The old Yes juggernaut pulled into the Freemont Theatre in San Luis Obispo, California, for three nights in March of 1996. It was the first time that their classic line-up of vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman had played exclusively together in 18 years.
The result was Keys To Ascension, which gathered live tracks and two new studio songs onto a two-CD release. It was a moderate commercial success, by Yes standards, in the United States and United Kingdom.
Keys To Ascension is an essential modern-day Yes release, however, as it returned them to their progressive rock roots while bringing their sound into the present. The five band members quickly settled in to a groove and drew on 35 years of experience to provide some of the better live music of their careers.
The album’s seven live songs span the band’s career and include the famous and not so famous, the common and the uncommon. They returned to the long, extended, improvisational approach of their past, as five tracks lasted in excess of 10 minutes, and two were longer than 18 minutes.
The 10-minute version of “Siberian Khatru” is classic progressive rock and rivals the version found on Yessongs. Wakeman is always a treat when he keeps his extreme improvisational inclinations under control, and here he meshes well with Howe’s guitar playing. “The Revealing Science Of God” made its recorded live debut in all its 20-minute glory. Solos by all the principles combine and meander to make this a memorable performance. “Onward” was basically a throw-away track on Tormato, yet here it moves from a simple electronic song to basically an unplugged performance with Howe at the forefront. The fact that it is the album’s shortest track (at less than six minutes) enhances its appeal as its structure and control is a nice counterpoint to the rest of the music.
Two of the band’s most popular live songs make an appearance as well. I never get tired of “Roundabout” and while the version here may add nothing new, it still is a treat to hear Anderson’s vocal, which has not changed in decades, plus Squire’s famous bass lines. “Starship Trooper” always relies on the guitar/keyboard interaction, and here Howe and Wakeman modernize this eternal concert song.
The album ends with two new studio tracks, which added up to 30 minutes of music. “Be The One” is the shorter piece at less than 10 minutes and has a memorable melody and chorus. The 20 minute “That, That Is” has some nice acoustic work by Steve Howe but it tends to drag a little in parts.
Keys To Ascension is a sometimes forgotten Yes album. It remains an excellent look at five friends who proved that you can teach an old dog new tricks.