RockSpite: Close to the Edge by Yes

I’ve added yet another new category for the blog. I hope we can still be friends.

I first became a music enthusiast (as opposed to a dude who listened to whatever came on the radio and was happy about it) at a weird time of transition for the music industry. CDs hadn’t yet become universal, yet vinyl LPs were fading from sight. Tape cassettes enjoyed a brief day in the sun, and archival releases in that format were universally terrible. I remember buying nearly half a dozen different used copies of Genesis’ Wind and Wuthering over the space of a couple years that all had the worst imaginable tape warble; decades later, I still hear those shuddery defects even when I listen to perfectly remastered CD releases.

Back catalog cassette releases were produced on the cheap, which meant that their inserts were usually only printed on one side. Basic information like names of band members, composition credits, and instrumental roles were missing in action, to say nothing of the elaborate art that had graced those albums’ vinyl sleeves. I was often left wondering about the music I was falling in love with — who made it? What was it about? Fortunately, I was occasionally able to turn to my mother’s vinyl collection and learn about the albums that way.

Close to the Edge was one of the records she owned. But I learned nothing about it. Why? Because it was deliberately enigmatic. The cover was simply a deep green fading to black. The interior didn’t include bios or essays or photos of the band or thoughts on the recording process. Instead, the green sleeve opened to reveal the following mysterious gatefold image:

Intriguing, but meaningless for the young man in search of facts.

The music itself is exactly matched to this packaging. Dense, abstruse, ineffable. Close to the Edge contains three songs: The title track (comprising one entire side of the vinyl) along with “And You and I” and “Siberian Khatru,” each of which is a roughly nine-minute-long exercise in, well, being Yes.

A friend of mine once described Yes as five guys playing solos all at once, and “Close to the Edge” embodies that definition. It begins with a bit of ambient environmental sound — birds and waterfalls — before Steve Howe launches the track into full strength with an expansive guitar phrase that immediately blooms into a solo accompanied by the rest of the band edgily supporting but clearly champing to bust out into solos of their own. They do precisely that about a minute later as the tempo changes and all four instruments begin working kind of together, but kind of not together, and Jon Anderson begins singing.

If you want to call it singing, I mean. It’s vocalizing, definitely, but the lyrics don’t seem to mean anything. “A seasoned witch can call you from the depths of your disgrace/And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace/And achieve it all with music that plays quickly from afar/And taste the fruits of man rewarded losing all against the hour.” What does that mean? (Besides, “Whoa, man, LSD is super trippy”?)

“Close to the Edge” is a song divided into movements, a common practice in the heyday of album-length songs due to the record companies’ practice of paying artists royalties by the track; by “breaking” an 18-minute piece into four passages (denoted by those wide bands on the vinyl), the artist could make four times as much money… or rather, the same amount of money for work equivalent to creating four individual songs. That being said, “Close to the Edge” definitely is divided, with the near-cacophonous introduction eventually melting away to a quiet passage of complementary vocal parts accompanied by Rick Wakeman’s rhythmic cathedral organ. The organ builds to a crescendo before crashing back into the full band’s reprisal of the rock fury opening, which finally dissipates and drifts apart, leaving only the environmental sounds that led into the song.

It’s really good, but definitely offputting for anyone who isn’t accustomed to lengthy, baroque, cathedral rock compositions. The first time I heard it, I felt like I’d just opened the door to a bizarre alternate universe where music wasn’t constrained to shapes even vaguely resembling anything that could ever appear on the radio.

The two songs on the flip side of the album are a little more cohesive. “And You and I” is structured a lot like “Close to the Edge,” but it’s far more approachable. It’s much more gorgeous, too, if no more lyrically coherent:

And finally, “Siberian Khatru,” which runs at full throttle from start to finish and showcases the band’s ability to rock out in concert. It’s not one of my favorite pieces by the band, but it’s still pretty great.

Occasionally I like to go back and listen to Close to the Edge with fresh ears, and I can still feel the sense of wonder and mystery that the album instilled in me. I still recall wondering at the inscrutable album art. I still hear the slight tinniness of my mother’s 33 RPM version of the album as I sat before my hand-me-down record player. This is a pretty great album; a pinnacle of progressive rock. What do you mean, that’s not great? That’s totally great. Get your priorities straight, dude.

13 thoughts on “RockSpite: Close to the Edge by Yes

  1. That was a really good song! Progressive Rock is kind of amazing!

    I love the trippy, experimental music of the 60’s and 70’s. A new radio station popped up in my city that plays nothing but songs from that era, and I’m surprised at how much I enjoy listening to music that’s three, four, even five decades old.

  2. I for one am very pleased with this new category, as I both enjoy this sort of music and don’t know nearly enough about it. Are there Yes albums on iTunes? I have a voucher and would like to use it on something different to my usual leanings.

    • Long time lurker on this site, and I must say I am pleased as punch to witness the birth of the “Rockspite” category. I recall discovering Pink Floyd as a youngster going through my brother’s cassettes and also the Who via my dad’s albums, and almost instantly I was hooked on the concept of the concept album. Curiously, my explorations never really led me to Yes or Genesis, but I’ve had many folks slap their forehead in amazement that I have never listened to them. Thank you for yet another reminder that I need to pursue this.

      It is not surprising to me at all that there is a common appreciation for concept albums/prog rock from the type of folk who frequent this site, as there are many parallels with the appreciation of certain types of videogames (well, at least my appreciation, anyway). The atmospheres created, themes construction, minute details, and immersive qualities are shared liberally by both mediums.

      Strangely enough, when I grew up I ended up being in a band that writes…concept albums. If you ever wondered what Floyd, Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, and Muse would sound like blended together, you should check it out.

  3. A friend loaned me his copy of Close to the Edge near the end of our senior year in high school. Maybe he was tired of hearing me talk about Smashing Pumpkins all year (this was 1997, after all) and thought I needed a new direction. Needless to say I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me – the chaos of it all, but also its powerfulness, especially in Squire’s deep, raspy bass and Bruford’s intricate, thundering drumming. I’ll still don the headphones occasionally late at night and remember how, as with you, any expectations of structure, form and “how songs are supposed to sound” went out the window – for good, in large part – the first time I listened to this.

    Now, I just wish the band’s catalog wasn’t so lean on albums that compare to this one.

  4. Will bands like the Residents or Negativland ever grace the new category?

    oh and for more out of print world prog, freak folk, and pyschedelia:

  5. I never understood how CDs were marketed as ‘smaller’ than tapes. Sure, they displace less water if dropped in the bath, but tapes had that glorious pocket sized affability unmatched by anything before mp3 players.

  6. I approve of RockSpite, and I am pleased to look forward to ToySpite, CartoonSpite and LifeSpite! Snarkiness aside, I really enjoyed the article, as I know next to nothing about Yes, other than some of their poppy 80s work and Jon’s collaborations with Vangelis. I was also surprised that I listened to nearly the whole ten minute track, without really meaning to.

  7. Wishing I were home so I could pull that baby out and give it a spin. Then I could relive the concert I went to way back when. :D

  8. siberian khatru was what turned me on to yes, seeing as my tastes as a prog dude run more to the hard rock-y king crimson-type stuff. the whole album is cool as hell.

    why haven’t any modern video games tried to replicate those roger dean landscapes, though? at least, that i know of. stuff like space harrier and panzer dragoon strike me as having a definite roger dean-ish edge to them, and there were a ton of those psygnosis amiga games that, well, they had roger dean design the covers which reflected on the games themselves. but nothing with all this graphical computational power at our fingertips? it’s basically criminal that i can’t fly around on screwed up acid dragon birds from floating-mountaintop-spilling-its-waterfall-into-an-expanse- of-nothingness to weird-desolate-geometric-landscape and back again.

  9. Any chance of a Trek Trek category? I’ve been really enjoying reading your reviews of Enterprise, as not many people are talking about that show. Or even acknowledge it exists, sadly.

  10. Every time I read about YES I think about “Lisztomania” and the infamous part when “Orpheus song” plays. Also, is “The Who” considered a prog band? Because Tommy is definitely deep, confusing and a musical pretentious “tour de force”.
    Also I think Richard Wakeman and Roger Daltrey have all the right to be arrogant pricks since they are both awesome. And I just got YES and The Who completely mixed up.

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