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Yes - Close To The Edge CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

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5 stars William Congreve once famously said: 'Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast.' Clearly he had not just finished listening to YES's seminal work, 'Close to the Edge'. This music soothes nothing. It IS the savage beast.

Rightly considered the single masterwork of progressive rock, 'Close to the Edge' is a testament to the happy marriage of confidence, talent, compositional skills, arrangement and, above all, the liberation afforded artists in the early '70s. YES had earned the right to make this album by producing two outstanding precursors, 'The Yes Album' and 'Fragile', but even their most dedicated fans had no right to expect the aural ecstasy they were offered on this record. This was no mere development of their already outstanding craft: instead, the band took what they had done and, as though treating those epic songs and albums as rough sketches, filled in all the details on this album. The result was the blueprint for jazz-tinged symphonic rock.

Side 1 is taken up with the title track. On the previous two albums the grand epics had been separated by small vignettes, giving the listener a moment to breathe. Here the vignettes are incorporated into the epics, and each of the three songs are like roller-coasters, plumbing the depths and soaring to the heights of human emotion. By turns majestic, gentle, joyful and diabolic, the title track traces an eighteen minute journey of bliss.

The long fade-in intro begins with birdsong, as though one has just thrown a window open on to a magical kingdom. A cacophony of noise builds into a raucous opening, SQUIRE's bass stamping out a thunderous rhythm, rising note by note, interspersed with BRUFORD's whip-crack snare, guitar shadings and shreddings and a discordant keyboard. Unsettlingly, this free-form, almost improv piece continues, bizarrely interrupted by ANDERSON's vocal cries, until the first-time listener begins to wonder where the melodies have gone. It doesn't make sense on first listen, but the free-form intro prepares the way for perhaps one of the sweetest melodies in rock, a simple motif provided by STEVE HOWE. It is our touchstone, and the tune we will return to later.

It is now that the band reveals CHRIS SQUIRE's outstanding achievement, How a bass player can add something so simple, yet so profound to an already outstanding piece of music is beyond me. But his fret-jumping bass runs leading into the beginning of ANDERSON's vocals are, well, revolutionary. Coupled with the jangle of HOWE's chipping strum, the song is given a personality of its own: no other song in rock sounds like this. What is it? Rock? Funk? The counterpoint of bass, guitar and vocal here, each playing a tune/line/riff other artists would willingly have sold their souls for, is the stuff of legend. A meaty hand reaches through the open window, grabs you by the throat, and yanks you out the window and into another world, a world of mind-altering imagery, of musical intensity, a world that has turned thousands of people on to progressive rock through its sheer brilliance.

And on to my unashamedly favourite moment in music. 'I get up/I get down,' ANDERSON sings at the end of the second chorus, as the music swells. 'Now that it's all over and done/Now that you find/Now that you're whole.' And SQUIRE lets loose with the most astonishing bass run. Mountains fall, seas empty and the world shakes. Yes, I'm indulging in hyperbole, I'm waxing lyrical, but the entry of SQUIRE's bi-amped bass is one of the most intense sounds I've ever heard. Down-slide, up-slide and then two emphatic percussive blows. So simple! Those two offbeat notes at the end of the run are incredible, the very definition of why music unsettles and satisfies us so. An echo is added to ANDERSON's voice, emphasising the power of this piece. The chorus is repeated, but downbeat and in a different timing. There really is no end to the band's creativity.

Deliberately, there is a hole in the middle of this piece. WAKEMAN dominates this central section, calling on all his classical bombast with mellotron and pipe organ sound to evoke a majestic mystical feeling while the band members sing enchanted lyrics. Musically, this section serves the same purpose as the screeches in PINK FLOYD's 'Echoes' - a diminution, a dying away of the intensity, from which we can be raised to the climax of the piece in true symphonic fashion. Yet the shimmering beauty of this placid middle section can be enjoyed as much for what it is as what it heralds.

The next moment of genius arrives at the segue back to the main theme: WAKEMAN'S moog eclipses the church organ, a fanfare announcing HOWE's return. Watch what BRUFORD does, withholding his snare shots, offering the bare minimum as our minds fill in the beats, while SQUIRE pulses away in the background. Now - oh glory - the band reprises all the themes they've used while WAKEMAN playes what must be one of the best keyboard solos ever, especially given the context he's been provided with. This is simply too much. And so we return triumphantly, as ANDERSON says, to the opening theme: with extra harmonies, YES lift us into the skies with the final chorus. This, oh this, is how it is done. Witness. 'Now that you find, now that you're WHOLE!' You bet I am. And down we come, lowered gradually into mortal lands, as the keyboards swirl and the birds chirp, and I reach out and reluctantly close the window on a world I wish I could dwell in forever.

'And You And I' seems to many like a poor relation to the musical triumph preceding it. I don't believe so. In fact, short of the title track, I value it as YES's best epic. It has a slower, more pastoral feel, but to me is the perfect shape for a symphonic prog number. In fact, whenever I'm asked at conventions to describe the novel-writing process, I point to this song. Simple and crisp beginning, evoking wonder, followed by a slow build into a mid-climax, with a falling away and rebuilding until a second, even greater climax is reached, then rounded off quickly and emphatically. Leaves 'em scratching their heads! The harmonics at the outset evoke memories of the previous year's 'Roundabout', but here we're led into something altogether more contemplative, found in HOWE's delicious acoustic guitar, plucked and then strummed, accompanied by a single-note bass pulse and an outrageous moog line. The stage is set for ANDERSON to dominate the song, his rising lines working strangely to lift the listener, his imagery entrancing as always. I'm always fascinated by the counterpointed vocals, two quite different tunes sung together. And then ...

... 'Eclipse', surely the greatest mellotron moment in music. This is pure bliss, surely the stuff of heaven, and when ANDERSON sings again, even the gods bend their ears to hear. WAKEMAN lifts us and lifts us with a series of orgiastic chords in a way even MIKE OLDFIELD at his angelic best can't equal, and then gently sets us down to the accompaniment of HOWE's harmonics. Surely there isn't a greater pleasure available to humans.

Listen to what they do next. The song is funked up with HOWE's 12-string, and as we reach out as forward tastes enter us, SQUIRE plays yet another divinely outrageous bass run, accompanied by his partner in bliss BRUFORD, ending with a note so low it sends us into YES at their funkiest. Another magic moment, propelling us towards the climax of the song, as it all slows down, and WAKEMAN reprises his mellotron glory in 'Apocalypse'. Just have a listen to what BRUFORD does here. Yes, there have been more flashy drummers, who hit harder and more often, but BRUFORD's genius is shown by when he DOESN'T hit the skin. Listen to his work, and feel the tension as you wait for him to accent the beat, only for him to leave it open and snare the off-beat. And down we come.

The third leg of this heavenly trilogy, 'Siberian Khatru', earns its keep here as a reminder that YES rock as well as prog. The main theme is again funky, relying on a ludicrously complex bass line, a straightforward drum beat and and HOWE's great guitar tone. Each time we return to the main theme something is added to it: an extra voice, a new bass treatment, an overdub of the guitar. We get WAKEMAN waxing classical on a harpsichord - very nearly parody, this, but in this context it works - some ethereal and then visceral guitar work. The last three minutes of the record see us leave much as we began, with some rather free-form playing, eventually fading into silence.

'Close to the Edge' is, in fact, anything but: it is right at the heart, at the very centre, of progressive endeavour. Every prog rock path leads either forwards or backwards in time to this album. This record goes beyond mere like or dislike, and is generally regarded as the epitome of the genre. It is a masterpiece not just of prog rock, but of music, and I feel confident it will still be listened to centuries hence. I wish I could be there to share the astonishment and joy every time someone hears it for the very first time.

russellk | 5/5 |


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