'The Ladder' - Living Within the Vision
Released 20 Years Ago On This Day!
After the Open Your Eyes Tour wrapped up in 1998, the Yes lineup of Jon Anderson (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Igor Khoroshev (keys), Billy Sherwood (rhythm guitar), Chris Squire (bass), and Alan White (drums) felt ready to record another album. Needing an outside perspective, they decided to work with producer Bruce Fairbairn at Armoury Studios in Vancouver. While Open Your Eyes was very poppy, the poppiness on the next album that became The Ladder was dialed back a bit, and there was plenty of prog rock. The album felt like a good blend of old and new. It includes ethnic instruments, some of which were played by Randy Raine-Reusch. In addition, Rhys Fulber contributed dance loops, and The Marguerita Horns played horns.
On May 17, 1999, Fairbairn died from a heart attack. The album was finished with mixer/engineer Mike Plotnikoff. Fairbairn's passing was unfortunate, but his work with Yes on this album is one of various marks that he left in his life. Members of the band have expressed how fortunate they were to have his input. The Ladder was released on September 20, 1999, and it has since been perceived by some as the best Yes album in a while, taking into account the music styles, the production, and the cohesion of the material.
1. "Homeworld" (The Ladder)
"Homeworld" was originally going to be titled "Climbing the Ladder." It was licensed for use in the Homeworld video game from Relic Entertainment. The themes of space and a search for a new home were up Anderson's alley, as he had done Olias of Sunhillow decades earlier.
The beginning of the track gives a sense of the unknown, complete with eerie sounds. One can imagine being out in the emptiness of space. The song builds from a quiet place and keeps on progressing and getting more full of sound. At various points, Khoroshev's keys give the song a spacey feel that illustrate an astral voyage. The words "The history of the future" pop up as they had on "Bring Me to the Power." And, of course, History of the Future was a title considered for Talk. "Send, ascending to the secrets" also brings "Ascend and create" from "Mind Drive" to mind. "We follow the sun" makes me think of "Ritual," and this song ends with a similar, quiet epilogue. We hear about the importance of peace and truth, and it is clear that the material on this album is a step up from where Yes were shortly before.
2. "It Will Be a Good Day (The River)"
"It Will Be a Good Day" is one of my favorite Yes songs. Circa 1981, a 16-year-old Billy Sherwood sketched out the chord progression on his acoustic guitar. His first band, Lodgic, thought that it sounded too reminiscent of Yes. Luckily, it just so happened to find a place on a Yes album.
The lyrics provide imagery of the nature of the world in all its majesty. The music is full of swelling positivity that can put someone in good spirits. The verses "Sometimes I forget / How mighty this earth" call attention to how we sometimes get so occupied with our day-to-day lives that we sometimes do not take the time to appreciate how beautiful the world we live in really is. The words that are sung opposite of Anderson appropriately audible: "Take the river to the sea / Come tomorrow, destiny." The first of these lines was used on the Union song "Take the Water to the Mountain," and I sometimes like to listen to the extended version of it right after "It Will Be a Good Day." Passion in the lyrics and music intensify during "Time feels so much closer now / You are with me, so real." This song is so powerful that it can make one believe that they will have a good day.
3. "Lightning Strikes"
"Lightning Strikes" and the two tracks that follow it feel like one longer song split into three sections. One can even hear the words "Face to face" in the background. It opens with the Mellotron flute sample from "Phenomenal Cat" by The Kinks. Then we get guitar, and the singing on "Lightning Strikes" proper begins, with the opening lyrics being echoed. Then the pace picks up, and the track sounds very electric. This is appropriate, given that "lightning" is part of the title.
As a whole, "Lightning Strikes" makes me think of ABWH's "Teakbois" because it has somewhat of an island party vibe to it. The words "dancing till the dawn" make me think of "The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)." "Talk, talk, talk" also reminds me of "Give & Take," "Endless Dream," and "Bring Me to the Power." Yes experiment with the use of such words as "She ay... Do wa bap" and "Eya he say," which do their job of coloring the lyrical atmosphere. The ending sounds like whistling or tweeting of a bird. This song is actually where the Marguerita Horns make an appearance.
4. "Can I?"
"Can I?" quotes "We Have Heaven" from Fragile. But other than that line, everything else sounds like a different language. The eeriness of the music reminds me a bit of the sequence in The Lion King (1994) when Simba is following Rafiki. A similar mood, but a different pace. Randy Raine-Reusch plays a didjeridoo on this song.
5. "Face to Face"
We then segue into "Face to Face," which sounds to me like surfer music at certain points. It is a really fun song with a positive message. The opening lyrics are, "Here we are trying to mend all the broken hearts / In a world where the pain is the fear." And this truly is the world that we live in. The verse, "See the truth, not to mention the promise is made" is one that resonates with me. There are some uplifting sentiments, and we even hear "Lift me up," which reminds me of "Lift Me Up" from Union. I like how the singing escalates when "Promise is made" is repeated toward the end.
6. "If Only You Knew"
"If Only You Knew" is a love song written for Jon Anderson's wife Jane. has a gentle, ethereal feel to it. It has some sweet sentiments such as "Cannot live without your truth / And be the true me / To be the true you." I suspect that this verse may have inspired the title of the cancelled Anderson/Khoroshev album True You, True Me. I'm reminded of "Final Eyes" when I hear the verse "You caught me when I was falling," but the feeling here is more akin to elation. "You saw me when I was dreaming you / Into my life" suggests the idea of people always being destined to end up together. The music swells up a bit to convey how highly passionate the proclamation is. I'm also reminded of ABWH's "Quartet - I'm Alive" when I hear, "When I feel the hurt in so many peoples' lives / I take a deep breath and think of your smile your eyes." Some people might roll their eyes at romance songs like these, but they make my day a bit better.
7. "To Be Alive (Hep Yadda)"
Randy Raine-Reusch plays a zheng on "To Be Alive." Bits of it sound to me like "Miracle of Life" from Union. The opening verse "Not a lot is missing, every ounce of treasure found" makes me think of "Far below the deepest treasure." I quite enjoy the rhyming in "To Be Alive," even when the rhymes are not perfect: "It's the sound they make in heaven, it's a sound for here on earth / I've heard it in the whispering of the wonders that we search." I admire the vocabulary of this song and how it conveys positive vibes and how we can draw inspiration from our surroundings. "Your temple is the harmony, you feel the sacred ground" makes me think of the "solid ground" from "Be the One," and the "sacred ground" would be mentioned again on the next album's "Give Love Each Day." The repeating of "Hep yadda" at the end is effective, in my opinion. Even if one does not know what it means, it feels optimistic. "To Be Alive" was performed live at only four shows on the South American leg of the tour.
The rapid instrumentation at the beginning of "Finally" reminds me of "Almost Like Love," but not quite as poppy. This song is a good mix of pop and prog. "Music be the master planner" reminds me that music has the power to get one pumped up or become focused on the task at hand. The verse "The voices say do not despair" seems to be the beginning of a theme of voices that runs through the other songs that follow. Toward the end, there is a shift to a slower pace and a more gloomy tone. Well, it sounds gloomy to me probably because the way that the words are sung have a mourning quality to them. But the guitar notes at the end feel very positive.
9. "The Messenger"
Fairbairn suggested that Yes make a song about someone, and Anderson thought of Bob Marley. The result was "The Messenger." When Yes finished recording it, Anderson saw that MTV were playing an old Bob Marley concert, and he took it as a sign. The song has a reggae influence, and Squire's bass feels very laid back in a way that suits the track. While the surrounding songs touch upon the theme of voices, this one emphasizes the "One voice," especially toward the end, when the music shifts to a more speedy pace. "The Messenger" is wonderful tribute that emphasizes the influence that Bob Marley had.
10. "New Language"
"New Language" has an impressive church organ solo performed on Yamaha keyboards. There is a lot of great drumming throughout the song. After the intensity of the intro, the music becomes laid back when the vocals come in. But then it starts building up again during "Vision is coming so fast I can't stop myself." The melody for that section would actually be reused by Anderson for his 2011 EP Open. Howe takes the spotlight for a bit, showcasing his excellent skills once again. The ending of "New Language" sounds like multiple endings, thus reminding me of "Into the Lens" from Drama. But overall, an adventurous ride that lasts nearly 10 minutes.
11. "Nine Voices (Longwalker)"
"Nine Voices," being stripped down compared to "New Language," feels like a coda that closes off the album very well. The song is inspired by the American Indian Movement's Longest Walk in 1978. Anderson befriended one of the participants, Longwalker, who has spoken on his solo albums Toltec and The Mother's Day Concert. The Portuguese guitar and scat singing remind me of the "Your Move" section of "I've Seen All Good People." Randy Raine-Reusch also plays a tamboura on this song. At Fairbairn's funeral service, Anderson and Howe did an acoustic performance of "Nine Voices," as it was a song with which Fairbairn connected on a personal level. It is the only song to appear on Yes tours after The Ladder Tour. It popped up once in 2002, three times on the 35th Anniversary Tour in 2004, and six times in 2015. And then it was performed regularly on the Yes50 Tour from 2018 to 2019. A recording appeared on the recent album Yes 50 Live.
With it being a step up, the material on The Ladder lived up to the album title. The album was represented very well on the tour that followed. Live performances of "Homeworld," "Lightning Strikes," "The Messenger," "It Will Be a Good Day," and "Face to Face" from that tour can be found on House of Yes: Live from the House of Blues. The Ladder was a fine way for Yes to finish off the 20th century, and it remains a great listen 20 years later.