. Here, the classical-style cycling and restating of musical themes in a rock context works the old Yes magic like 1977 was yesterday.

The best news of all, though, is without a doubt that, on this album, Chris Squire is back, his Rickenbacker bass awakened like Rip Van Winkle from fifteen years of burial under former Yes guitarist/producer Trevor Rabin's musical dominance of the band. Squire's playing on all four new vocal tunes here is everything you remembered and missed from classic Yes tunes like "Roundabout" -- brimming with aggressive riffs, ingenious time changes and full-on musical bravado.

On the ringing "Footprints," Squire carries the melody for the first minute, and the entire rest of the song is built off his complex, bouncy line. His driving, urgent line opening "Bring Me to the Power" has much the same function and effect.

Not that Howe and Wakeman don't get their licks in; Howe in particular plants a unimaginably nimble solo or two along the way in almost every song and, much like Squire, sounds thoroughly reinvigorated by their renewed musical partnership. Anderson is, well, Anderson -- airy and full of well-intentioned new age pronouncements that almost make sense, but always right with the music, a unique and memorable vocal sound painter.

Unfortunately -- as seems almost characteristic of this band -- all this good news comes with a catch. As Yes was working to get KTA 2 ready for distribution, a rift developed between Wakeman and the rest of the band, and he ended up leaving. (For, I might add, the fourth time. Days of Our Lives has nothing over this band when it comes to melodramatic plot twists...) So, after producing the best music they had in two decades, Yes went through yet another transition, emerging with its current Wakeman-less line-up and rushed, poppish, inferior Open Your Eyes album.

Word from the Yes camp is that the album they will go into the studio to record early next year will once again hark back to the longer form successfully revived on KTA 2. Based on this album, you can only hope the pendulum swings back yet again.

Rating: A-

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© 1998 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 Cleopatra Records, and is used for informational purposes only.