|1. I've Seen All Good People|
|2. Going For The One|
|3. Time And A Word|
|4. Close To The Edge|
|5. Turn Of The Century|
|6. And You And I|
|7. Mind Drive|
|8. Foot Prints|
|9. Bring Me To The Power|
|10. Children Of Light|
| (i) Children Of Light|
|11. Sign Language|
As many Yes fans already know, Keys To Ascension 2 is the product of a promising reunion project which has recently fallen on hard times. The spirit which guided the recording had become rather scarce within Yes by the time of the album's release, with the goal of recapturing the intensity of their 1970s recordings having been replaced by a more commercial ethos (which, as of this writing, has proven less than successful in terms of chart action).
The details of Yes politics will be well-known to diehard fans already, but bear repetition here for the benefit of other readers. In 1996, the revamped Yes lineup of Anderson, Squire, Howe, Wakeman and White played three concerts at the San Luis Obispo in California. Later in the year, seven live recordings from these performances were paired with two new studio tracks on Keys To Ascension (which I've already discussed in another Tentative Review). This release generally won the respect of those experienced Yes fans who were aware of its existence, but proved to be a poor seller on the album charts (reaching only #99 in America).
After this release, the five Yes members (along with co-producer Billy Sherwood, who has since joined the band as a full-time member) began working on new studio material. The plan for the release of these recordings seems to have changed more than once; evidence would suggest that some within the group would have preferred to release the album as a single CD, but this suggestion was ultimately rejected in favour of a double-CD release which pairs the five new tracks with the remaining songs from the SLO shows.
At first, everything seemed to be developing in a promising manner. A Notes From The Edge interview with Rick Wakeman early in 1997 showed the keyboardist to be very enthusiastic about the quality of the new material (describing, essentially, as an antithesis to the Union project which he so despises). Whatever personality conflicts may have existed between individual band members, the collective entity known as Yes seemed to be well on its way to releasing a credible album in the style of their classic material.
Suddenly, a myriad of problems appeared. After the recording of the album was finished, Yes changed their management team (in the wake of KtA's commercial failure). At about the same time, plans for a tour were developed.
Not everything went according to plan. For reasons which have still not been explained to anyone's satisfaction (in public, at least), Rick Wakeman absented himself from the band mere weeks after his Notes From The Edge interview. Various theories have been suggested, but those who know the entire story aren't telling. Wakeman's website refused to comment on his reasons, but stated that it was unlikely Wakeman and Yes would work together in the future.
After this, Yes mysteriously began recording more new material at the same time that Chris Squire's solo album was mysteriously dropped from its scheduled release. These sessions -- now including Sherwood in a musical capacity -- formed the basis for Open Your Eyes, a more commercial endeavour which, in fact, features some recycling from Squire's unreleased album.
There were some concerns that Keys To Ascension 2 (sometimes referred to by its rumoured working title, Know) might never see the light of day. Diehard fans, after having been promised quite a bit in the early days of the reunion, were understandably quite upset with these developments.
Thankfully Yes were still able to work KtA2 into their generally strategy ... albeit not in the manner that was originally intended. After belatedly beginning their tour in late 1997, they released both Keys To Ascension 2 and Open Your Eyes a few weeks apart. The former was released on the unknown Purple Pyramid records, and was not promoted by the band to the same extent as was/is Open Your Eyes. Moreover, only the first section of "Children Of Light" from the new recordings was performed in concert. Although Yes deserve considerable credit for eventually getting the album out, there is little doubt that Open Your Eyes was the album that they were placing their primary hopes on.
With the SLO dream now fading into the background, KtA2 appears as a testimony to the creative window of opportunity that was briefly opened within the project. The new studio material here is easily the best on any studio Yes album since Drama, and perhaps even beyond that. The five tracks in question show a fair diversity of influences, with the ideas of various band members coming together to form an extremely interesting whole. The live tracks are a decent bonus as well, though some might wonder why releasing the album as a double-CD was necessary to begin with (all live tracks except for "Turn Of The Century" having been released on either Yessongs or Yesshows as well). The two discs are obviously the results of separate projects, and the album makes rather little sense if one attempts to judge it as a seemless whole. Still, there is little need for complaint as regards the tracks themselves.
I have already commented on the live performances in my review of the Keys To Ascension video; while there may be some differences in the mix, the similarities are strong enough as to not require extensive discussions in this context as well. As such, I'll keep my comments brief.
The album begins with a reasonably inspired version of "I've Seen All Good People". The most immediately obvious distinction between this and previous versions of the track is the sonic clarity. This aside, the performance itself is fairly impressive, with the various nuances (Howe's lute, Wakeman's adaptation of the recorder part, Squire's backing vocals) coming off rather well. It may be an overplayed standard, but there's very little to fault in this version.
To my ears, the jarring mixing defect at the beginning of "Going For The One" on the KtA video has been cleaned up here; as such, I've decided to increase its rating by a half-star (in the event the problem on the video only existed on my copy, the reader may assume a four-star rating for both tracks). Although this still isn't quite as impressive as the album version, its a generally successful version of the piece.
The high rating which I'm giving to "Time And A Word" (as per my rating on the video) may seem overly generous. The fact that Howe seems to be undermixed in this version (compared to the video) is making me wonder if a reduction might be in order; nevertheless, I've decided to give the track the benefit of the doubt (for now). This is, even with the undermixing, an impressive adaptation of the track, with Wakeman providing a new opening section and Howe taking the song to a higher level with his spotlight moments. I wouldn't want every song on the album to sound like this, but there's nothing wrong with this track in itself.
There have been some complaints about Rick Wakeman's performance on "Close To The Edge" recently, with the general argument being that he seemed under-rehearsed in playing the parts. It is true that some aspects of his performance here (particularly his major solo in the beginning of the "Seasons Of Man" section) have room for improvement. Still, though, his performances are never embarrassingly bad, and the strength of the composition and the rest of the performance allows it to retain its five-star rating. Steve Howe's clean tone is not a major problem.
There is little else to add about "Turn Of The Century" and "And You And I", except to note that the latter performance (despite some minor flaws) makes up for the 1988 version rather nicely.
The primary feature of this release, however, is the second disc, which features the five new recordings. Regarding these, I should first note that my five-star rating for "Mind Drive" is not given without some reservations. Although most of the song is unquestionably on this level, Anderson's "bring you light" sections threaten to bring the rating down somewhat (they're not wretched, but they wouldn't be five-star tracks on their own). My eventual decision was that the balance still pointed upwards; opposing opinions are equally valid, however.
The track begins with an ambient, quasi-exotic keyboard/guitar duet. Howe first plays a pastoral theme on acoustic guitar, with bass and electric guitar variations soon taking its place. After about two minutes, this shifts to a 7/8 drum/bass theme (previously used in the XYZ demos, as well as the drum duets on the Union Tour). The full band eventually joins in this section, and the first vocal section is allowed to emerged in a most interesting manner (curiously, the vocal line sounds similar to that of "Without Hope You Cannot Start The Day", only done much better).
The first Anderson spotlight then appears, as the lyrics and music both take a slight step down (lyrics about Gnostic understanding are fine, but actually singing about the angels in question seems a bit more questionable). After this, Howe plays an acoustic segueway piece, followed by a more successful Anderson vocal section (perhaps his best singing on the album). After this, a jazz guitar/drums combination leads to the next band section.
Some of the shifts become more abrupt at this point. The actual "Mind Drive" motif is re-introduced fairly quickly, and Anderson's "they will bring you" reprise may well fall into a similar category. The 7/8 section them returns again, and the subsequent jazz return shows Howe playing in a manner which almost suggests the final movement of "Themes" (from the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album). Wakeman is granted a decent keyboard solo towards the end, and some odd keyboard effects mark the conclusion of the piece.
Although the piece is not an unbroken triumph from beginning to end, the good parts are enough to grant it its exceptional rating. It may not be quite at the level of "Close To The Edge", but it at least falls in the same general range.
"Foot Prints" is something a bit different. The opening section of this track features a return of the vocal harmonies which Yes has traditionally been well known for -- everyone, including Howe, is impressive in his vocal role here. Wakeman is the dominant musician at least, with Squire a fairly close second -- Howe's musical presence is limited to acoustic guitar until the most electric presence is heard at the three minute mark. From here, Wakeman and Howe take solos in and around the structure of the track; the first of Howe's solos has an oddly Frippian characteristic about it. The work is very well structured, and occasionally seems to be a more successful version of the ABWH ethos. The track ends with Howe playing a main theme in an English folk manner.
"Bring Me To The Power" begins as a rock track, with Howe getting the lead hook between the vocal lines. A shift suddenly occurs after this point, with acoustic guitar coming to the foreground and more Gnostic- inspired lyrics emerging from Anderson's creative process. This piece has a somewhat unusual arrangement, going well beyond the usual song structure of a track of this length. Howe takes an impressive solo at the five minute mark; Wakeman and Howe trade leads at the end fairly well. This may be the second best track on the second side of the album. (As a side note, how obvious might it be that the lyrics are about an audience/fan relationship of some sort.)
"Children Of Light" was originally a three-part track, but a solo Wakeman piece that originally began the suite was dropped after his departure from the band. Instead, the track begins with "Children Of Light" proper, an adaptation of the Anderson/Vangelis track "Distant Thunder", which Jon has been performing in different contexts for some time now. The vocal harmonies are once again superb, and the keyboard role is quite notable. As Henry Potts has noted, the lyrics are almost certainly about post-apartheid South Africa -- while the earlier lyrics to "Distant Thunder" often sounded rather trite, this track actually comes off fairly well. The second part of this track, "Lifeline", has the distinction of being the only Yes track to feature Rick Wakeman as the primary songwriter. While some might fear this possibility, the track is actually done in a tasteful manner, with Howe playing sustained notes to a background setting that seems primarily Wakeman's doing. A majestic conclusion to the track, to be sure. It's just a shame that the entire suite will probably not be heard for some time.
The album ends with the instrumental "Sign Language", a Wakeman/Howe duet which features excellent interplay between the two artists. Howe is clearly the star of this piece, with Wakeman accompanying his guitar leads with a keyboard effect rather akin to the sound produced by a small classical ensemble. Melodically, this is a most impressive piece. This is a rather unusual manner for the album to conclude, but is an extremely worthwhile piece nonetheless.
This album is strongly recommended to all fans of "classic era" Yes, and to progressive fans in general who have retained some interest in the group's endeavours. It's simply a shame that these paths probably won't be travelled by Yes again in the near future.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 5 January 1998)