The people who spend more time arguing about what progressive rock really means over internet sites like this one than arguing with their loved ones to try to fix their relationship problems would probably all agree that “Close to the Edge” is progressive rock. It has all the landmark traits: knowingly complex, knowingly cathartic and lyrics that mean as much as drunk “I love you”’s to people you’ve never met before.
But the more important thing is, the same people would probably also agree that “Close to the Edge” is damn fine progressive rock. Part of the reason why Close to the Edge is so well-received is because nothing else really comes close to being so perfectly progressive. It touches on a lot of genres, but not in some haphazard way; “The Solid Time of Change” might as well be called funk-rock, the way Anderson varies each melody is nothing short of jazz, and the way each suites are connected and more, interrelated, is nothing short of classical. Furthermore, the band loves filling up empty space – just skip to the 0:59 mark to see what I mean. Steve Howe enters the room, whips out his guitar and starts wielding it around like a massive phallus, forcing people to crowd in the corners. “Whoa, dude! Careful with that thing!” but he just ignores them and carries on. Just so we’re clear, the same applies to Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman (the solo organ that starts at the 12:22 mark sounds like it’s playing for a full congregation), but I wouldn’t have been able to use the phallus analogy in those cases. You’re never going to hear such manic musicianship from their contemporaries: Pink Floyd was more interested in atmosphere; Genesis couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag because of production issues; Gentle Giant’s idea of progress was tempo changes up the wazoo – and you can’t rock out to slow stuff.
As critics like to point out, Jon Anderson’s lyrics do suck, but when he runs through them in his heliumed-Gregorian-chant-of-a-warcry style lines like, “A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace / And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,” haven’t a chance of sticking to you unless you’re reading along to the music. Why you would be doing that is anyone’s best guess. But there’s more – a lot of the lyrics in “Close to the Edge” succeeds because of how they’re developed into mantras (not to mention the melody in which they’re delivered). There’s the “I get up, I get down” that always gets talked about, but there’s also the “Down at the edge, round by the corner” one (and its subsequent variations – my favorite is when he delivers in such a robotic manner around the 6:56 mark). Regarding such lyrics, RollingStone’s Richard Cromelin notes that “They don’t try to mean a lot internally but simply add a quasi-literal dimension that supplements the music’s mood.” At a fundamental level, I agree with him – you start down at the edge, the corner, the end, the river, you get up, you get down, you get up, you get down, you’re back at the edge, the corner, the end, the river, you get up, you get down, etc.
But that’s only a small portion of it; there’s a constant movement in the music. I mean, even the environmental tapes that start the track have a fucking crescendo to them. Listen to the music between the 2:15 and 3:00 minute marks – Rick Wakeman’s keyboards imitate rain (they really sound squishy) while Steve Howe’s guitar imitates you sprinting through it, guided by the rhythm section. When Jon Anderson sings “Not right away” (the 4:41 mark), he sounds like he’s pleading and the sonar blips that start shortly after (the 5:00 mark) sound like he is searching for the way out. Later, when Jon Anderson sings “I get up, I get down” at the 12-minute mark, his voice climbs higher and higher as if to signal the fact that he’s not trying to get down. He’s trying to get out and it works – easily the single prettiest moment in their discography. Similarly, in his final moments, he doesn’t inject the same mantra with that same direction, but there’s a huge sense of finality to it thanks to the cadences used and Bill Bruford’s drumming.
Neither of the songs on the flipside reach the heights of “Close to the Edge,” not because they were only given half the time to do so, but because they don’t really try. Whereas “Close to the Edge” was undeniably the sum of its parts, “And You and I” is its parts – fir example, “Apocalypse,” the 40 second coda, feels like it was just thrown in as an afterthought (and the vocals are nowhere near as pretty as the first time we hear those lyrics. Seriously, skip to the 3:25 mark, and listen to the counterpointing voices). Meanwhile, for whatever reason, the rhythm section takes it easy on this one (though Bill Bruford throwing in a triangle to punctuate Anderson during “Cord of Life” is a nice touch). Meanwhile, the lack of ideas within “Siberian Khatru” borders on offending. It’s almost as long as “And You and I,” but rides on a single detail (the riff, admittedly a good one). And when Jon Anderson and Bruford just jolt along in some odd “harmony” with the riff (7:07 onwards), it sounds funny, but not intentionally.
A couple of things to close:
1. This is a good album.
2. This is NOT Yes’ best album. That goes to Fragile, and if the reason that’s stopping you from liking that one are the minute-long interludes, you need to figure out what you normally do during the average minute that’s so much better and tell me about them immediately. At the very least, that one had a sense of humor. That’s all gone here, but thankfully, they have the songwriting to make up for it. They’ll start losing that shortly.
3. In other words, this is Yes’ last good album.
4. This is also the last Yes album to feature names for individual movements within each suite. You can call that extra effort on the band’s part, but really, it signifies the fact that the band knew what they were doing within each suite. The fact that they don’t bother with that extra detail and my declaration in the previous point isn’t a coincidence.