The comeback of the original Yes line-up seemed to be one of the greatest surprises in this decade. Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman and White agreed to draw on their past achievements and use them as a base for a new project. Two studio songs on "Keys To Ascension" and the whole second disc of "Keys To Ascension 2" were an effective demonstration. Such dynamics, vitality, so many new ideas hadn't been seen since the 70s. Before "KTA2" was released, however, Rick Wakeman announced his departure. He didn't explain his decision at first. A few months later, in three separate interviews, he gave three different reasons... Under pressure from the management (who demanded easy, radio-frendly songs) Yes made "Open Your Eyes", with the help of Billy Sherwood on keyboards. What is interesting, Billy used to sing for Yes in 1989, when Anderson got involved with ABWH. Yes didn't have much new material for "OYE" so they used Squire's and Sherwood's compositions instead. The album was rather average, far from the complexity of the "Keys...". Soon, Sherwood changed his role in Yes and became a guitarist; a young Russian, Igor Khoroshev, took over the keyboard duties. (Khoroshev, 34, is quite young in comparison to the other members.)
Yes is notorious for their prolonged studio sessions. Early gossip about a new album being in the works came in November 1998, last mixes were finished seven months later. Unexpectedly, the album was Produced by Bruce Fairbairn, who had previously collaborated with Kiss, Bon Jovi and the Cranberries. "The Ladder" was the entire band's collective effort. The long recording session sharpened the appetite of fans...
The first song, Homeworld. Slowly from the darkness emerge keyboard passages, sounds of bells, the chirping of birds. Guitar. Jon Anderson's voice. Exaltation, joy, affirmation. "Nothing can take us far enough Emotion... far enough together" It's almost a sequel to "Awaken"! The chorus section is more banal, too poppy. Suddenly, another surprise - Hammond organ! Khoroshev gives a taste of his true skill. "Homeworld" ends with a 2-minute coda, a Khoroshev and Anderson duet. The passage is full of nostalgia, hope, and love. The song that follows, It'll be a good day is weaker, stodgy, as if it belonged on "OYE".
Lightning Strikes can give Yes fans a shock. It begins with what sounds like a quasi-bossanova or a vaudeville comedy soundtrack. Then the guitar comes in, follwed by Anderson's joyful vocals. By the 50th second of the song we are driven to our wit's end. Such a dance song has never been recorded by Yes. Heavy rhythm, nice melody, some special effects. I hope it will make the charts and bring new fans to Yes...
Remember "We Have Heaven"? Short, Latino-influenced Can I resembles Anderson's solo piece from "Fragile". Next, Face To Face is full of interesting ideas, but a bit... slow-paced. If Only You Knew is a wonderful ballad, rather underestimated by fans, I think. To Be Alive begins with the exotic sound of sitar (as in "It Can Happen") and this beginning is probably the best thing about the song. About Finally, one fan has remarked: "Yes plays Asia". Jon's vocal is similar to the second part of the "Order of the Universe" from "ABWH" album, and in fact, Wetton wouldn't have problems replacing him here. Good rock playing. Very rocky is also the The Messenger. New Language, the second longest piece on "The Ladder" is a masterful showcase from the instrumentalists. The composition itself is not that good, some sections are completely unrelated to each other. The last song on the album is "Nine Voices". Anderson and acoustic Howe's guitar. It's an incredible ending of the last Yes album this century.
Now, a few general conclusions. The album sounds great, the musicians are in great form. Particularly Khoroshev fills Wakeman's shoes very well. He also cooperates well with Howe and they do some things similar to "Sign Language". Anderson's performance is uneven. Sometimes he delights us; sometimes he seems to be a bit bored himself. Despite of this, the record would be great, but the compositions... The compositions aren't that good. In a long piece, there can be only a few musical motifs. Another thing is the questionable presence of Sherwood in the band. He doesn't bring any interesting ideas.
If I could compare "The Ladder" to other Yes records, the closest would be... "Union" and "ABWH." Surprisingly, everything that irritated us on those albums is invisible here. Surely, "The Ladder" is worth a listen. It won't blow your mind like "Close To The Edge" did, but also won't be brushed aside like "OYE". Good work with some peculiarities, but Yes is still very strong and most of the fans should be satisfied.