Imagine you are somewhere, whereupon you meet two beautiful women. From the onset, it’s clear they are sisters; both of them are alike in their beauty, intelligence and sophistication. Although they’re both among the most gorgeous women you have come across in your travels however, as time goes on, you find yourself slowly gravitating towards one over the other. Even if the other one might ultimately prove to be more popular, the younger of the two sisters strikes you as being more adventurous, risk-taking and intellectually provocative than the other.
For a long time now, this has been the way I’ve thought of Yes‘ 1972 classic Close to the Edge and her younger, more adventurous sibling Relayer. Don’t get me wrong; Close to the Edge was as impressive as albums come, and well-deserving of its status as Yes‘ de facto ‘essential’ album, but with Relayer, they took the formula and went somewhere even more exciting with it. It’s undeniably more uneven and rough than its spiritual predecessor, but that’s part of what makes it so damned good; this is Yes at their most uncompromisingly creative, perhaps trumped only by Tales from Topographic Oceans in terms of its genius.
I’ll say this first and get it out of the way: I stand by “The Gates of Delirium” as the greatest progressive rock epic ever made.
If the epic cornerstone of Close to the Edge had married rock and classical music together in some glorious fusion, “The Gates of Delirium” added jazz to the melting pot. Basing a progressive epic on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” may be tantamount to a prog cliche both now and when the album released in 1974, but Yes have by no means tied this epic to its source of inspiration. Really, the epic can be interpreted more broadly to reflect a battle; before, after, and in the midst of it. “The Gates of Delirium” opens up sounding remarkably spacey (even by Yes‘ standards!) but- as was the case with Close to the Edge- the overture eventually consolidates itself into a firmer structure to accommodate Anderson’s vocals. Even if Jon Anderson’s performance here retains its trademark optimism, the mood is instantly tense; the tempo is fed with a drive and expedience far removed from the leisurely pace of Tales from Topographic Oceans, as if the music has been spurned forth on a forced military march into battle. The tension continues to build until the music sounds like a symphony fed through a distortion box. By the time the famed instrumental ‘battle’ takes place, “The Gates of Delirium” has already built a frightening momentum, and a perfect precedent for what is possibly the most impressive passage ever written in progressive rock.
The intensity and catharsis of a battle is a fertile ground for respectively intense music, but there aren’t all that many pieces of music that truly capture a battle’s chaos and rupture. “The Gates of Delirium” isn’t only one of those few pieces to come forth from rock and its subgenres; it is the most cathartic battle music I think I’ve ever heard. Yes‘ sound is usually padded with symphonic warmth, but here, the instrumentation is cutting and sharp. The mood is epic, cinematic and large-scale, but almost overwhelmingly so, as if the catharsis one may have expected from a battle proves to be too much to bear, and overtakes the listener (and would-be soldier) in its impartially brutal grasp. Although Alan White’s ‘interesting’ choice of percussion during this sequence – he pushed a rack of junkyard car parts over during the recording- seems like a crude and risky move, it fits the tone so damned well; in a battle, I don’t imagine there would be time for subtle, refined percussive techniques, andYes acknowledge this fact well.
The epic’s beautiful denouement “Soon” is a steep contrast to the chaos it succeeds. One gets the picture of a quiet aftermath; there are no victors, none to reap the victories of warfare, none who have even survived the ordeal without deep scars, in body and soul. It’s too mellow to have warranted Atlantic Records’ decision to use it as a single, but it wraps up the epic with a signature tenderness the rest of the work was intentionally left without. Anderson’s voice here is at its most beautiful, and Steve Howe’s guitar tone sounds like it’s actually weeping, it’s that gorgeous. There’s far more I could say about “The Gates of Delirium”, really, but it’s enough to say that it’s possibly the greatest work of progressive rock I’ve ever heard, classic and contemporary alike.
In its wake, the second half of Relayer feels like an addendum to the main attraction; “Sound Chaser” and “To Be Over” are nowhere near as powerful or perfect in their writing or execution. Like the proggy-mellow dichotomy enjoyed between “Siberian Khatru” and “And You And I” respectively on Close to the Edge, these two pieces contrast each other, this time to an even greater degree. While “To Be Over” is one of the most aesthetically beautiful things Yes have ever composed, “Sound Chaser” is sporadic chaos incarnate, in performance and especially in its composition. Thanks in large part to Patrick Moraz’s recent addition to the band as keyboardist (Wakeman had grown tired of the band’s direction on Tales from Topographic Oceans and made like a tree), there is a strong jazz fusion kick to the music, in a space that would have usually Wakeman’s high classical influence. The introduction to “Sound Chaser” is pretty mind-blowing and surprising, especially upon first hearing it. It’s really unfortunate that the song doesn’t serve to ultimately do something with that momentum; before long, the chaos has died down, leaving Howe to noodle away at an extended solo with no accompaniment, somewhere along the lines of what Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page may have done live during a twenty minute instrumental break. “Sound Chaser” does get back on its feet in time, but there are a few minutes there that feel too aimless for their own good; even Tales from Topographic Oceans felt like it was thoughtfully constructed the whole way through. Moraz steps in for a fusion key solo towards the end, but it feels sort of underwhelming, given the context of a patchy song structure, and the brilliance the album’s first side had to offer. “To Be Over” honestly bored me when I first heard it, but it’s one of the most tender things Yes ever created. As if Yes are intentionally trying to balance out the miasma of “The Gates of Delirium” here, “To Be Over” sounds like resolution and tranquility manifest in a song; really pretty sounding stuff, even if it doesn’t serve to match the genius of the album’s epic.
Relayer is less balanced than Close to the Edge, Fragile and even Tales from Topographic Oceans, but it’s that experimental, choppy nature that keeps me engaged. Like a classic painting placed underneath blacklight, Yestook their masterpiece formula and put a frightening, alien and penetrating spin on it. Even “Sound Chaser”, when overlooked for its obvious structural weakness, has the ability to surprise and shock more than most more conventionally structured works in prog rock. Even so, the album’s greatest strength is blatantly obvious, and while I would normally condemn an album for being so one-sided in my love for it, Relayer continues to challenge and provoke me a listener. If anything, it’s that quality that makes the album among the best this band has ever done. Second only to Tales from Topographic Oceans, but even then, nothing on that album could match the best parts of this one.
1. Gates Of Delirium (22:55)
2. Sound Chaser (9:25)
3. To Be Over (9:08)
Total Time: 41:28
Bonus tracks on Elektra remaster (2003):
4. Soon (single edit) (4:18)
5. Sound Chaser (single edit) (3:13)
6. The Gates of Delirium (studio run-through) (21:16)
* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass and vocals
* Patrick Moraz – keyboards
* Alan White – drums
* Steve Howe – guitars and vocals