Rock Review: Yes, ‘Close to the Edge’ – Close to being perfect.

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The Classic 1972 Progressive Rock Album.

Probably my favourite all time prog rock album, ‘Close to the Edge’ (Elektra/Rhino CD) by Yes.

I was quite young when this came out in 1972 and didn’t actually hear it until later in the following year, when my elder brother brought it home. I think I had heard ‘Fragile’ by then too, the band’s 1971 release, which kicked off with ‘Roundabout’, one of Yes’ more ‘accessible’ numbers for a young boy. Nevertheless, I remember being pretty impressed by the whole album.

Spiritual sound

However, when my brother put ‘Close to the Edge’ on our family hi-fi, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The slow start of planetary, naturalistic sound, the incredible weaving together of all the different movements of side one, took some time for me to appreciate, but now it’s like one epic poem, a vast spiritual movement of sound that is hard to describe, in words. It just has to be experienced, let it take you somewhere.

I still particularly like the ‘I Get Up I Get Down’ section, so beautiful, bringing together all the singing talents of the band, not just Jon Anderson, but also Steve Howe and Chris Squire.

Five virtuosos

Which leads me to a major point. Has there ever been a better example of five incredible talents working together, at the top of their game, producing such a masterpiece? I would doubt it.

Jon Anderson’s unique voice and inspirational lyricism; Bill Bruford’s peerless percussion; Steve Howe’s sheer virtuosity on six and twelve strings; Chris Squire’s uniquely lyrical bass and underrated singing; Rick Wakeman’s pure genius and dexterous flair.

It would prove to be a small window, sadly. Very soon, Bill Bruford would be on his way, followed soon after by Rick Wakeman. But what a beautiful, ornately made window it was. It was of its time.

Woven together

Side Two for me is equally impressive. I can still quite easily listen to ‘And You And I’ on repeat. I love the start, with Steve Howe hitting the harmonics on his twelve string, the way Rick’s synth plays over the top is so joyful, full of life. And like all Yes tracks, it’s difficult to envisage how they all put this together, so differing are the elements, but they come to together beautifully, woven by lyrics which are both hard to fathom, yet totally fitting – a Yes trademark.

And the final track, ‘Siberian Khatru’. Heaven knows what it’s about but if I had just one track to take to my desert island, I think it would be this.

Atmospheric

Great, catchy guitar riffs to start off and great rock playing by the whole band, but soon the wonderful group singing harmonies come in to play, adding a great atmospheric and naturalistic feel.

Then all the virtuosity of the band kicks in – indescribable. Especially, towards the end when they sing pairs of mysterious words with lots of reverb, which may, or may not, be related… but it works, it means something, though I don’t know what it is. And did I mention Steve Howe’s jazzy guitar on the outro?

Just how it should be, long reign the mystery.

copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019

Favourite Album Reviews: ‘Spirit of Eden’ by Talk Talk

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Few British bands changed so radically during the 1980s as Talk Talk.

Their early albums and singles were very much of their time, like their eponymously named single and ‘Today’, for instance. The early sound featured a strong, driving electronica dominated by synths and hooks.

However, even on those earlier pieces, there were hints of what was to come, that this was no ordinary, shallow 1980s band.

Veering Away

‘Life’s What You Make It’, their best remembered song, though still synth oriented, is beginning to veer away from ‘established’ sound and subject matter.

Yet, despite such progress and change, I don’t think anyone was ready for the 1988 release, ‘Spirit of Eden’ (EMI).

At the time it left many fans and critics dumbfounded with its often improvised, expansive, moody, melancholic, spiritual soundscapes. Then there was the use of a wide variety of session musicians, playing an array of instruments – brass, wind, harmonica. And there were only six tracks.

Unconventional

Then there is the Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral, even an obscure electronic device called a Shozygs to add to the eclectic, unconventional nature of the album.

But if the initial reaction might in some circles have been termed ‘puzzled’, or ‘underwhelmed’, over the years this album has achieved true iconic status, a literal masterpiece of modern music with many fans, myself included.

In some ways it’s a hard album to describe, or to breakdown in to what it’s really about. Yes, there’s an unconventional spiritual element to it, as the name ‘Spirit of Eden’ suggests. You just have to listen to it. It’s perfect background music, good to concentrate on, good to talk about amongst friends.

Sparse Ambiguity

What’s more, the lyrics, though relatively sparse, have enough ambiguity to allow you interpret things your own way, to lead you back in again and again.

Take Track 1, ‘The Rainbow’ which sets things off as they are to carry on. It’s sparse to begin, wonderfully atmospheric with great usage of piano and organ in solitaire mode. An electric guitar pitches in suddenly with a bluesy riff, over the top of a simple drum beat – the latter a feature throughout the album until the last track. And the harmonica is something else too.

And what can one say about the late Mark Hollis’ vocals? I would’ve gladly listened to them on their own, without lyrics; they sound just like an instrument which complements all the others. He is forceful, thoughtful, emotional, tender, a kaleidoscope of feeling in one voice: no better British singer in the past forty years, in my opinion.

Sublime Torture

Then there’s ‘Eden’, another soundscape beginning with brass and wind. There is a particular melancholy here, but a beautiful one, like some sublime torture as each chorus leads up to a desperate statement of faith, or maybe the lack of it. But there’s hope here too.

I particularly like the electric guitar cameo, almost ‘Beatles-esque’ in its playing, to take you off in some beautiful diversion. An extraordinary song which I still don’t fully understand, but I love it.

‘Inheritance’ carries on with the improvisational sense, evoking space, yet might seem a little more conventional sounding.

Gospel Edge

Track 5, ‘I Believe In You’ might seem even more conventional to start with, with a regular, gentle beat. And there’s a soulful, gospel edge to this one too.

This leads us on to the use of The Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral. It’s not overdone, it accents everything tastefully, merely to illustrate the song, finally taking you out into the ethereal at the end.

‘Wealth’ ends this collection of sounds, with another understated sense of melancholic peace, with a twist of gospel. We’re back to the gentle minimalism of the organ and piano, with no percussion at all. It evokes a rare sense of space, reflection, the general feel throughout the album.

After all these years, I still can’t truly say I understand what this album is about. But it doesn’t matter, it’s all the better for it and will remain one of my ‘go to’ albums.

copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019

 

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Favourite Album Reviews: ‘Aja’ by Steely Dan (Part 2, Side 2)

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The continuing story of what I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever, Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ (MCA) from 1977. If you haven’t seen part 1, check in my blog first.

If side 1 was a tour de force, then side 2 continues slightly differently, with four songs which are in their own way, equally impressive.

‘Peg’ gets going with a much lighter disco feel, compared to side one. It’s fairly typical of the time but done in Steely Dan’s own inimitable way, with attention to detail. It turns out the guitar solo which made it onto the album took some time to finalise, with numerous guitarists auditioning for the ‘role’. Listening to it, I think they made the right choice. This is probably the most ‘commercial’ track on the album.

Classical References

With Track 2, ‘Home At Last’, we’re suddenly, though not surprisingly, in the realms of Homer (the ancient Greek writer, not the cartoon character) and Ulysses (Odysseus), with references to danger on the rocks and being tied to a mast over a bluesy jive that gets your foot a-tapping nicely. Once again the instrumentation, particularly the use of brass, I feel, is second to none. Very much of its time, almost ‘Starsky and Hutch’ in feel.

‘I Got The News’, the second to last track is an ‘angular’ sounding disco number, with those enigmatic, yet fitting lyrics full of innuendo and direct references which are so much a feature of the Dan’s music. There’s a great guitar break too, which belies the track’s disco setting, a feature first perfected I think on their previous album, ‘The Royal Scam’. It’s like they’re letting you know how sophisticated they are – and why not?

Hell Raiser

And so to the last, and certainly not least track on this classic album. ‘Josie’ is one of Steely Dan’s most celebrated songs, a fine R&B number, about a girl the guys simply can’t do without, it would seem, a bit of a hell raiser by the sound of it, who evidently could’ve been present when Nero set fire to Rome in AD 64. This has all the feel of LA and sophistication, the place Becker and Fagen made their home for some time.

Once again though, it’s the jazz inspired elements, like the rather haunting, minimalistic guitar riff/section sandwiching the main part of the track, which sets it apart from what anyone else was doing before or since.

‘Aja’ will always be a classic. Was it the peak of their success? Most definitely, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to ‘Gaucho’, or ‘Two Against Nature’, nor indeed the older back catalogue. It’s just that if I was to recommend one album of this band, it would have to be ‘Aja’. It gets an A+++.

copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019

 

 

Favourite Album Reviews: ‘Aja’, Steely Dan (Part 1, Side 1)

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Steely Dan’s 1977 album (MCA)

I think I can say without qualification that Steely Dan’s 1977 album release, ‘Aja’ (MCA), changed my life. This is part one – I feel there’s simply too much to say in one piece.

At the time I was at college and it became the soundtrack of my time. It was a tape (I got the vinyl later) and I must have worn it out. On that tape ‘Josie’ was the opening track, swapping places with ‘Black Cow’ from the vinyl.

Of course, I was already a big fan of their previous five albums, beginning with the 1972 release of ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ and the singles, ‘Reeling In The Years’ and ‘Do It Again’. That was some entry into the mainstream.

Put simply, anyone who tries to play guitar or any instrument, like me, or just appreciates music, simply couldn’t help but be impressed, not merely with the virtuoso playing of various band and session guys over the years, but with the whole jazz infused rock style which is all their own.

Peerless Songwriting

And to say that the songs of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are well-crafted would be a great understatement; they are simply peerless – witty, sarcastic, intellectual, moving, all in a wonderfully constructed, painstakingly produced package that is, nevertheless, often hard to define. The element of doubt I’m sure is deliberate, lyrically and musically, so that the listener can make up their own mind, take them to places they never thought they would go. And I’ve been everywhere.

But to the album. Is it their best? Probably, a classic certainly, released when punk rock was at its height, which makes its success all the more remarkable. Great music is great music in any age and will find its way.

New York night life

The opening track, ‘Black Cow’, is the name of a mixed alcoholic drink of New York origin, apparently, though as is sometimes the case, the name of the song is incidental to the main message: that there’s a relationship ending, badly, and one of them isn’t taking it too well. Pretty straightforward really. The song to me simply oozes New York night life, with a slow, steady, ‘catchy’ beat which has been sampled at least once since then. Great piano solo, superb de rigueur saxophone on the outro.

The title track is next and quite unlike anything the band had attempted before. ‘Aja’ is a girl’s name, quite a girl by the sound of it. The lyrics are concise, perfect, simply to illustrate the song, leaving the stage open for the incredible musicianship. The song is complex, evocative of sensory pleasures, Asian themes. I feel sunshine every time I hear it. Denny Diaz’s extended guitar solo is wonderful, almost like glints of sunlight on the Pacific Ocean, or maybe a boat bobbing up and down.

Atmospheric Synth

And then the saxophone solo (yes, another one, and why not!), seems to take you into the evening, more busy night life, romance. If this wasn’t enough there is, in my opinion, the most incredible outro ever, consisting of sensational drumming, a single piano chord repeat pattern and atmospheric synths all around it, taking you into the heady early hours of the morning. Quite wonderful.

‘Deacon Blues’ is the next track, completing side one of vinyl. The story of a loser? More than once I’ve toyed with the idea that it could be about me. The subject is resigned, yet determined to play saxophone, to drink Scotch all night and go out driving (no, I don’t do that).

Inspirational

Once more I sense the night, this time dark alleys, jazz clubs, New York street life. The saxophone illustrates the song beautifully (naturally), a long track of nearly seven and half minutes, but it’s over before you know it – a sign of quality, that not a second is wasted in creating these mental pictures. Great lyrics, great playing, great song. Just great.

It even inspired the name of a band, but that’s another story.

So that completes side one. Only three tracks, but all different. Quite simply the best first side of an album, period.

copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019