Keys to Ascension (1996)

1. Siberian Khatru 2. The Revealing Science of God 3. America 4. Onward 5. Awaken 6. Roundabout 7. Starship Trooper 8. Be the One 9. That, That Is


For whatever reason, Tony Kaye and Trevor Rabin are now out. Back in are Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe. Is this change for the long term? Who knows. Apparently, all anyone knows is the reunion is for a small set of shows in California. Fortunately for all, the shows are recorded. A double CD is released. In addition, there are two studio cuts thrown in by the “new” lineup. Being that these two new songs are from an “older” Yes lineup means that no one should be surprised that these songs, combined, are in excess of 29 minutes. More on that later.

The live songs, like the studio counterparts, are quite lengthy. There are seven, and they total about 90 minutes. Again, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Seven songs doesn’t allow for a heck of a lot of diversity, but what is here is somewhat expected. Mostly “familiar” songs, with a couple of nice surprises thrown in. As far as quality goes, the band sounds fantastic. Now, apparently the show was heavily bootlegged, and when one compares the illicit version to the legitimate one, the consensus seems to be that the official version here has been heavily doctored. Some cry “foul”. I say “so what?” I’d rather a live album sound good as opposed to authentic. We must also remember that they didn’t exactly embark on a mammoth tour where they had a significant amount of practice time to refine their sound.

The biggest surprises are the inclusion of Onward, a great song from a lackluster CD (that would be Tormato). They also include a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s America. It may seem like an odd choice, but they definitely give the song a distinctive Yes flavor – even stretching it out to 10 minutes or so. Don’t let the length fool you, it’s a great cover that doesn’t drag at all. It’s interesting to note that Yes made this a common practice on their first two studio albums – covering other people’s material, yet incorporating their significant prog-rock brand. They usually pulled this off quite well, but they then decided to stick to recording and releasing only original material shortly afterwards. In fact, the version of America was included on the band’s first box set Yesyears as sort of an extra. That one, as I recall, was a bit shorter and a bit more faithful to the original.

Of course, I can’t help but be disappointed whenever they do anything live from Tales From Topographical Oceans. No matter how many times I try to listen to any of the songs from that monstrosity, I can’t see what some people see in them. Minor sin if the songs were somewhat short. 20 minute songs, though, will always significantly drag down a good record. So this inclusion causes me to dock this release a half-star.

So then we come to the two new studio cuts, Be the One and That, That Is. The former is close to 10 minutes in length. The latter close to 20. Well, if you’re a classic Yes fan, this is good right? Well, I certainly think so. To put in bluntly, I love both of these tracks. Many Yes fans, however, seem to neither be swayed one way or the other. Now, I confess that whenever I listen to a song of such length, it’s hard for me to give the song my utmost detailed attention. My mind wonders, and I probably couldn’t “summarize” the song. I couldn’t tell you “verse-verse-chorus-verse-coda…..” etc. I generally, instead, ask myself, “Is this a pleasant listen?” or “Does the song stay with me in a positive way?” For both of these questions, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. Pardon the pun.

That, That Is has quite a lot of elements thrown in, including, fortunately a lot of beautiful Steve Howe guitar work. I confess I was a bit worried on the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe record when his work wasn’t quite as prevalent as I was hoping. In fact, even those that don’t like this track seem to at least like the Howe “parts”. To be fair, the lyrics on this song are a bit jarring and not one would expect from Yes. I haven’t actually studied a lyric sheet, but a big part of this song seems to be about inner city struggles including unwanted pregnancies and crack cocaine. A far cry from sunsets, sunrises, celestial dreaming, and all those other things unique to Yes. There’s a ton of stuff thrown in here. Still, though, both tracks rival the best of Yes in my humble opinion.

On a somewhat less positive, but not unexpected, note, Rick Wakeman apparently wasn’t around during the recording of the studio tracks. He recorded them on his own, somewhere. I guess this shouldn’t matter, but you don’t quite hear Wakeman the way you hear Howe. The absence doesn’t hinder the songs, fortunately.

The next year would actually see a “part 2” of this album (the album was literally called Keys to Ascension 2). Like this one, it was a combination of live tracks and studio cuts, although the percentage was a bit more balanced. One wishes they would have simply released one live record and one studio record, but I’m sure no one was quite sure what they were exactly wanting or what the future held. Ultimately, this was a very fine album, and I wish it would have gotten a bit more attention than it did.

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