Yes – Keys to Ascension 1

Yes - Keys to Ascension 1

As well-intentioned as some of their reinventions may have been over the course of their career, Yes have been notoriously bad at handling lineup changes since their golden period ended with TormatoDrama and 90125 could both be argued as successful evolutions in their own way, but those moderate success have long been outshadowed by the string of bumpy failures that followed them. Union marked a particularly horrible moment wherein two lineups attempted to collaborate. Open Your Eyes tried to pick up the pieces after Trevor Rabin’s departure as guitarist and resident composer, resulting in some of the most anaesthetic music this side of Kenny G. I need not mention the recent failure Yes have had with their latest 2014 garbage; dwelling on these insults to Yes’ once-glorious career has the pleasant effect of making the Keys to Ascension duology feel that much more meaningful in context. Instead of trying to reinvent themselves into another AOR-induced oblivion, Yes appear to have a moment of lucidity after Open Your Eyes wherein they seem to understand the shape of their career the way their listeners do. Virtually everyone can agree Yes released their best material in the classic lineups of the ’70s, and that’s exactly what the band try to reconstruct here. Keys to Ascension I is the best thing released by Yes in years, and while the predominantly live content on album is not quite so appetizing as the thought of relatively ‘fresh’ material by the classic, proggy Yes, it’s undoubtedly the best thing they had released in years.

For the first time in years, Yes appear to have been taking their listeners into consideration. While the 90125 era earned them just as much (if not more) of a fanbase, it’s Close to the EdgeFragile and The Yes Album that contemporary listeners take heed of. Whether it’s due to external outcries for the ‘old Yes‘, or simply a result of the classic members being in the right mindset, and in the right place and time, Keys to Ascension is a throwback to the Yes of old. Both parts feature live and studio tracks; of the two, Keys to Ascension 1 offers the superior live half. Yes have never shirked away from the lofty aim of realizing their biggest epics on live records, and this side of the duology is no exception. To me, Keys to Ascension 1 fills in the gaps that the disappointing Yesshows from 1980 failed with; Tales from Topographic Oceans and Going for the One each offered epics that could work wonders in the live sphere, but with the faded inspiration the band had going for them at the dusk of the 70′s, Yesshows ended up feeling much more dull than it rightly should have been, especially in the wake of the marvellous first live LP, Yessongs. Here, on top of some of their best live staples (including the energetic “Siberian Khatru” and “Roundabout”), Yes perform two epics. “The Revealing Science of God” is realized beautifully here, and makes for a far better live demonstration of Tales of Topographic Oceans than Yesshows‘ choice of “Ritual”. Even better still, Yes perform the masterful “Awaken” in all of its neoclassical glory. That epic is like hearing a symphony transposed onto rock instrumentation, and I feel the same sense of awe here as I did first hearing it on Going for the One

While Keys to Ascension 2 offered more (and better) studio material, the pair of studio tracks that round off this release are impressive. While the quality is not up to the standard to which I hold their old stuff (only “Mind Drive” from the second part dares to compare), it’s refreshing to hear the band sound like they’re really trying again. It would be a pipe dream to hope Yes would pick up where they left off in the ’70s; the influence of their career since still weighs heavily in the music; the punchy Rabin production is here, as well as the unfortunate schmaltz of Unionand Open Your Eyes. “That, That Is” has some moments of brilliance, but suffers from an aimless structure and many parts that feel as if they’d have been best kept in a pop song. Specifically, the de facto ‘verse section’ of the compostion has the same chippy and rushed vocals that made “Almost Like Love” off Big Generator the wreck that it is. While Yes have clearly set out to write epics here, they still seem stuck in pop mode, and as a result, these two tracks often feel like a pair of muddled pop tunes that had their instrumental sections branched out. With that in mind, Keys to Ascension 1 doesn’t excite me as much as I was hoping it would; even if the live material is spot-on, both albums in this duology are made or broken based on the studio material, and neither “Be the One” nor “That, That Is” carry much magic in them. Luckily, the second album would fare better in this department.

My biggest gripe (or confusion) with Keys to Ascension is the structure of the duology itself. There’s no harm in a live album, but the mix of live performances of the ’70s material with a handful of fresh studio tracks feels odd. Yesare clearly trying to revive the excitement and respect created by their classic material here, and as great as it is to hear live renditions of “The Revealing Science of God” and “Awaken” especially, it’s difficult to feel so excited about a band releasing recordings of songs that were close to thirty years old at the time of Keys to Ascension‘s release. For better or worse, the studio material was (and is) the most promising thing on the album, but we’re left to hear these recordings without the benevolent context of an album structure. And yes, I know Keystudio compiles all of the studio work from the two halves together, but it should be seen as a compilation, rather than the songs’ native home. Neither side of Keys to Ascension has ever achieved much attention compared to the classic work, and I’m left to wonder whether that would have been different, had the studio material been originally released together, and the album sported as a flagship in their discography, rather than the ancillary role live albums tend to fall into.

Both in the studio and live tracks, there is quality here. For the live set, Yes offers the experience the disappointing Yesshows should have been, giving Going for the One and Tales from Topographic Oceans in particular the representation they deserved on a live album. While the studio material isn’t quite as successful in living up to the expectations I’d have for the classic lineup, “Be the One” and “That, That Is” offer a much-needed reprieve from the nonsense Yes put out throughout the 90s, though for my money, Keys to Ascension 2 offers a stronger set of studio material. Ultimately, Keys to Ascension 1 covers the ground of the classic Yes quite well, and makes for an excellent live album. I’m just not convinced it goes any farther than that.


1. Siberian Khatru (10:16)
2. The Revealing Science of God (20:12)
3. America (10:28)
4. Onward (5:48)
5. Awaken (18:33)
6. Roundabout (8:30)
7. Starship Trooper (13:05)

Studio tracks
8. Be The One (9:50)
9. That, That is (19:14)


* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass and vocals
* Rick Wakeman – keyboards
* Alan White – drums
* Steve Howe – guitars and vocals

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