For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why people raved over Yes‘ fifth album. There was no doubt Close to the Edge enjoyed sophistication and depth that made most rock music look neanderthal by comparison, but I couldn’t help but feel that the album feel far short of its reputation as a masterpiece to trump all others. Today, I can look back and understand why the album’s orchestral density and blocky flow may have made it a slow grower for me initially, but time and experience with Close to the Edge has seen me fall in line with the legions of proggers that sing its praises. I still stand by their polarizing opus Tales from Topographic Oceans and chaotic Relayer as Yes‘ artistic peak, but Close to the Edge marks the first time where the band finally tapped into the full extent of their potential. It’s a slice of near-perfection, and still sounds monumental over forty years since its recording.Part of the reason I may not have been able to see the full brilliance of Close to the Edge initially may have been my own experiences as a listener. I had started my progressive education with more self-conscious epics like Dream Theater’s “A Change of Seasons” and Genesis’ perennial opus “Supper’s Ready”; by contrast, “Close to the Edge” felt chaotic and spontaneous. Many of the title piece’s instrumental sections sound like they could have been spawned from a miraculously devised improvisation; each instrument fills their side of the sound with a groove and rhythm of its own. From the start, “Close to the Edge” forgoes conventions that were commonplace in prog rock epics even by 1972. Rather than choosing to welcome the listener in with a resounding theme or overture, Yes erupt into a chaotic swirl of guitar-based jamming and synthesizer-fuelled madness. When the band brings the chaos down to earth a couple of minutes in and goes for a more typical sort of focus, the melodies and symphonic warmth are refreshing, thanks in large part to the jarring contrast.
Where most progressive epics are most impressive for their composition, “Close to the Edge” has always stood out for its focus on the band performance itself. Like a well-balanced meal, there’s plenty to keep a listener busy and occupied; somehow tired of the brilliant guitar and key leads? That’s fine, simply look just beneath the surface and there’s an equal depth to the sophisticated bass grooves and drumwork. Listening to “Close to the Edge”, it’s a granted delight to take it all in as a whole, but repeated listens have often found me focusing on one part of the performance without being any less engaged as a result. Even in progressive rock, where this degree of complexity is often a mandate, I find myself hard-pressed to think of a few other albums that have this much depth and engagement in the performance. To name many at all, I’d have to start talking about jazz music.
With the notable exception of the beautifully mellow “I Get Up, I Get Down” section, the eighteen-odd minute “Close to the Edge” remains focused on this performance element of the music. In particular, Rick Wakeman’s masterful key solo fourteen minutes in stands out, not just within the context of the composition, but in prog rock canon overall. The epic’s fusing of jazz-rock playfulness and Western classical aesthetic feels epitomized by Wakeman here. From a perspective of composition, the epic’s climax and finale is one of the most brilliantly genius things Yes have ever done, fusing ideas from the rest of the piece together in a triumphant eruption, the likes of which you would have a hard time finding outside of the symphonic traditions Yes have been inspired by. I still find myself more emotionally drawn towards a few other epics in progressive rock, but from a compositional and technical standpoint, no other suite could stand to compete with “Close to the Edge”.
Of great note as well are the vocals of Jon Anderson, who has long stood as a personal favourite of mine. In spite of that, it feels like his performance on the epic is the weakest element by default; the instrumentation is often so dense that the vocals can crowded and less interesting. This issue is remedied in full by “I Get Up, I Get Down”, the famed mid-section of the epic, wherein the band distances itself from the complexity and lets their softer side shine through. Instrumentally, the piece becomes largely ambient, filtering out the rock element almost entirely and handing the reins to the band’s symphonic warmth and cosmic atmosphere. Although it has the tendency of being a reviewer’s go-to keyword far too often, Anderson’s vocals here really do deserve to be called ‘soaring’. Although Steve Howe’s backup vocals here have always sounded somewhat thin to me here, Anderson’s voice makes “I Get Up, I Get Down” unforgettable, and the note he hits at the very end before Wakeman takes over with the organ conjures up chills every time.
Although the album’s second side doesn’t come close to the titular epic, “And You And I” and “Siberian Khatru” are two of Yes‘ most memorable tracks. Although the songs take completely different approaches, they’re linked together by an overarching atmosphere of summertime optimism. “And You And I” is build around a warmly psychedelic acoustic framework from Howe, and given breath with an infectious performance from Anderson. Although the piece might be a little too leisurely to warrant its ten minute-plus length, the ideas are drawn from the same well of genius as “I Get Up, I Get Down”. Although I may have had initial reservations about the bouncy “Siberian Khatru” when I first heard the album, it’s a great way of bringing the album back to the signature density of the epic, before the album is finished. Although the interplay between guitars, bass grooves, drum rhythms and key textures rival the complexity witnessed in “Close to the Edge”, “Siberian Khatru” is much less demanding of the listener, with an atmosphere that screams of carefree days and psychedelic camaraderie. Steve Howe’s guitar playing here is sophisticated and tightly woven, and Wakeman’s signature organ motif over the main theme is particularly memorable. Even if one half of Close to the Edge is significantly stronger than the other, there isn’t a moment here where Yes do not sound inspired, or ‘in their element’. One could argue that “And You And I” may have felt more effective if a couple of minutes had been shaven from the rear, but even that would be getting nitpicky.
Steven Wilson’s recent 2013 remixing of the album for Panegyric Records brings a refreshing new perspective to the album. The Porcupine Tree maestro has proved his ear for production and mastering countless times before, and Close to the Edge is no different. The instrumentation feels more lively and balanced than before, Chris Squire’s bass guitar in particular has finally been given a well-deserved showcase in the mix. I’ve mentioned that Close to the Edge is an album most impressive for its band-centered performance, and this remix has acknowledged those strengths and capitalized on them. Of course, a remixing isn’t so much an improvement as it is a fresh interpretation, and there are some parts of Wilson’s reimagining- most notably the upmixing of Howe’s thinly performed background vocals on “I Get Up, I Get Down”- that should have been approached differently. The remix is by no means flawless enough to be the new ‘definitive’ edition of the album, but it has enough changes to warrant a check-out from veterans and newcomers alike.
Although progressive rock has been marching onward for what is now close to half a century, the genre had already reached an outstanding maturity and familiarity by 1972. Though still in the midst of its golden peak, progressive rock was already beginning to get comfortable with its own set of conventions. Both as an epic and as an album, Close to the Edge did not so much avert these conventions as it put a new spin on them, and took them to new heights of sophistication. Yes may have been doing exciting things in 1971 with The Yes Album and Fragile, but the following year and Close to the Edge finally saw them explore the sort of ambitious quasi-perfection usually reserved for erudite composers and traditional ‘art music’. Even so, I can’t call it my favourite pick from Yes‘ nigh-untouchable oeuvre, but Close to the Edge has only continued to grow on me as a listener. As Yes themselves were no doubt aware judging from the album’s cover art (which is lushly contrasted by its gorgeous inner sleeve), Close to the Edge requires time and a degree of patience to unlock its beauty and charm, but once that beauty is finally revealed, it’s utterly impossible to deny or ignore it.
1. Close To The Edge (18:50)
2. And You And I (10:09)
3. Siberian Khatru (8:57)
Bonus tracks on Elektra remaster (2003):
4. America (Single Version) (4:12)
5. Total Mass Retain (Single Version) (3:21)
6. And You and I (Alternative Version) (10:17)
7. Siberia (Studio Run-through of “Siberian Khatru”) (9:19)
Bonus tracks on Panegyric Recordings remaster (2013):
America – 10:31
Close To The Edge – 18:42 – Early assembly/Rough mix
* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass, vocals
* Rick Wakeman – keyboards
* Bill Bruford – drums
* Steve Howe – guitars, vocals