October 1996 – live album reviews – Yes’ ‘Keys to Ascension’ (“Yes have perpetrated their fair share of folly, but that’s not the whole story by any means.”)

30 Oct

Yes: 'Keys to Ascension'

Yes: ‘Keys to Ascension’

Bands are volatile, and when people form them they need to deal carefully with the possibility of a built in death sentence. It happens, and it can leave scars. All over the world, sitting quietly in little bedsits, are former musicians still shattered by the breakup of their first and only band.

Conversely, some bands seem to shrug off splits and explosions as if they’d been no more than sneezes. During their on again/off again three-decade career, Yes have been no strangers to such events. The fallout from the innumerable bust-ups and drop-outs now seems to obscure the band for three years out of every five, ensuring they don’t so much keep jumping on the reunion bandwagon as never being quite stable enough to get off the damn thing in the first place.

After years of mostly being stadium pop-rockers (albeit tremendously accomplished, envelope-pushing ones), as of 1995 Yes are back to the extraordinarily popular 1970s lineup which held sway in arenas and stadia. High-pitched Accrington-seraph singer Jon Anderson, epic bassist Chris Squire and heavy-deft drummer Alan White have brought two of the other ’70s members back into the fold (eclecti-guitarist Steve Howe and ultra-flamboyant keyboardist icon Rick Wakeman). Despite the lofty title, though, the ‘Keys to Ascension’ double album is basically a holding exercise while Classic Yes glue themselves back together again. It’s an attempt to catch up on whatever ground may have been lost during fifteen years enmired in a Los Angelis rocker’s honeytrap with one foot jammed firmly in the AOR arenas.

So… there’s (two and a half hours) of live Yes classics from the ’70s, taken from the San Luis Obispo concerts earlier this year in which Yes took it to a smaller-scale theatre stage. Give or take a bit of backdrop projections, these were devoid of the band’s previous synaesthesic live trappings of lasers, revolves, or Roger Dean crystal outcroppings – for the most part, Yes just let the music speak for itself. There’s also about half a disc of new music appended onto the end. The odds aren’t on the project being a classic, but what it does look like is a fine and overdue opportunity to re-evaluate Yes, after they’ve spent twenty years in the critical doghouse as the target for any stroppy reviewer with a chip on his shoulder about being a middle-class honky under all of his street talk. Yes have perpetrated their fair share of folly, but that’s not the whole story by any means.

If you’re already properly familiar with Yes music – complex, electric and revelatory when it hits its peak – then you’ll know what to expect, and you get it in spades. Fragile their alliance may be (Anderson has often compared the band to a football team of pushy talents needing to be marshalled, as opposed to a mythic rock gang or sentimental brotherhood) but they’re sounding better than they have for ages. Apart from Wakeman’s dodgy new digital keyboard sounds – if you’re going for that full-on classic-prog majesty, it’s essential that you should also go for some blurry 1970s warmth – the Yes sonic armoury has been reinvigorated. Squire’s grinding sinewy bass is roaring back with a vengeance, and Howe’s back in the saddle with his elegant yet fiery mongrelised guitar styles. The rhythms still kick and charge like a mule on a diet of angel dust and Dada; many of Anderson’s baffling lyrics and fluting vocals are still a mystical jumble of tossed salad word-sounds, and the whole band’s playing as a unit again at long last.

If you’re not familiar with Yes – or if you’ve been suckered by all of that self-righteous punk bullshit about the worthlessness of the prog bands – there’s enough wonder on here to make you reconsider their legacy. For a start, ‘Keys to Ascension’ is laden with blazing melodies even in its most convoluted moments. It confirms Yes’ love for a mighty pop tune, as evidenced in the resurrection of their driving, pinwheeling and elaborately vibrant cover of Paul Simon’s America or on the surprise revisitation of 1978’s hymnal ballad Onwards (drawn from Squire’s formative experiences as part of an English cathedral choir, and rearranged here as an acoustic display of Yes’ uplifting harmonies).

As ever, Yes’ musical peaks sound timeless. Despite their flashy/esoteric/unpalatable reputation, during their first wind, they were actually a mainstream band: ferociously musical pop lovers with a weird streak who were restless to blow open the envelope and expand the possibilities, but who were always too abstractly sensual and romantic to tie in with modernism or the politics of underground music culture. That said, they were busily transgressing musical boundaries in a way that the mainstream is only now daring to attempt again.

Siberian Khatru remains a bucketing roar of jazzy harmonies and of splintered time and space; Anderson’s welter of images spurt like one of J.G. Ballard’s crystallised rivers. In the soaring, furious ritual of Awaken, hovering pouncing piano leads into a stark sunrise ceremony dominated by Anderson’s ascending liturgies and Howe’s guitar hurling itself upwards in an assault on the mountains. An interlude of Wakeman’s sedate celestial church organ, before another push upwards by the ensemble leaves Anderson triumphant on the summit, singing his faith into a clear sky. Monolithic, esoteric fantasia perhaps, but it strikes as many complex emotional chord as it does musical ones. It might not work as clear literature or as the amplified folk music of the classic songwriters, but this is nonetheless spiritual music in its ambitions and effect, ultimately serving a greater aim than to merely showcase the virtuosity of Yes members.

Elsewhere, there’s the rhythm-and-blues-meets-skywatchers coil of Starship Trooper; and the inevitable Roundabout. The latter in particular is despatched with the usual Yes flair – glitteringly elegant classical guitar, corkscrewing Hammond organ, Anderson’s joyfully kaleidoscopic lyrics and the best bass line which no one’s yet ripped off for a dance track. There’s even a chunk of that infamous folly ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ which (even if it does sound far bittier than everything else on the record) has been reclaimed from an overcooked mush of windy symphonic chanting and has become a sort of wobbly musical dragon kite. It’s still unwieldy and inescapably over-ambitious (Yes attempted to net the whole world and its metaphysical forces with that particular album, and they didn’t succeed) yet now there’s an odd grace and buoyancy to it. And that’s something I never thought I’d catch myself saying.

So far so good. But if Yes are to be taken seriously as a contemporary creative force then current work’s got to be taken into account. And listening to the new tracks can’t help but set a few alarm bells ringing. For a start, it sounds as if Yes are attempting to arbitrarily erase the intervening seventeen years since this line-up last played together, and to go back to the glitzy tail-end-of-first-generation prog they were doing in 1979 just when the rot first set in (and when cocaine, disco and attempts to steal a march on New Wave first began to interfere).

Right now, they seem to be writing off the stadium rock years led by former guitarist (and broad-spectrum producer-pop enthusiast) Trevor Rabin as if they were a temporary embarrassment, while simultaneously ditching everything which they learnt from those years. Into the bin goes the multi-track layering, MTV rock hooks and chart-teasing love songs. Out of the setlist and onto the shelf goes their early ’80s mega-hit Owner of a Lonely Heart. Also, it also seems as if Yes have gone from attempting to please the commercial market to attempting to indulge the 1970s fanbase. (Yes, choose your own route to potential artistic death, lads. Well done.)

The new tracks are indubitably a stopgap to keep those fans happy, pulling out all of the expected Yes ingredients. Classical guitar web-work, tight ensemble soloing; a structure as convoluted and precariously balanced as an orchid, dashes of classical structures and jazz harmony and an exploded concept that’s at least five times as big and bright as the world around it.

The problem is that Yes no longer sound haunting: they sound haunted. By their own past, no less. Hearing them continual harking back to ‘Topographic’ ambitions (fucking hell, you’d’ve thought they’d’ve learnt their lesson the first time round), dredging up old circus tricks and even incestuously close cousins of old riffs, one’s forced to think of an old acrobat slathering himself with liniment to handwalk the high wire in front of a cheering audience of young rivals and comeback rubberneckers… and then forgetting to wipe his hands before he takes hold of the rope.

Be the One kicks off with all the peak Yes joyousness, but sinks rapidly into baroque burbling and inflated pomp, Anderson’s melodies stretched to breaking point over slabby slices of ’70s seriousness. At nineteen minutes and seven sections, That, That Is sets itself up to be today’s Yes epic: and it nearly succeeds, with Chris Squire’s slithery bass riff capturing the blazing driven rush of On The Silent Wings Of Freedom and the whole swishing along in a set of colourful swerves you’d never have imagined could’ve come from a bunch of fifty year olds. Taking on contemporary concerns of crack in the cities and gang warfare, as if they were conscious hip hoppers, Yes conspicuous fail to do anything more to dress them up in cosmic flash and hurl them into orbit along with all of their old giant fish props and Roger Dean spacecraft.

It’s a bit like watching the Pope and all his cardinals trying to wrest control of a street football match. Anderson’s probably sincere, but he should leave this sort of thing to the hip hop nation… or at least to people who don’t point to New Age therapy as the obvious solution. Much ado about something important, achieving nothing despite its densely packed music. “Disjointed, but with purpose…” Yeah, Jon. You wish. Trying to force this flimsy, gaudy conceptual sheath onto a much knottier and uglier problem comes across as foolish at best, and as actively insulting at worst.

A prime old mixed bag then. There’s enough wanton brilliance on here to remind us of just what, in their chequered past, made Yes such a fantastic band and such a strong fusion of musical forces. There’s also enough rancid old codswallop to remind us just what insufferable heights of folly they can reach when they turn off their bullshit detector. Same old story… and it’s worrying that the codswallop counter is pointing more at the new stuff than at the old. But Yes’ often-naïve but unashamedly, sometimes transformatively beautiful light is shining brighter these days; and that’s definitely something to be glad about.

Where now, though?

Yes: ‘Keys to Ascension’
Castle Communications/Essential Records, GAS 0000417 EDF (5 017615 841725)
CD-only double album
28th October 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Yes online:
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