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Yes - The Ladder CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.26 | 960 ratings

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4 stars Let's face it, Yes had a pretty hard time pleasing fans ever since 90125. With the weight of their success in the 70's and their crown for being prog rock legends encumbering them, the band appeared to struggle to achieve success and acceptance in a decade where prog rock was "kept in a paper bag under the counter" as Rick Wakeman put it in a British prog rock documentary. Trevor Rabin's arena rock/AOR/mainstream commercial rock version of Yes did very well in the charts for a while, but 70's-style Yes fans were hungering for a return to form. The promise of the Union album turned into an excruciatingly sour lemon for several reasons, and when Trevor Rabin's version of Yes appeared out of the Union dust, many fans tossed their hands in the air and wept over their classic Yes album collections.

Then came the reunion of Wakeman, Howe and the Topographic Oceans Yes personnel. The studio tracks that were recorded and released over two years on two separate albums left fans confused. Was Yes not back to being a prog rock band? Wakeman left again? Yes, were going on tour? Where were the rest of the studio tracks? Dang it! Squire and company turned around and released another Rabin-like AOR album called Open Your Eyes. Fans were dazed, confused, outraged. What on earth was going on?

And so after a lengthy preamble, we reach what happened next. Yes went to Bruce Fairburn and he agreed to produce their next album, The Ladder. It was also to be Fairburn's last album as he passed away in his apartment with only two weeks worth of mixing left to go.

Knowing about Yes' rather outstanding turbulent and extraordinary history both as a band and as recording artists, I was very curious to hear how this album had turned out. I only got into Yes quite suddenly in the summer of 2011, so the entire catalogue was of interest. I have to say that I was rather impressed with The Ladder and I still think it's one of Yes' best two albums since their 1980's revival.

Much praise has been sung about the first track, Homeworld (The Ladder) and I personally really enjoy listening to this one time and again. It's a classic Yes multi-part track with all musicians contributing to the complexity of the music. Very much a modern prog rock piece for its time.

It Will Be a Good Day (The River) is more melodic, a slower piece with strong vocal harmonies. Some of the music sounds a little too structured as Steve Howe repeats the same guitar passages leading up to the chorus but over all I really enjoy this very lovely tune singing about the beauty of the earth.

Lightning Strikes is a song that you are either going to grow to love or to hate forever. At first, this comes across as dance floor Yes appealing to young Americans at Club Med in Cabo San Lucas or wherever they have Club Meds these days. You can almost smell the coconut in the drinks. It's a dance beat that'll make you rise to your feet either with the urge to dance or to throw the CD out the window, depending on your disposition. But after a few spins I found there were things I like about this song: it has a slightly more serious part to it too, there's a ripping bass guitar break in one part, Howe's acoustic guitar sounds great, and the margarita horns remind me of... Aerosmith's Permanent Vacation album which was also produced by Bruce Fairburn. The Aerosmith likeness also shows up when Jon Anderson sings, "Help me get me some." Actually, it's an interesting track.

Can I? is a vocal track in the spirit of Steven Tyler scat singing, with a didgeridoo, I think, and the We Have Heaven refrain going in the background. It leads into Face to Face which is another dance party tune but with a little more sentiment to it. For some fans, there might be a strong temptation here to go back to Homeworld and forget the rest of the album.

If You Only Knew is too much of an contemporary album love song for my taste but To Be Alive (Hep Yadda) is closer to It Will Be a Good Day and maybe one of the middle ground tracks of the album.

Finally starts of sounding promising but I usually end up forgetting this tune. The Messenger - a song about Bob Marley - is more memorable as it has a cool, funky bass intro and more strong vocal harmonies.

New Languages is the next longest song after Homeworld and starts with a ripping organ solo and powerful guitar parts. It's possibly the next most prog-like song on the album because the length gives it time to develop and evolve. It slows down to a pop number once the vocals begin but soon returns to the powerful vocal harmonies in the chorus and the music stays ahead of the usual arena rock style. I am surprised more people haven't cited this track as one of the better ones on the album.

Nine Voices (Longwalker) is a pretty acoustic number with more strong vocals and an allusion to I've Seen All Good People. It's a little as if Yes were referring to their older tracks on this album to assert their position that this is indeed a Yes album.

Overall, what I like about this album is the production quality and the fact that the band really seem to have been committed to making this album work. I also really like the vocal harmonies here, which sound more like Yes' original chior approach than the in-your-face, Bon Jovi-esque choruses of Union and Open Your Eyes. Many lament this not being a complete return to form or a far cry from Close to the Edge, but I think considering all the band went through to define themselves over the 18 years or so leading up to this album, they really came through brightly. This is Yes in 1999, really Yes (dance tunes included). There is more prog here than on any of the Trevor Rabin albums and the sound I find is more solid than on much of the Keys to Ascension studio tracks. The Ladder is not classic Yes but it is definitely one of their stronger albums in recent decades in my opinion. I give it four stars as I think Yes fans who can appreciate more than just the 70's catalogue and prog fans who are interested in more modern albums by former prog giants should give this album a chance.

FragileKings | 4/5 |


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