Yes – The Ladder

Yes - The Ladder

If The Ladder had a voice and could literally speak to its listeners, here’s what I think it would say:

“…well, hey everybody! So, I know that you probably don’t have very high expectations about me and, y’know, I completely understand that. I know that some of my recent brothers and sisters have been very disappointing, but I promise you right here and now that I’m different. I am The Ladder; I’ve learned from the mistakes of UnionOpen Your Eyes and even the unbalanced Keys to Ascension twins- those two were quite the handful for my parents, let me tell you! Anyways, I know that it’s seemed throughout Yes’ career that a pleasant fusion of pop and progressive rock is nigh-impossible, but I’m here to prove you wrong… and I’ll prove it with a smile!”

As a writer I’m not great with characterization, but hopefully this gets across the sense that The Ladder is a peppy album that feels like it has a lot to prove- indeed, it did. As I’ve gone through their ’90s albums, I’ve become painfully aware why some people hold the band in a lower regard than Close to the Edge would seem to permit. Union was the first truly bad album, but the dismal first half of Talk and the ball- bustingly terrible Open Your Eyesdemonstrated what sort of black depths the band could plummet to. Thankfully, with the live duology Keys to AscensionYes finally seemed to understand what they needed to do to save their career from the pits. They brought things back to a more traditionally ‘proggy’ wavelength, but even then, the fresh studio tracks felt dull and dry. That’s where The Ladder comes in.

I think it was too late by the point of 1999 for Yes to truly go back to the way they were. Even if “That, That Is” and “Mind Drive” off the Keys to Ascension twins offered glimmers of hope, Yes had invested themselves pretty deeply in pop aesthetics over the last decades- it would be impudent to set aside those years of hands-on research purely for the sake of old glory. Nonetheless, they were onto something, and the subtle beauty of The Ladder is that they decided once again to attempt a fusion of their pop and prog halves. This time, it actually works.

Just take a look at “Homeworld” if you want an example of a revitalized YesYes were usually able to get by on hinting at greatness post-1980, but it’s impossible to fake a good epic. In composition and execution alike, “Homeworld” is practically bursting with energy and a newly refound confidence that begs to be compared to the band’s best days. As epics go, “New Language” is less dynamic, but still brings the wide-eyed pyrotechnics that made “Homeworld” so good. Though the rest of the work is more pop-based, the songs are generally better written and arranged. Even the most seemingly formulaic material- I’m thinking of the rock ballad “If Only You Knew”- feels relatively fresh, thanks to the prog Yes‘ usual bells and whistles (and an all-too surprising chord somewhere in the chorus). On the other hand, “To Be Alive” is boring, and “Finally” is altogether too much AOR for my tastes. The material isn’t consistent enough to have marked a true rebirth for Yes, but the good on The Ladder far outweighs the bad.

The fusion of their older styles is pretty literally referenced on the album. Whereas “It’ll Be A Good Day” closely mirrors “Holy Lamb” from the mega-poppy Big Generator, the weird interlude “Can I?” a couple of tracks later does the same to “We Have Heaven” off Fragile. I think this is The Ladder trying to speak to us somehow. It’s not a great album necessarily, and when it comes down to it, there are still songs I’d probably prefer to skip. Even so, compared to the progressively worse work they had been doing throughout the 90s, The Ladder is a world of difference. Better still, they would continue to run with this new essence into Magnification, which continued to see things improving for the band.

Tracklist:

1. Homeworld (The Ladder) (9:33)
2. It Will Be A Good Day (The River) (4:53)
3. Lightning Strikes (4:34)
4. Can I? (1:32)
5. Face to Face (5:03)
6. If Only You Knew (5:42)
7. To Be Alive (Hep Yadda) (5:07)
8. Finally (6:01)
9. The Messenger (5:13)
10. New Language (9:19)
11. Nine Voices (Longwalker)(3:20)

Line-up:

* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass, harmonica, vocals
* Billy Sherwood – guitars, keyboards, vocals
* Alan White – drums, percussion, vocals
* Steve Howe – guitars, steel, mandolin, banjo, vocals
* Igor Khoroshev – keyboards and vocals

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