Close To The Edge


Atlantic Records, 1972

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Some albums are simply collections of songs; others grow over time to personify entire genres of music. Think '60s rock and the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, '70s soul and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, heavy metal and Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, or jazz and Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue.

And when you get around to progressive rock, think Yes, and Close To The Edge.

Typically, Yes arrived at this milestone album -- the consensus high-water mark of the band's decades-spanning career, even among its own fractious fan base -- in other than the advised manner. By the time it went into the studio to record this, its fifth album, the four-year-old band had already been through two guitarists and two keyboard players. But the additions of classically-trained prodigies Steve Howe on guitar and Rick Wakeman on keyboards took the entire group to the next level musically, precisely the goal of co-founders Jon Anderson (vocals) and Chris Squire (bass and vocals) and jazz-influenced drummer Bill Bruford.

The band's early experiments with extended pieces of music ranged as long as ten minutes, but resulted in only one significant commercial success, an edited version of the bounding, exuberant "Roundabout," off the first album to include both Howe and Wakeman, 1972's Fragile. Buoyed by this breakthrough, the quintet took on a more ambitious goal: to burst the very boundaries of their chosen form, to catapult the music not mere minutes but miles out of the four-minute verse-chorus-verse box by crafting virtual rock and roll symphonies, complete with shifting, flowing movements and extended, virtuosic instrumental passages. It was a form of composition familiar in jazz and classical music, but groundbreaking for a five-piece rock band. The mere idea of a 15-to-20-minute rock song was regarded as preposterous, so if the music wasn't exceptional, the entire experiment could have fallen flat to the point of drawing ridicule.

And there's your punchline: the music WAS exceptional.

Diving straight in, Yes kicks off with the nearly 19-minute "Close To The Edge," the first and arguably still the best of the band's many long-form pieces to come. Opening with ambient nature sounds, the song abruptly crashes into the hard-edged first movement, Howe's urgent, jazzy, almost atonal electric guitar runs in the forefront while Squire and Bruford play a dizzying rhythmic duet underneath, and Wakeman fills in the flanks with a heady mix of keyboard tones. Three minutes in, the first shift carries the music to a gentler tempo, taking a key theme from the opening and transforming it from a harsh exclamation to a soft, beautiful melody line as Anderson's vocals join the party.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

These opening few minutes alone are complex, startling and brilliant -- and only the beginning. Anderson's "sound painting" approach to lyrics was at its pinnacle here, choosing words that surrender meaning to sound, creating a strangely hypnotic form of sung poetry. Nowhere is its effectiveness clearer than in the quiet middle sections here ("I Get Up, I Get Down") where Anderson's vocals play off Squire's and Howe's harmonies before flying high alone over Wakeman's rich, evocative church-organ synths. It's a shimmering, gorgeous moment, a virtual cathedral of sound. As the music picks up again, Wakeman gets his chance to shine as the keys take over the melody explored by Howe in the opening and carry it off in a fresh new direction.

The amazing part is that the entire piece holds together exceptionally well, the movements complementing and amplifying one another's themes while flowing seamlessly from one to the next. The ultimate effect is exhilirating in a way that's difficult to capture in words. At the risk of sounding as  air-headed as some of Anderson’s latter-day lyrics, it's like watching an incredible sunset; every individual aspect of it simply reinforces the uniqueness and beauty of the whole.

Next up is "And You And I," a four-section, ten-minute symphony of shimmering beauty. The cornerstone of this delicate piece is Howe's keening slide guitar, whose notes during the opening and closing sections angle up into the sky like fireworks. The star of the middle sections is the three-part harmonies between Anderson, Squire and Howe, soaring alongside the slide. Wakeman's synths also decorate the melody throughout the middle sections, especially the harder-rocking third segment, while Squire and Bruford add low-end accents that function more as flourishes than rhythmic markers.

The closing, relatively concise nine-minute "Siberian Khatru" starts out as close to a straight-ahead rock song as this edition of Yes ever came, with Howe picking out a swift, looping melody as the rhythm section kicks in with a complex time signature that Howe both apes and embellishes, urging them on. The chorus breaks the music down to provide some room for the terrific harmonies provided by Anderson and Squire. The closing minutes feature Howe again, blazing through an intricate series of solos as Bruford and Squire keep the rhythm racing along to the track's abrupt, dramatic finish. Maybe the ultimate compliment to the rippling energy given off by this song is that it's probably held down the opening slot on more set lists than any other track in the band's history.

If there was any down side to Close To The Edge, it was simply this: it was a huge accomplishment for a band still so early in its career. Twenty-nine years later, they have yet to match its combination of power, subtlety and pure musicality -- though thankfully, there have been a few near-misses. No matter when the band ultimately calls it a day, though, the five who were there will always have this accomplishment to look back on: the ultimate progressive rock album, the singular masterwork of its genre.

Rating: A

User Rating: B+



© 2001 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atlantic Records, and is used for informational purposes only.