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Yes - The Ladder CD (album) cover




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3.26 | 956 ratings

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3 stars Progressive rock certainly has its fair share of dysfunctional families but few can rival the soap opera- like breakups and makeups of the musically-incestuous crew of the battleship Yes. A complete roster of their alumni would approach the size of a phone book. In their illustrious history they've created sublime masterpieces like "Close to the Edge" and rancid, vegetable-splattered embarrassments like "Tormato." Therefore, blindly investing in one of their albums can be akin to a crap shoot. Slowly but surely I'm getting around to hearing everything they've ever released but, due to the cautionary word circulating around Prog Street, I tend to view any Yes product between "90125" and "Magnification" with acute trepidation. It really boils down to my not wanting the group to further sully the holy and reverential esteem my prog buddies and I bestowed upon them in the glory daze of the early and mid 70s when everything they did turned us into euphoric, dancing urban gypsies. However, having been such a huge fan I feel I have a responsibility to offer an honest assessment of ALL their albums, not just the extraordinary ones. In other words, there are some donkey droppings in the Yes rose garden and the younger generations must be warned not to play with them. Fortunately, "The Ladder," while it'll never be confused with a jewel like "Fragile," is not one of the stinky turds hidden in the peat moss.

According to the italicized banner in the liner notes producer Bruce Fairbairn instructed the band to simply "make the best Yes album you can, the rest will follow." I have no doubt that Anderson, Howe, Squire, White, Sherwood and Khoroshev set out to do just that but, if conjuring up classic Yes magic was their dedicated intent, why leave out essential elements that made the group the arena-filling juggernaut they once were? Sure, the vocals are top notch, it's very melodic, the sound is pristine and the performances are admirable but where are the extended guitar, synthesizer and organ solos that elevated Yes' material from average fare to the phenomenal? Those electrifying rides were the delectable cherries on the sumptuous sundaes that were "Yours is no Disgrace," "Roundabout" and "Gates of Delirium" (to name but a few) so why this particular line up of Yessirs would overlook what seems so obvious to me is baffling because that missing ingredient is what keeps this otherwise respectable collection of tunes from achieving greatness.

A strong beginning is always a plus and the mini-epic "Homeworld (The Ladder)" delivers. After a trademark mystical, birds-taking-flight-in-front-of-a-waterfall, Steve Howe guitar-noodling intro Jon Anderson's crystal-clear soprano rings out with "Nothing can take us far enough/emotion/far enough together." (For the uninitiated, that's a typical cryptic Yesism that, while confusing for earthlings, makes perfect sense to beings from say, Alpha Centauri) and you're off on another Yes adventure. Soon the band flows into an enclosed, growling guitar/bass rock riff for the verses and opens a wider scope for the choruses. Steve tosses in a too short (but hot nonetheless) lead along the way, then the 2nd movement takes over with Howe's jumpin' boogie thang a rollin', clearing a path for keyboard man Igor Khoroshev to scorch the earth with a searing Hammond organ spasm. The whole shebang possesses a vibrant vibe and one gets the impression that they're having themselves a good ol' time as they build up to a climactic peak before descending gently into a soothing acoustic guitar/piano motif for the serene coda. It's a quality track from front to back and at this point I'm impressed with what they're doing but that enthusiasm doesn't last. "It Will Be a Good Day (The River)" comes next and it features another subtle fade-in that, alas, promises more than it can set on the table. After a few minutes it's evident that this song has a tired pop-rock structure, is little more than a power ballad and sorely lacks that spotlight-hogging solo necessary to make it shine.

The first time I heard "Lightning Strikes" I thought "Holy crap, Thelma Lou! Someone's pulled a cruel stunt and snuck a Jimmy Buffett CD into my changer!" That panic quickly passed, however, once I noticed the sneaky 7/8 time signature (I knew The Coral Reefers probably couldn't keep that up for more than three measures) and settled back to hear something completely different. I particularly like the tune's infectious spirit, the vocal-heavy bridge and Chris Squire's four-second bass solo that guides them back to the verse. I don't mean to be rude but I have to chuckle at warbled lines like "Who ya gonna call for the secret of stealing the world?/swimming in this ocean of words on your new cell phone." Um, right, Jon boy. (Look, I'm a nut for great lyrics but I've rarely gotten what you'd call warm and runny over Yes' abstract poetics.) The song segues seamlessly into "Can I?" and it's one of Anderson's mesmerizing, pulsating mantra "we have heaven" singalongs that causes me to visualize Jon & Co. in loin cloths, parading around a roaring bonfire with aborigines in the outback. Astonishingly, though, it works.

The bad news at this juncture is that the next three cuts are yawners. "Face to Face" begins with Alan White's disco bass drum pounding relentlessly underneath zippy synthesizers and assorted bass guitar runs, then turns into a plain vanilla rocker that doesn't do much at all despite Anderson singing "the promise will come when the promise is made..." Whatever, Captain Kirk. "If Only You Knew" is a pretty ballad with very tight accents and a nice arrangement but it's too slick, too long and too uneventful for me. Jon dedicated it to his wife and I'm sure that she thinks more of it than I do. And "To Be Alive (Hep Yadda)" sounds like something Sting would write because of its world-beat attitude and the unintelligible call and answer going on behind the choruses. Howe gets to fool around with his steel guitar for a spell but he's kept too far down in the mix to add any pizzazz. Don't get me wrong, I like Sting plenty but this is Yes and it sounds a bit forced.

The good news is that the last four numbers rescue the album from the doldrums. They wheel out the sleek sports car that is "Finally," and, as they intone more than a couple of times, they "put it to the test." While Anderson will never be mistaken for Greg Allman, he manages to cram some raspy grit into his normally angelic voice and that tactic makes the song stand out. But just when you think they're going to rock it to midnight they suddenly pause and make an unexpected 180-degree turn into a soft musical landscape where sexy Jon swears that he can "feel the earth moving." (Was it good for you, too?) But the star of this show is Steve Howe as he at long last is allowed to dazzle us with wave after wave of gorgeous guitar runs, the sort that he often paints their songs with so well. "The Messenger" is a Yes-goes-Jamaican, Bob Marley tribute that could have fallen on its face but doesn't. In fact, it's an interesting and timely change of pace. Here you get some intricate interplay between Steve and Igor (sounds like a lounge act, no?) and the acoustic guitar twist at the end is a clever move.

"New Language" is the album's second mini-epic and it's every bit as good as the first one. It has an energetic onset with a climbing melody line containing a Native American influence that leads to another spicy Hammond organ salvo from Khoroshev. (He's no Wakeman, but he ain't bad.) The 2nd part is calmer but it still possesses a very tight groove and a rousing chorus. The 3rd section is spurred into action by a strong guitar pattern (could this be the elusive Billy Sherwood?) and terrific dynamics as Howe turns in another hair-raising guitar ride before the group reprises the original verse and chorus. The all-acoustic "Nine Voices" is last but in no way least. I'll admit that it's a tad nostalgic (Can you say "Your Move"?) but in a very satisfying way. It has cavernous depth and Steve's raga- like, 12-string guitar rampages in the middle and at the end are ferocious and amazing to behold. You may well be tempted to push the repeat button for this one. Go ahead. Indulge freely.

The album they made after this one, "Magnification," is better overall due mainly to their artful and graceful blending of a real orchestra into that project but that doesn't mean this one can be summarily dismissed. These virtuosos set the bar mighty high for themselves back in the day and I expect that it takes every ounce of talent they've retained to even come close to clearing it now. I guess what it comes down to is that it's just missing that undeniable WOW moment that makes you wonder if you really heard what you THINK you just heard. I'm talking about an almost spiritual musical experience that can still send a chill up your spine decades later. "The Ladder" never elicits that kind of aural epiphany but, then again, few do. Quality prog from start to finish and a must-have for every Yes enthusiast. 3.4 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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