The Ladder (1999)


  
1. Homeworld (The Ladder) 2. It Will Be A Good Day (The River) 3. Lightning Strikes 4. Can I? 5. Face to Face 6. If You Only Knew 7. To Be Alive (Hep Yadda) 8. Finally 9. The Messenger 10.New Language 11.Nine Voices (Longwalker)

 

So what is it exactly that makes a great Yes album? What is it that distinguishes a great Yes album from a horrible one? This question is actually harder to answer than one might think. I haven’t actually counted, but I’m sure they’ve had at least a dozen lineup changes throughout their entire career. Whenever a lineup is “fortunate” to last more than one album, it’s never a guarantee that the songs will sound the same quality wise. And, yes, they bounce around in a rather volatile fashion as well. You can’t really define any particular time in the band’s career as “strong” nor “horrid”. Anytime the band would release a stellar album, it became almost a given that the record right before or after had all of the charm of a turd in a punch bowl.

So it’s best, I guess, to just celebrate when the band does pull out a great record from time to time, and such is the case here. Not surprisingly, this follows one of their all-time worst – 1997’s Open Your Eyes. Line-up wise, they’re now a six piece – only adding keyboardist Igor Khoroshev to the lineup (which makes him about the fifth or sixth keyboard player in the band’s history, but who’s counting?)

Perhaps it’s the touch of celebrated producer Bruce Fairbairn that allows this thing to work so well? A bit of an odd choice as his credits were much more heavy-metal that breezy prog rock (sadly, he passed away in post-production). This album sounds a lot like “old” Yes, but with just enough textures and nuances to give one the feel that it was, in fact, recorded in the late 1990s as opposed to a quarter of a century prior.

It’s also safe to say that this record is a far cry from the Trevor Rabin 80s sounding band. That’s not meant to be a harsh statement – Rabin did great things for this band, but the harder edge he brought with his production and songwriting is nowhere to be found here. This is a very happy sounding record. From what I can tell, they’re back singing about mysticism and Eastern religions etc., yet one doesn’t have to share such beliefs to be enamored by what is here. This album has a genuine a positive vibe about it.

I must confess that I’m somewhat glad there are no “side long” epics. These marathon-like pieces do have their own rewards from time to time, but they revisited that style on Keys to Ascension and Keys to Ascension 2 just a couple of years ago, and it’s probably best that they’ve retired from those sagas for the time being. Yes, there area couple of nine minute songs here, but nine minutes isn’t nearly as long as twenty-two minutes, so you’re almost comparing apples to oranges.

There’s also not a lot of flashy keyboard solos here either. Maybe it’s because the guy at the keys is still new? Strangely, it doesn’t take anything away from the joy of the songs. Even with this instrument playing a bit of background role, the music still has a very distinct brand.

I really can’t imagine anyone that does like the band not liking this record. The overall sound is very crisp and clear while giving the faithful plenty of familiar sounds to reminisce about while listening. There’s quite a bit of variety as well. The band doesn’t really take chances on this record. It’s very safe. Some may accuse them of not challenging themselves, but with everything the band has gone through during its long history, sometimes a true return to form is what is needed at a particular junction.

Of course, being the late 1990s, the record didn’t get nearly the exposure as it would have, say, 25 years ago. Still, it ranks as one of their best, even if most probably couldn’t recite more than two or three songs from the entire 60 minutes or so of the music that is here.

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