Album Reviews



Close To The Edge

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The practitioners of "progressive rock" have spent the past several years providing plenty of ammunition for the proponents of Good Old Rock & Roll. Most progressive rock has a drastically limited appeal, its initial glitter proving in the long run to be more technical bravado, and its lyrics some of the emptiest "poetry" ever. It can be nice tripping music, but it'll rarely get you high on its own. By and large, I'd be glad to sit around swigging beer, Ripple or whatever with anybody who's worn out 30 copies of "Louie Louie" in the last year and we'd gouge the grooves out of every Moody Blues album we could get our hands on.

But count me out if Yes is the next "art" group to come under the blade. It's certainly true that there's no sweat in their music (as it appears on record at any rate; they move around pretty nicely onstage), that it's detached music, that it asks you to come in rather than assaulting your whole being like the best rock & roll.

As it happens, the negative implications of those qualities scarcely ever show up. Their music isn't at all sterile. Instead it shines with a freshness and crispness that doesn't seem likely to tarnish quickly. They're not a bit reticent in using synthesizer and studio, but Yes' technology is further removed from gimmickry than any similar band. They have a grasp of what it can do and how it can best be used, so that while their music couldn't exist without it, they never make the listener unduly aware of its presence. It's the sound, the effect, that ultimately strikes the senses and sensibilities.

The band firmly and beautifully manipulates the whole of its gargantuan sound, not only handling drastic dynamic contrasts with breath-taking ease, but also taking things from a taut, compressed, coiled-spring feel to spacious, expansive vistas. Every element is utilized to enhance or modify mood, and you never get the impression that a particular passage was included because Rick Wakeman just found a hot new sound on his Moog that they had to get in there.

But Yes' command of its resources rarely restricts, simply because they've got the feel. The bulk of the credit here must be given to Steve Howe, whose guitar usually takes the lead in establishing and developing the themes. His dexterous playing is a blend of studied musical ideas and an intuitive, flowing attack that belies the accusations of bland perfection that have been hurled at Yes from time to time. So even though singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Wakeman and drummer Bill Bruford (who has now moved over to the bizarre pastures of King Crimson) perform with more expertise than passion, the overall effect comes across with, if not a real looseness, the measure of freedom necessary to keep the control from becoming a constriction.

With Close to the Edge, their fifth album, Yes have formed a coherent musical language from the elements that have been kicked around by the progressive rockers for ages. The fears raised by Fragile that they might work themselves into a technically superb but emotionally destitute corner are washed away by three extended pieces whose only failings are an over-concern with making sure that every moment is marked by the highly identifiable Yes sound (where a bit more variety and daring would be a welcome change) and lyrics that too often serve as a barrier rather than a link between listener and music.

Side one is completely devoted to the title track. As usual—and that "as usual" could get to be a real problem very soon if more attention isn't paid to varying what has become an almost formulized pattern—it opens with a long introductory instrumental break (after a shimmering sound effect fade-in of pattering rain, chirping birds and tinkling bells) led by Howe's guitar and segueing into the modestly majestic main figure.

When Jon Anderson's voice enters the scene it's knockout time again. Though a noticeable distance between his singing and direct, basic emotion is established through stylized phrasing and a slightly lofty, diffident tone, he is nonetheless engaging and human. His abstraction never becomes artificial, thanks to an ineffable urchin-like quality about his voice, a strange and unique combination of gentleness and power in which every note is hard and solid at the core but padded with a sweet softness.

It's too bad that the words he's given himself to sing are often as inaccessible as this: "A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace/And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace/And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar/Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour." Such convolutions are unfortunately prevalent in Yes' songs. Their best lyrics are brief, straight-ahead phrases that don't try to mean a lot internally but simply add a quasi-literal dimension that supplements the music's mood—like the recurring "I get up, I get down" that first appears toward the end of this initial movement ("The Solid Time of Change").

In "Total Mass Retain" the music bunches and becomes more urgent. A soft organ solo leads us into "I Get Up I Get Down" proper, in which the complex vocal interplay among lots of Andersons, Howes and Squires gradually builds up to Wakeman's gorgeously bombastic multi-keyboard workout. He sweeps us out of the liturgical organ and back to the central theme with a couple of synthesizer blasts, takes a brief, jazzy organ solo and we're on the final leg, "Seasons of Man." Here it's all highly accelerated, rushing forward with a vengeance yet at the same time retaining an almost ethereal loveliness. It climaxes rousingly with a repeated "I get up ..." with everything going at full strength (and beautifully captured by the production of Yes and Eddie Offord) before melting into the slowly fading raintinkling-birds sound with which it all began.

Howe's echoey acoustic 12-string is the focus of "And You and I," which, with some editing, is the best candidate for a follow-up single to "Roundabout." Featuring Anderson's happiest, jauntiest singing and a catchy melody, it is a fine example of Yes' gift for subtly building from a soft, contemplative mood to a mighty plateau through a slowly shifting emphasis and gradual layering of elements within an instrumental break. Again, it is divided into pretentiously labeled sections—"Cord of Life," "Eclipse," "The Preacher the Teacher"—and once more the lyrics are better skimmed over than carefully studied.

"Siberian Khatru," the final cut, is built on a simple pattern that is nicely developed and modified through the course of the song. Cryptic words and phrases abound, but they don't get in the way of some beautiful vocal interaction, a surprising, well-integrated sitar segment and a cascading harpsichord solo by Wakeman that almost tickles. It peaks with a supercharged double-time coda with jarring choruses of "Da da da"s jumping in and out with Stravinsky-like power, and fades on a full-tilt, breakneck instrumental race with Steve Howe slightly in the lead.

What does it all mean, you say? It sure doesn't mean adolescence and necking and boy-friends and rebellion and all the other stuff rock & roll is supposed to be about. It's (choke) mature music, maybe obscurely or pseudo-philosophical, but philosophical nonetheless. Well, if there's a problem involved in placing or defining Yes' music it's a direct result of our establishing rigid criteria and admitting only that which qualifies, rather than expanding our own borders of perception in accordance with what artists choose to present.

Yes' music is best looked at as sound painting, with no more meaning and little less beauty than a Monet canvas. Actually, Chinese painting might provide a more appropriate analogy, in both style and concern. Yes' colors are subtle, almost imperceptible tints, but the main strokes are bold and thick, applied with sureness and natural instinct.

And, like Chinese art, the subject of Yes' music is Nature, particularly Man in Nature. A mystical/mythic undercurrent runs through the music, and when Anderson sings something like "And you and I climb crossing the shapes of the morning" you get the idea that he's addressing a god or goddess rather than an object of mundane love (though the two aren't made mutually exclusive). Water dominates their landscape, but the liquidity that pervades the music has a futuristic quality about it, a metallic element that fuses with liquid in a heady mix of primordial past and glistening future, of down here and out there.

"But is it rock & roll?" they scream. Does it matter? (RS 121)


(Posted: Nov 9, 1972)


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