With so much music out there, it’s easy to realize you’ve been sleeping on something really special. Late Album Review is a new series where we’ll listen to classic or important progressive albums that we’ve missed for whatever reason, and write about our experience. First in the series: Jon Anderson’s first solo album, Olias of Sunhillow.
I’ve been listening to Yes for most of my life, and I’ve seen them more than a few times live. I first heard Yes when I was in elementary school. My mom bought us two Yes albums- 90125 and Fragile. I was immediately drawn to Jon Anderson’s voice. It was so unique and pure, almost child-like. In a band with several other highly unique instrumental voices, Jon’s tender alto, for me, became the most defining sound of an already rare band. So, it might be a surprise to some that I’ve never listened to Jon Anderson’s 1976 solo album, Olias of Sunhillow.
Olias of Sunhillow was Jon’s first solo outing, and it is a solo album in the truest sense of the word. Jon played every instrument (and the instrument list is comically long, and includes African flutes, thumb pianos, cymbal trees, etc. along with the more traditional rock band instruments). The heavy synths are very reminiscent of Vangelis, to the extent that Vangelis’s label, thinking that he played without permission, demanded him to prove that he didn’t play on the album. Vangelis responded with a fullhearted endorsement of the album, which he acknowledges was likely influenced by his sound, but also something unique- merging Jon’s prog rock background with folk, world music, and the ambient, synth driven experimentation that was happening in the mid 70s.
The album was partially inspired by Roger Dean’s art for Yes’s album Fragile. It tells the story of a group of four alien tribes that are driven to migrate through space due to a catastrophic event on their home planet. One of these aliens, Olias, is a magician who is tasked with the construction of a spacefaring ark called the Moorglade Mover. He’s helped by fellow magicians Qoquaq and Ranyart, who use their particular skills (Qoquaq’s diplomacy and Ranyart’s music/navigation) help guide the ship through the recesses of space. After a turbulent flight, the ship finally makes it to a new planet called Asguard, and the tribes settle in, while the three magicians ascend onto a higher plane. Yeah, it’s all kinda spacey and weird, but every prog concept album is weird, and because of my familiarity with Yes and Anderson’s style, I wouldn’t have really expected anything else.
Track by Track Review
Opener “Ocean Song” is a good example of the aforementioned influence of synth innovator Vangelis- cinematic, powerful, and evocative. “Meeting (Garden of Geda)/Sound out the Galleon” feels very much like a Yes track, and just reminds me of how essential Jon’s voice is to the Yes sound, as this song feels like it would be at home on any of those mid/late-70s Yes records.
“Dance of Ranyart/Olias (Build the Moorglade)” is subdued but lush and beautiful, with pleasant interplay between a variety of instruments, including harp. The second half of the song starts after a sequence of beeps and blips and ends with powerful melodies and harmonies.
“Qoquaq En Transic/Naon/Taransic Co” is a good reminder that this album is conceptual, as it is presented in several movements that vary considerably. The intro, “Qoquaq En Transic” is a lone set of synth sounds that meander, which leads into the trance-inducing “Naon”. The final part, “Taransic Co”, feels like a return to the intro, with some lovely vocal-keyboard unison.
“Flight of the Moorglade” feels the least experimental in song form and structure, and in that sense, the most familiar for a Yes fan. The primary difference might be the unique instrumentation and arrangement, which includes a unique keyboard sound and embellishments on the sitar. “Solid Space” ended being one of my favorite tracks, as I feel like the build up from the ambient, sparse beginning to the powerful, melodic ending, was very satisfying.
“Moon Ra/Chords/Song of Search”, clocking in at 12 minutes, is an epic journey that includes, on top of lush arrangements what sounds like throat singing. The listener is escorted on a mellow journey through the stars, with a highly melodic midsection and another spacey, ambient ending. Final track “To the Runner” closes the album with a beautiful, upbeat, psychedelic outro that fades out into space.
As a fan of Yes, this album obviously felt familiar, for my aforementioned reasons. But it also definitely had a unique vibe to it that sets it apart from Yes’s 70s output in significant ways. The more electronic soundscapes were really enjoyable for me, and I really think Jon’s brilliant arrangements are a joy to listen to. I do feel like this album is much more experimental and out there than most of Yes’s output, and is much more in line with the bolder compositional choices Tales from Topographic Oceans than a more song driven album like Fragile or The Yes Album.
It’s harder to grip to melodies and choruses on first listen, but the cinematic quality and the beauty of each individual track begs for subsequent listens. It’s also not exactly the type of album that you just throw on to hear your favorite song- it feels much more like an experiential type of album, which I think is pretty normal for the prog world (with cinematic, story driven albums abounding) but not so much for the single-hungry masses that might have expected something simpler. In short, I think it’s the type of album for fans that are fine with eschewing the ‘rock’ part of prog, and I’ll definitely be giving this album a few more spins.
What do you think about Olias of Sunhillow? Let us know in the comments.