Judge Victor Valdivia is such a prog-rock zealot that his associates all disdainfully call him a "Yeshole."
Our reviews of Yes (published November 8th, 2005), Yes: Yesspeak (published February 19th, 2004), Yes: Symphonic Live (Blu-ray) (published October 8th, 2011), Yes: The New Director's Cut (published September 17th, 2008), and Yes: Yesspeak (published June 11th, 2011) are also available.
What happened to this song we once knew so well?—"The Revealing Science of God"
What indeed? Here is one of the classic lineups of one of the most revered and influential prog-rock bands of all time, reunited for the first time in nearly twenty years, captured in concert performing some of its most beloved songs. As is usually the case, all of the members are skilled musicians, with nary a bum note anywhere to be heard, and the crowd is clearly enthusiastic to witness an event many of them had waited for a long time to see.
So why is Keys to Ascension so disappointing? This was definitely a landmark appearance; this lineup of Yes, responsible for such prog-rock epics as Yessongs (1972), Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973), Going for the One (1977), and Tormato (1978), was the lineup that most '70s Yes fans are familiar with. Having disbanded in 1979, Yes spent most of the '80s and '90s with a completely different lineup and a more mainstream rock sound that had only a tenuous connection with prog. This reunion was a huge event for Yes fans—all four shows sold out within minutes on the Internet—but some misguided decisions in the performance and recording of the DVD make it not nearly as interesting as it must have been to see the shows live.
Keys to Ascension was filmed over three performances in March of 1996 at the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo, CA. Singer Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White perform the following songs:
• "Siberian Khatru"
The set list highlights part of the problem. As an event, this reunion was significant, but as a concert it's not that exciting. The most recent song here—"Onward"—dates all the way back to 1978. Though the band does perform some lesser-known rarities like "The Revealing Science of God" and "Turn of the Century," the fact that much of the set list consists of old chestnuts that they've performed countless times means that this is mostly a rote performance. Howe and Wakeman, in particular, look bored at times and their solos are sometimes little more than dull recitations of their recorded work. To highlight just what a mistake it was for Yes to focus so zealously on old material, consider that the most exciting performances on the Yes: the New Director's Cut DVD that was performed by the exact same lineup nearly a decade later are the songs written and recorded in 2001. Had Yes used these shows to break in some new material, maybe these shows would have been more energetic. As they are, however, once you accept that this is a significant reunion, the performance itself doesn't hold much interest.
The lackluster performance isn't the only problem. Director/producer Steve Mitchell attempts something elaborate in presenting the show visually: during the songs, he superimposes pseudo-psychedelic images over the musicians, including bubbling water, people climbing rocks, pretty flowers, and old Yes album covers. It's no surprise that this is all deeply distracting, but what's even worse is that most of these images, as corny as they are, sometimes completely block out the band members themselves. What's the point of finally reuniting this lineup if all we're going to see are endless shots of bad video effects circa 1972? Even the occasional flashes of brilliance (mainly on the lesser-known songs) are hard to enjoy with all the cheesy graphics.
Technically, the disc is mixed. Keys to Ascension was originally issued on DVD in 2001, and this edition looks and sounds identical to that one. The full-screen transfer isn't great, looking soft and hazy and somewhat washed-out. The Dolby 5.1 surround mix, on the other hand, is actually pretty good. It's not too loud, but the instruments are crisp and clear and it makes good use of the surrounds. This new edition does come with new extras, but they're not as useful as they seem initially. The featurette "The Key to Ascension" (8:34) is edited out of the previously issued Yes: Classic Artists DVD, which was an extended video biography of the band. If you have that DVD, you've already seen this segment; if you don't. you'll be mighty confused by the lack of identifying subtitles on any of the interviewees. There's also an audio commentary by Squire which is hit-and-miss. He does have some things to say about the show itself, but mostly he recites basic facts about Yes history that most fans will already know. What's more, he only comments on about half the concert, since he stops talking after a couple of minutes of each song. The last extra is a live concert from Philadelphia 1979 (51:23) that's redundant. This concert has already been released on DVD as Yes: Live in Philadelphia 1979, complete with remastered video, a 5.1 surround mix, and an audio essay by Yes biographer Chris Welch. Here, it only comes with a stereo mix and looks compressed and fuzzy. This is actually a good performance that, in some ways, surpasses the main concert itself. Fans who want to see it, however, should simply spring for that DVD itself.
Ultimately, Keys to Ascension is really only for fans who want a souvenir of the reunion shows. The actual performances are not that exciting and the visual presentation is downright silly. Newcomers who want to see how stellar this lineup of Yes could be live should track down the Yessongs DVD, which, while suffering from technical flaws of its own, remains one of Yes' definitive recordings. If you already own the previous issue of Keys to Ascension, you'd do better to preview it to see if the Chris Squire commentary, the only new extra of value, is worth a new investment.
Apparently, you had to be there. Guilty.
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