Atlantic 1976 / Esoteric 2021
Progressive rock’s primary warbler navigates a striking course through alien seas and forges his identity.
Mid-’70s saw every member of YES release a solo LP, staking a claim to their respective aspect of the ensemble’s sonics, yet while Chris Squire‘s “Fish Out Of Water” proved he had been a pivot the group rotated around, his fellow co-founder Jon Anderson‘s “Olias Of Sunhillow” revealed a world of his own. It was not insular, though: despite the fact that the singer laid down every single note on it, creating a unique aural landscape – unmistakably belonging to Jon, if entirely new. Anderson may have derived the idea of interplanetary trip from Roger Dean’s graphic concept for “Fragile” but the result of the vocalist’s effort still feels individual to a fault and stands out as an album where he fully embraced his artistry and, playing an astounding array of instruments, his musicianship – an album where his sound and vision sprang to life.
Electric and acoustic appliances, woodwind percussive and stringed devices – it’s all there to produce an amazing auditory mosaic, one number often segueing into the next, yet what’s no less important is that on this record Jon finally started treating his voice as an instrument too, up to going for a purely phonetic approach in a few places and pretending to sing in a pseudo-language sometimes, although Anderson’s ability to make plain English seem outlandish, once set to a tune, is just as astonishing. Sucked in by a magnificent scent of “Ocean Song” which fleshes out the initially ethereal vibe with dynamically pregnant hum to build momentum and introduce the album’s leitmotif, the listener will be captivated to the very end, a triumph of spirit on “To The Runner” – the finale and a fanfare for another voyage into the strangely familiar unknown. The ascent there begins in “Meeting (Garden Of Geda)” whose vocal polyphony comes across as deeply devotional before glorious grooves sweep solemnity away and usher in the folk-informed ballad “Sound Out The Galleon” until the ambient strokes of “Dance Of Ranyart” are peeled from harp and electronics pull in “Olias (To Build The Moorglade)” – a tremulously multi-layered anthem, signaling the launch of a genuine adventure.
Floating into focus on a nigh on intangible “Qoquaq Ën Transic” and the tribal twirl of “Naon” and landing on the chorale “Transic Tö” which must return the drift to divine planes, the exotic journey peaks with the pellucid “Flight Of The Moorglade” – the proggiest and lightest piece on display – only for “Solid Space” to bring on a dense quasi-orchestral march in which Jon’s dramatic singing is tightly woven. It’s there that the epic exodus unfolds via the disturbing chant of “Moon Ra” and the enchanting grandeur of “Chords” prior to “Song Of Search” losing lyrics in favor of simple strum and romantic ivory waves. And it’s after this that a sense of freedom reigns, sowing the seed of "Song Of Seven" without limiting Jon Anderson’s flight.
Sadly, being too brightly colored for its own good, “Olias Of Sunhillow” wouldn’t become as successful as “Tubular Bells” but it refuses to look dull decades later: it’s a masterpiece which keeps on dazzling – and you don’t even need a surround upmix on a companion DVD to heed the magic.