Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review of Yes's "Keystudio"

I posted the following review last night on the Sputnik music website:

Review Summary: Although technically a compilation album, this LP serves as the de facto last studio album by the classic Yes lineup of Anderson, Howe, Wakeman, Squire and White.

There's no question that Yes has one of the more interesting histories in the annals of rock music. The band has had a plethora of excellent musicians over the years, and has generated various spin-off bands as well. After the band's highly acclaimed Union tour in 1991, which merged Yes's most popular offshoot band, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe with Chris Squire's version of Yes (which included guitarist Trevor Rabin, keyboard player Tony Kaye and drummer Alan White), Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford once again left the band. The remaining members released the poorly received Talk LP in 1994. At the conclusion of the Talk tour, Rabin and Kaye departed to pursue other projects, so not surprisingly, the remaining members of Yes invited Howe and Wakeman to rejoin the band. 

This led to two of the stranger albums in Yes history, Keys to Ascension in 1996, and Keys to Ascension 2 in 1997. Both were double albums, and both consisted of a blend of brand new studio tracks and live versions of vintage 1970s Yes songs. This ticked off Wakeman, who felt that the band had basically wasted a perfectly good new studio album's worth of material, so he left the band again. In 2001, however, he won the point in retrospect, when Yes took the two studio tracks from Keys to Ascension and the five studio tracks from Keys to Ascension 2, and belatedly released them together on a compilation album called Keystudio. Of course, by that time, any possible excitement that a brand new original studio album by the classic Yes lineup might have generated was long gone, so Keystudio didn't chart at all (nor was it especially strongly promoted). However, what this means to Yes fans is that not only is Keystudio a de facto Yes studio album, it is, in fact, the last studio work that the lineup of Anderson, Howe, Wakeman, Squier and White ever recorded.

So how is it? It's pretty good. In fact, it's arguably the best album of original Yes material released after 1980's Drama LP, other than 1989's Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (which isn't an official Yes album). There are only seven songs here, but in typical Yes fashion, the album still clocks in at an impressive hour and fifteen minutes, with two of the tracks ("Mind Drive" and "That, That Is") surpassing 18 minutes each. I find the sound to be somewhere between that of the 1978 Tormato album (but don't worry, it's definitely better than Tormato) and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. It's a pretty dense work, although it's not nearly as impenetrable as 1970's Tales of Topographic Oceans. And as you might expect, each of the five band members gets plenty of time to show off his virtuosity. 

My strongest criticism is this: there are seven good tracks here, but not necessarily any great ones. For this reason, opinions vary as to which are the strongest songs on the album. The track that most stood out for me when I first heard the two Key to the Ascension CDs was "Children of Light". And although Keystudio offers a slightly different version of the song with an extended Wakeman intro, it's still my favorite number, followed by "Footprints" and a beautiful instrumental track called "Sign Language". However, a quick poll of two other Yes fans found that for one, "That, That Is", "Be the One" and "Mind Drive" were the top tracks while another cited "Mind Drive", "Footprints" and "Sign Language" as his favorites. So clearly, there is no consensus as to which is Keystudio's best song. 

One thing of note here is that several tracks on the LP find Anderson's lyrics veering away from his usual mysticism to more socially conscious subjects. "That, That Is" in particular starts with lyrics about inner city gang violence, crack addicts and dead children. Anderson being Anderson, however, the lyrics become more abstract and spiritual as the song goes on, finally ending with "Live for the breaking free/Live for the breaking freedom/Just let it come through come through". So even in this song, we're not exactly dealing with Lou Reed's "Dirty Blvd".

Keystudio isn't really an album for making new Yes fans. It's one of their more obscure releases. It wasn't highly acclaimed when it was released (although to be fair, both Keys to Ascension and Keys to Ascension 2, the two albums from which it draws its tracks, were both received positively upon their respective releases), and it actually went out of print in 2010. Nevertheless, it's a solid album of original Yes songs by one of the band's best-loved lineups. If it had been released in lieu of the two live/studio hybrids that drove Wakeman out of the band in 1997, it would probably have received the adulation of Yes fans everywhere. It would certainly be better known than it is today. Like I said, it won't make Yes any new fans. For those like myself who are already fans, though, it's certainly a fine addition to your collection.

Rating: 3/5 stars