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Yes - Keys to Ascension 2 CD (album) cover

KEYS TO ASCENSION 2

Yes

 

Symphonic Prog

3.97 | 450 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Keys to Ascension 2' - Yes (69/100)

Even if it fell short of its promise to bring back Yes as they were in their golden age, the Keys to Ascension duology made for a thankful respite, following a string of terrible or otherwise underwhelming work. Especially as someone who has seen fit to go through their discography in chronological order, "That, That Is" and "Mind Drive" in particular feel like an oasis after some Biblical trek through a sweltering desert of inspiration-deprived AOR, cheap pop antics and enough lineup changes to make me wondering if the band I had been listening to could rightfully be called Yes anymore. Anyways, Keys to Ascension seems to acknowledge every gripe a long-time fan of the band could ever have. We have the classic lineup and the promise of fresh epics delivered alongside some of their best classic material. Considering this was happening around twenty years since their last great album, the whole thing sounded too good to be true.

In a way, it was too good to be true. Other fans have lauded Keys to Ascension as a true return to form for the boys who brought us Close to the Edge, with the lion's share of the praise going towards the first half. Keys to Ascension 2, on the other hand, has never achieved the same popularity. While the first Keys to Ascension disappointed me for not having enough of an emphasis on the promising studio material, this sequel has disappointed me for the opposite reason. Looking back on my experience with the first, most of my lasting appreciation towards it had to do with the impeccable, Yessongs-calibre live set. Keys to Ascension 2 has more (and better) studio material than its companion, but the 'new' songs Yes offered on this one aren't enough to balance out the less impressive live portion this time around.

I think part of the lacklustre response towards Keys to Ascension 2 has to do with the fact that we had an otherwise strong first half to compare it to. "Be the One" and "That, That Is" felt dry to me, but the hour-plus of live material was enough to give Yessongs a run for its money. "Awaken", "The Revealing Science of God", "Siberian Khatru", "Roundabout" and "Starship Trooper" are here for the taking- really, it's the sort of god- tier live set I would have dreamed the lacklustre Yesshows from 1980 to be. In comparison, Keys to Ascension 2 has "Going for the One", "Turn of the Century" and "Close to the Edge" going most in its favour. The choice of songs isn't bad to be sure, but there's a certain sense that these tracks were the live cuts that didn't make it onto the first half. Even the most promising cut seems to be missing something: "Close to the Edge" was an absolute firestorm when heard on Yessongs, but here, they're slowed down the tempo to the point where it seems anaesthetic compared to other versions. On the other hand, the beautiful "Turn of the Century" (one of my favourite Yes songs period) is given a gorgeous treatment, possibly even outdoing the original off Going for the One.

While Keys to Ascension may have been devised as a pair of live albums, I was honestly most excited to hear them on the merit of having fresh material from the 'prog' Yes. Since Drama, the only great progressive piece the band had done was "Endless Dream", from the otherwise awful Talk. Just listening to a few minutes of the hyperpowered synth solos on "Mind Drive" was enough to get me hooked on the potential. While "That, That Is" off the first Keys to Ascension offered the shape and form of an epic, it honestly sounded like the band were still too stuck in the AOR mindset of Union to make the translation back into progressive rock really work. Thankfully, Keys to Ascension 2 shows Yes operating on a better level than before with the new stuff. "Mind Drive" in particular has earned a vast repute among hardcore fans, and for good reason; although it feels rigidly structured, the nineteen minute epic is home to some of the best instrumental passages the band had offered up in decades. "Foot Prints" starts off with a bright a capella redolent of "I've Seen All Good People", and evolves into a powerful track that actually feels a mite better written than "Mind Drive". "Bring Me To The Power" and "Children of Light" take this same throwback-ish approach, though they're more tangled in the hollow cheese of their recent era than I might have liked. Lastly, compared to the relative fireworks of the rest of the studio material, "Sign Language" caps off the album on an almost Floydian note, with Steve Howe noodling softly over some quiet instrumentation. Were this an official studio album, I'd say that "Sign Language" was undercooked, or belonged on a Howe solo album. For the sake of this however, it's enough to know the band want to play with sounds like that again.

Best intentions and displays of excellence aside, I cannot help but feel that Yes committed some sort of hubris to present new material alongside their immortal classics. Keys to Ascension is as well-intentioned a project as ever you're going to hear from a once-great band; when you've had success in prog and pop alike, it takes courage and dedication to challenge your heyday head on. While I'm not convinced the studio material is excellent, Keys to Ascension 2 shows the band demonstrating more confidence in their current work, rather than simply performing (admittedly brilliant) renditions of their older work. This zeitgeist would lead Yes into a brief renaissance, leading on with The Ladder and culminating with Magnification. Taken as a whole, the Keys to Ascension duology is one of the most promising turnarounds in progressive rock history. It's a shame it wouldn't be long before they burnt out once again.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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