The Ladder Album reviews.
Release Date: 09.28.99
Record label: BMG / Beyond
The Best Thing Since "Owner of a Lonely Heart"
by: mark feldman
They've been through more personnel changes than the Red Sox bullpen, they've been making albums longer than many of their fans have been alive, they've survived psychedelia, disco, new wave, and hip hop, and they're still around at the turn of the millennium. And even more unbelievable is that they aren't out of ideas yet.
The Ladder, for the first time in years, is the Yes we all know and love, the admittedly pretentious but still irresistible ethereal high-octave warbling of John Anderson (Will someone please explain how his voice can still sound exactly the same as it did in 1969?), the virtuoso guitar work of Steve Howe, the almost equally mindblowing musicianship of whichever other of the lads are on board for this go round, complete with visions of peace, children, hearts and mountains, and album artwork that looks like you've stepped into Disneyland. It's as if the last 20 years never happened.
Well, not quite. The Ladder does have a couple of lengthy pieces, "Homeworld" and "New Language," but they differ from the typical 9 minute Yes epic in their conciseness and emphasis on melody over solos. And the rest of the album strikes more of a balance between the more adventurous Yes records of the '70s and (in case you were unaware) the last few years, and the poppier stuff of the '80s and early '90s. A trip to a stronghold of Yes disciples, and you'll most likely encounter at least a modicum of disapproval of anything this band does that's under six minutes and doesn't change tempo at least twice during each verse. But that's just silly; you don't have to stretch a four minute message into ten minutes to be "progressive," and Yes have always been able to do some kick-ass four minute rock and roll when they choose. Honestly now, what's a more memorable song, "Owner of a Lonely Heart" or "The Gates of Delirium?" "Sweet Dreams" or "The Revealing Science of God?" It's not even close.
So let's get to the songs on the new album already. "Face to Face" intrigues with a Tangerine Dream-meets-Paul Simon intro and some amazingly complex vocal harmonies. "Lightning Strikes," a rare moment of lightheartedness, is actually Ska - incredibly white ska, but ska nonetheless. "Finally" is reminiscent of many a track on 90125 in its no-nonsense wall of sound approach. The Far-Eastern-tinged "To Be Alive" is a cool reality check on the heavy-handed philosophizing Yes are often prone to, and is simply their best song since "Owner of a Lonely Heart." And the love ballad "If Only You Knew" may be pure pop, but it's darned high quality pure pop that, were top 40 radio these days willing to play music with guitars in it, could stop teenage hearts all over America - I'll take it over Celine Dion any day. And "Nine Voices" closes out the disc with a beautiful, mystical acoustic flourish and a subtle vocal reference to the Yes classic "Your Move" that you'll miss if you blink.
If there's one problem with The Ladder, it's that it's almost exclusively Anderson's baby. Rarely if at all do the talents of Steve Howe, drummer Alan White, or new keyboardist Igor Khoroshev shine through. This is at least preferable to the other extreme - we don't need any 15 minute solos - but Howe in particular plays perhaps the most incredible variety of guitar sounds on any Yes record, and it would be nice to hear them for a few seconds longer before they got drowned again by five tracks of vocals.
But overall, Yes have arrived again with an album full of songs that are as accessible, memorable, and yes, progressive, as anything they've done in the past 15 years. It's not going to make you forget Fragile or The Yes Album, but it should be allowed a rightful place alongside those albums in the Yes canon.