Okay, I can’t stand it any longer, I just have to go out and say it. Jon Anderson is a graphomaniac whose only purpose in life seems to be penning pretentious, cosmic, universalist, but totally absurd, senseless and bland lyrics and singing them with his voice which I’ve already complained about a dozen times. I don’t even hate the guy – I’d rather pity him. It’s more of a medical problem than of anything else. If the stuff he’s singing is supposed to have some real meaning, I’ll just have to suppose that in his previous incarnation he was a master cryptographer; I’m not even trying to decipher any “messages” in these lines…
That said, Close To The Edge is definitely a good album – while an older state of this here review hardly did anything but bash it up, which explains all the further disagreements and hatemail below, I think I’ve grown mature enough to tolerate it and even teach myself to like parts of it. Thus, in the new review I will try to concentrate on both the good and the bad sides of the story, as it is indeed a very complicated one.
The main problem of the album as I see it now is that there are only three songs on it. Three, you get it? And one of them takes up an entire side. Now that could be small tragedy, since there’d already been a few precedents (Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick the most important of those), and the length of a tune, be it fifty minutes or even more, isn’t necessarily a fault by itself. But the main fault of the title track, as well as the two lesser ones, is that it uncompromisingly refuses to present us with a sufficient quality of original ideas. Basically, what you get is what you already know by heart if you ever bought Fragile a few months before: rapid, flawless riffing a la Howe, fluid synth parts a la Wakeman, immaculate drumming a la Bruford, fantastic bass lines a la Squire and the well-known tenor robotic singing a la Anderson.
The same old story. Technical perfection, this time around complemented by far more moody synth and organ effects than before; Close To The Edge tries to recreate the atmosphere of Yes’ “metaphysical fantasy world”, and so the pure musical parts alternate with ‘beautiful noise’ and environment sounds like birds chirping, etcetera. However, when it comes around to the actual playing, I always tend to get bored rather quickly because there are not enough themes. Yep. The title track, for instance, has (a) the intro part, (b) the main melody, (c) the ‘middle’ part of ‘I Get Up I Get Down’. Everything else is just minor variations or ‘noise breaks’. All of these three themes are decent (even if we manage to overlook the fact that the main theme is nothing but a recycling of the old standards, borrowing extensively from both ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’ and ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’), but taken together, they could have easily made a five or six minute long tune. Sure, it would not have the epic swirl it has on this record, but it also would not cause me yawning in distraction as they sing the same verse melody for the quadrillionth time. For comparison, the first side of Thick As A Brick alone had at least six or seven different musical themes going on, not counting the breaks in between; same goes for Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ and even – shudder – Van Der Graaf Generator’s ‘Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’.
More or less the same accusation can be hurled against the two songs on the other side: both the mellow ‘And You And I’ and the more rocking ‘Siberian Khatru’ do not at all justify their running length by the number of musical ideas contained therein. When they play a melody, they mostly repeat one or two main themes that are, once again, quite good (the main riff of ‘Khatru’ in particular), but there’s just about too much of them; when they don’t play a melody, they just sit around and make noise that’s kinda inessential.
One might make a good counterpoint: ‘Yeah, but that’s not their point. They don’t go for diversity, they go for atmosphere’. So maybe they do, but that brings up another problem – what atmosphere? When it comes down to atmosphere, objective criteria cease to exist altogether and it all comes down to whether the noise you’re listening to touches some of your particular nerves or whether it doesn’t. In my case, it doesn’t – well, not particularly. I definitely feel there are moments of beauty on the album; definitely so. In particular, the ‘I Get Up I Get Down’ section of the title track is gorgeous beyond words, and one of the few cases when I don’t feel like complaining about Anderson’s singing at all. And when Anderson sings ‘not right away, not right away’, there is something utterly pretty there too, although hell if I know what. And there is a stately synth/guitar-led climax in ‘And You And I’ (also reprised twice, by the way) that can easily qualify as the most defining moment of pure heavenly majesty in the entire Yes catalog. But when we have to deal with all the other musical sections that are not self-consciously beautiful, it’s another story. I, for one, really cannot force myself to think of a reason why more or less the same musical piece should be given three different subtitles – ‘The Solid Time Of Change’, ‘Total Mass Retain’ and ‘Seasons Of Man’ – and played thrice on a nineteen-minute long track. Not to mention that it is not atmospheric at all: it rocks pretty hard, but with no special effects or diversifying gimmicks, and it even sounds kinda reggaeish to me, at times. What a strange bunch of dudes.
These two problems – not enough musical ideas and “atmosphere = acquired taste” – are a serious blow indeed, and I don’t see how rabid Yes fans can actually overlook them, especially since next to this album in their collection sits Fragile which successfully resolves both of them. On the other hand, after a long battle with myself, I decided that the album is still a big achievement for Yes. Actually, I think that if only the huge songs were ‘cut down’ and reduced to a short fifteen- or twenty-minute EP, it would possibly be the best Yes EP ever. Because, like I said, most of the actual musical themes range from decent to gorgeous; and when it comes down to musicianship, the band shows itself on such a tight level as never before or after. They play as a well-oiled, powerful unit, in which the members never overshadow one another and never disappear from sight. Perhaps the best moment to demonstrate it is the intro theme to ‘Close To The Edge’ that can be taken as a kind of ‘band anthem’: Bruford displays his polyrhythms, Squire is quietly blazing out his speedy zoops ‘in the corner’, Howe is playing an energetic solo, and Wakeman gets in with finger-flashing ‘rainy’ synthesizer patterns which actually sound like a tape loop to me but probably aren’t – after all, wasn’t the man supposed to be reproducing them live? And there are many more moments like that on the record.
Thus, in the end the immaculate musicianship and the goodness of the themes makes me overlook most of the album’s flaws. No, I will never totally get into Yes’ fantasy world, as inviting as it is, because these guys don’t even give a hint at what kind of world it really is, bar the ‘And You And I’ climax, of course, but out of pure respect for the guys’ blending together really well, I give it an 11… with no chances of growing further, but it’s already grown as high as it could grow. After all, like I said, atmosphere is subjective. Any listener can fill this thirty-seven minute long “form” with any spiritual content his heart desires; isn’t music in the mind of the listener? If I can’t fill it with spiritual content today, it’s my current problem and nobody else’s. It would be a different thing if there were no form at all – just lengthy noodlings made on the spur of the moment. “Hey Jon, heard that these Tull fellows just released a 45-minute song?” “No kidding!” “Yeah, they did just that, here’s the album…” “Hey Chris, Rick, Bill, whatcha waiting for? Get down to business, we need to scramble enough bits to make at least a sidelong piece! How come we hadn’t thought of that ourselves?” “Well, I did suggest we join ‘Starship Trooper’ and ‘Perpetual Change’ in one, but you didn’t listen…” “Yeah, yeah, I know, I was a jerk. All right, we need to toss off something real quick right now, but we’ll still beat these guys in a year or so. How ’bout a double album underway?”
I sincerely hope nothing like the conversation above actually took place – Close To The Edge sounds a fairly normal and expected sequel to Fragile. It’s a well thought-out, excellently produced record with a lot of care and philosophy put into it. And, after all, the lack of diversity speaks at least for one important thing: it’s an extremely coherent album. ‘Supper’s Ready’ and ‘Thick As A Brick’ are both classics, and they are both linked with several musical and lyrical ideas, but they still sound very much like just a bunch of short numbers strung together; you could easily insert some pauses in between their parts and nobody would pay a lot of attention. You cannot do the same to any of the CTTE numbers – they all form an unbreaking continuity. And maybe this is Yes’ greatest merit about this record – it is the first (and last) Rock Symphony in the truest sense of the word.