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Revisiting Yes’s Masterpiece Album, “Close To The Edge”

Yes, along with Pink Floyd, were the founding fathers of progressive rock, a musical genre that still flourishes today. Both bands were on my turntable daily during the 1970s and were revered by my generation. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery… Yes had many who followed in their footsteps (ie. Gentle Giant, Starcastle, Genesis, King Crimson). All the imitators were good, if a tad pretentious, and none hold up as well as Yes. In the end, Yes just wrote better songs.

The Yes catalog is extensive and holds up very well. The Yes Album, Fragile, Tales from Topographic Ocean, 90125, Relayer are a few worth noting. However, their best album is Close to the Edge. It is a tour de force that any jam or Prog Rock fan would embrace today. One of true marks of greatness is originality. While 99% of music is derivative, Yes crafted their own unique sound. Not that being derivative it’s a bad thing (Zeppelin and the Stones have a foundation based on the Chicago Blues sound). Yes consisted of very talented musicians. Jon Anderson with his distinctive soprano voice on lead vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboard, Bill Bruford on drums and the recently departed Chris Squire on bass.

In 1972, Yes was flying high. Coming off a critically acclaimed album Fragile with their monster hits “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper”, Yes was poised to take it to the next level. They discovered that the fans really enjoyed the longer song formats. Jam fans today are used to songs over 10 minutes in length, but in the early 1970s most songs were under 4 minutes. 40 years ago, radio stations ruled the popular music industry. They dictated what was played and even the length of the songs. Radio stations insisted that songs be kept short so more songs could be played in an hour and more commercials could be inserted. In 1968, the Beatles purposely made the song “Hey Jude” over 7 minutes just to aggravate the radio stations.

Yes recognized that the longer song format gave them the opportunity to explore various musical themes. An “AHA” moment for sure that brought the classical music discipline to modern rock music. Yes was no doubt miffed when asked to make a radio version of the song “Roundabout”. At a little more than 3 minutes, the “commercial” version of ”Roundabout” is a weak substitution for the magnificent 8 minute album version. Eschewing the attention that bands received on AM radio, Yes took a decidedly less commercial approach and would never again succumb to outside ‘non-music’ interests.

When Yes went into the studio in 1972 to make a statement. The result was Close to the Edge. It only contained 3 songs: “And You and I”, “Siberian Khatru” both around nine minutes. But the title track “Close to the Edge” is a 4 part symphony that is a broad canvas of intricate instrumental exchanges highlighted by Anderson’s sublime and poetic vocals. His voice in a near soprano range, was the perfect fit for the band.

From the Yes website, Jon Anderson: “It’s very representative of what I think is the Yes style. We experimented a lot, but we also had the talent to back it up – it wasn’t just solo after solo. We told stories and created moods. It was all very daring and wonderful.”

When the album was released in September 1972 it bested Fragile on the charts reaching #3 in the US and #4 in the UK. Timing in life is everything and in 1972, FM radio came into its own as well as college stations. Yes got the airplay on the less traditional venues and their success and fame really took off.

A further exploration of the title track Close to the Edge shows real innovation. It is split into four movements:

  1. The Solid Time Of Change
  2. Total Mass Retain
  3. I Get Up, I Get Down
  4. Seasons of Man

From the band’s website are some more fascinating revelations from their front man. From the 1st movement, The Solid Change of Time, Anderson offers the following insight:

“I had been listening to an album called Sonic Seasoning by Walter Carlos, who’s now Wendy Carlos (inventor of the Moog Synthesizer), and it gave me the idea for this sound effect that came from outer space. It came towards you and then bang! – the band started charging. At first, there’s this wonderful musical chaos, and then we have the guitar riff.

“The idea of the chant was key to the song. [Sings] ‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace/ And rearrange-da-dada-dada-dada-da-da-daa.’ It’s a rhythmic thing. I worked that out with Steve.

“The band started playing, and I said, ‘Guys, maybe you should be doing something more syncopated instead of a straight-on beat.’ So while Bill and Chris worked on a drum and bass thing, I looked at Rick and said, ‘OK, how fast can you play?’ And, of course, he could play very fast. The whole idea was to make it musically entertaining even before we put the voices on.

“For lyrics, I did a rough sketch of the whole piece, but as the sections came together, that’s when I rewrote the words. It took about three or four revisions till everything was there. It’s all metaphors. Simply put, ‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace’ – that means your higher self will eventually bring you out of your dark world.”

The effect is overwhelming and you are confronted with a solid wall of sound. The journey begins.

On the 2nd movement, Total Mass Retain, Anderson offers the following:

“We’ve laid the foundation of where we’re going to go, and now we’re into the second part. This is about the relaxation of life and being close to the edge of the realization of our universal experiences. That’s what the song is starting to explain.

“This part flows. It shows you that you have to let music guide you. It’s best to open up and not force the situation. Everything will come to you.

From the 3rd movement, I Get Up, I Get Down. The band slows down the musical pace and we get really splendid vocals. Anderson again:

“We have the ‘the I get up, I get down’ part before it goes into a beautiful ocean of energy. You’ve gone through nearly 10 minutes of music that’s very well put-together, but then you want to let go of it. You relax a little bit.

“The song came about because Steve was playing these chords one day, and I started singing, ‘Two million people barely satisfy.’ It’s about the incredible imbalance of the human experience on the planet.

“The vocals came together nicely. I’m a big fan of The Beach Boys and The Association – such great voices. Steve and I were working on this, and at one point he said, ‘I have this other song…’ And I said, ‘Well, start singing it.’ And he went [sings], ‘In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly looking/ saying that she’d take the blame for the crucifixion of her own domain… ’

“When I heard that, I said, ‘Wait. That’s going to be perfect! You start singing that with Chris, and then I’ll sing my part.’ We have an answer-back thing.

In the end, the title track is a stunning musical composition worthy of the same scrutiny as a Beethoven symphony. However, not to be overlooked are the 2 songs from side 2 of the album

“And You and I” starts with Steve Howe’s splendid 12 string work. Then it moves to Wakeman’s soaring work on the Moog and Mellotron. Not to be overlooked are the splendid harmonies led by Jon Anderson backed by Chris Squire’s vocals. The lyrics are just a trippy as the music.

“…Oh, coins and crosses never know their fruitless worth
Cords are broken locked inside the mother earth
They won’t hide, they won’t tell you
Watching the world, watching all of the world
Watching us go by
And you and I climb over the sea to the valley
And you and I reached out for reasons to call…”

Like “Close to the Edge”, “And You and I” is broken into 4 parts…a mini-symphony so to speak.

  1. Chord of Life
  2. Eclipse
  3. The Preacher, The Teacher
  4. Apocalypse.

The 3rd and final track “Siberian Khatru”, featuring trippy lyrics, complex time signatures and complex rhythms, is divided into multiple sections, with alternating vocal and instrumental passages. The song progresses in various solos by Howe and Wakeman. Lyrics are truly non-sensical, which is part of its overall charm.

In the end, Close to the Edge remains one of the top albums from the 1970’s. It is still fresh and original and its overall allure remains as enticing as the day it was released. I implore you to listen and promise you will be captivated and enthralled.