Friday, March 27, 2020

Round by the Corner, Close to the Edge, Down by the River

There’s a term for being indecisive when faced with too many choices: "overchoice." Can you imagine, then, what it must have been like in the years between 1967 and 72 or 73. Close to the Edge comes out, for example, and a month later, Foxtrot

A counterpart of overchoice is an inability to actually to move on to the next plateau. How hard, for instance, it was to pry Yes off the turntable, but then, how lucky, to be privy, that very first time, to discover "Supper's Ready." 

The three songs that makeup Close to the Edge, recorded over a three-week period in early 1972, reflect significant contributions from each Yes members, particularly in the title track. "Close to the Edge" was essentially recorded live in the studio with overdubs and edits made on the fly. Jon Anderson said of the process, "We'd get the basic sketch of something, and then it was a matter of refinement. A piece would start to feel complete, but then I'd look to Steve and say, 'We need a very poignant 12-string guitar introduction.' He'd come up with it, it would be great, and we'd be off." The opening track, credited to Anderson and Howe, represents four movements over 18 minutes. The lyrics, written mostly by Jon Anderson, were inspired by the Hindu/Buddhist mysticism based on the book Siddhartha, and while the piece is credited to Anderson and Howe, its plain to see that each of the members wrote or improvised their own creative niche.

The first section, "The Solid Time of Change," is mostly instrumental and covers numerous key and time signature changes. Howe's Gibson 335 provides a foil to Rick Wakeman's Hammond, while Bill Bruford provides a complicated interaction with Chris Squire's bass, neither satisfied with the role as percussion. (Squire's 1964 Rickenbacker 4001 is so unique, particularly here, based on his ever-present use of a pick.) Howe provides the main musical theme of the song in this section before an abrupt switch in timing and timbre as Anderson joins in.

For "Total Mass Retain," the song switches mood quickly as Howe leads the band into a roiling stew amidst Bruford's tom-tom fill. Anderson and Squire sing in tandem during the section with uncanny precision. Again, the pace and key changes. Remarkably, Chris Squire plays a sliding and punctuated bass part while he and Anderson sing a vocal together in a different time signature than the music! Wakeman effortlessly integrates Moog and mellotron into the mix, the most striking aspect of the song's ethereal nature captured within the keys.

The lovely and ethereal "I Get Up, I Get Down" follows in rapid succession. Again, the pace changes as Steve Howe’s electric sitar compliments Wakeman’s Hammond organ and mellotron orchestration. The shift is dramatic and stunning.  "Close to the Edge" eschews the conventions that were commonplace in prog rock epics, even by 1972 (echoed, maybe in "Supper's Ready"). Rather than choosing to welcome the listener with an overture, Yes erupt into a chaotic swirl of guitar-based jamming and synthesizer-fueled madness. When the band brings the chaos down to earth to focus on a more mainstream rock format, the melodies and symphonic warmth are refreshing, thanks to the jarring contrast. It is the prog rock equivalent to watching a Hitchcock film; the pacing is sublime.

The track is considered by many the quintessential prog rock piece. It is everything about progressive music that critics and fans alike either adore or abhor. Like "Firth of Fifth," "Tarkus," and the two-sided "A Passion Play, "Close to the Edge," while over the top and the antithesis of what many believe rock music should be, is among rock's finest moments. I would suggest instead that the "bombast" that progressive rock is accused of, particularly Yes, is apparent in everything from The Velvet Underground’s side-filling "Sister Ray" to the Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam." So, suck it, naysayers; "Close to the Edge" is sheer brilliance. 

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