Jon Anderson is most well-known for his work with the legendary band Yes, writing and performing all-time classic progressive rock songs of the ’70s. However, strangely, it may well be that his most unique creation is his inimitable debut solo album Olias of Sunhillow in 1976. The excellent Cherry Red label have lovingly resurrected this album with a beautifully presented and gloriously re-packaged and remastered special edition, with an additional 5.1 version on an accompanying DVD. This was an album which has mystifyingly lain almost ignored and certainly undervalued for too long, and it is clear that this release has been curated and produced with a real sense of love for the material.
It may be more significant than at first realised that in 1975 Jon Anderson was asked by ex-Aphrodite’s Child keyboard maestro Vangelis to sing the resplendently beautiful So Long Ago, So Clear on his own solo album Heaven and Hell, their first ever collaboration. Putting aside the firmly refuted rumours (by both Anderson and Vangelis) that Vangelis was actually the person responsible for a lot of the music on Sunhillow, it is clear that, musically, Anderson was clearly inspired and influenced by the sonic landscapes that Vangelis was creating on his albums. Indeed, Anderson referred to Vangelis as his ‘mentor’ and was most pleased with Vangelis’ reaction to the finished album. The conceptual background of this album can be traced back to two main roots. Firstly, the Roger Dean cover of the 1971 Yes album Fragile introduced the eye-catching imagery of an exotic space vehicle floating in space above a planet. This imaginative artwork sparked an interest in Anderson, using that image as the launch point for creating his own story of interplanetary travellers on strange craft. Secondly, according to the fascinating booklet notes, Anderson added the influence of “English writer, painter and mystic” Vera Stanley Alder and her 1939 book Initiation of the World, about four ‘Nature Tribes’ on Earth, which he adapted into the four tribes of Sunhillow, representing ‘a different aspect of musical consciousness’. Anderson used these fragmentary ideas to form a unique and captivating new world with a beguiling narrative and very distinctive musical eco-system all of its own – there really is nothing else like Olias of Sunhillow.
By 1975, Yes were at the height of their success with sell out tours around the world, and after years of the relentless ‘album / tour / tour some more / album / tour / tour even more’ cycle, it is perhaps understandable that they all wanted a break from the ‘hamster wheel’ – and each other. Squire and Howe announced they were doing solo albums, and so did Patrick Moraz. Even Alan White did a collaborative ‘solo’ album. All this solo activity persuaded Anderson that he should also embark on one. However, being Jon Anderson, he was going to do it his own unique way. He decided that he would literally be the only performer on his solo album, perhaps influenced by the recent success of Mike Oldfield, with whom he would work a few years later. There was one small issue with this decision – Anderson was not known at all as a proficient multi-instrumentalist! (This was perhaps another reason the Vangelis rumour began?) He had collected a multitude of instruments over the years, but he only really played the acoustic guitar. Anderson proceeded to spend hours and hours over many weeks assiduously practicing with a range of instruments at his home in Buckinghamshire. He acknowledges that he did not attain ‘virtuoso’ levels of skill on any of the instruments, however, it may well be that part of the indefinable magic of Olias is related to the relative simplicity, naivety and instinctiveness of the instrumentation played by Anderson. The real skill came as he lovingly moulded the instruments together with intuitive multi-layering. What you do not get on Olias are fancy flights of flashy instrumentalism or flamboyant solos that dominate songs – what you do get are at times breathtakingly beautiful, imaginative and perfectly balanced passages with evocatively intertwined rhythms and melodies (which you can hear ever more clearly on this sparkling new remaster). It is more like a New Age Symphony than a rock album.
For those who may be unfamiliar with this album, attempts to describe the music will always be lacking, but the highlights include the opening sequence of the first two tracks. Ocean Song cinematically sets the scene with a synth wash and Asian sounding notes piercing the soundscape – it really feels like we are seeing and hearing another world of exotic sights and sounds. Harp and synths evocatively open the panorama as we flow briefly into the initially 2001: A Space Odyssey-like choral tones, before we hear one of the most prominent and beautiful instruments on the whole of Olias of Sunhillow – Jon Anderson’s voice. It is truly enchanting. He multi-layers his soft, angelic tones in hypnotic chants over tribal percussion, like a flower opening into the glorious, cascading vocals of Sound out the Galleon. Apart from the loveliness of his voice, Anderson excelled with some of his most beautiful and poetic lyrics which, remaining on the right side of intelligible (!), evoke splendid visions and images describing the fantasy narrative of the magician Olias building a space ark called the ‘Moorglade Mover’ to save the inhabitants of a doomed world:
Did we all to sing of the praises of Love,
And is one hand raised high in the dark
Total relating appointed close factors,
Of what we regard as the answers lies there
And is one hand raised high in the dark”
Anderson even invents his own words which are chanted on this bewitching piece – to the extent I even found myself chanting word perfectly the imaginary language. If the listener is not beguiled and wanting to board the ‘Moorglade’ right there and then,they never will be!
In a resplendent and truly original album, other musical highlights include the bright, celebratory tones of Flight of the Moorglade, with tinkling cymbals, echoing synths, acoustic guitars and fluid vocals in a perfect synthesis of poetic lyrics and music. (This song sounds particularly good on the 5.1 version with its shimmering, kaleidoscopic ending.) At times, the album is pulsating and bubbling organically, whilst at others it is ethereal and spiritual in essence, such as in Chords / Song of Search and the concluding To the Runner. In short, it is just highly recommended to hear it for yourself as descriptions really will not do it justice.
This remastered version really helps the music shine as it was intended. Such clarity is essential as Anderson created a densely multi-layered musical world with various threads and strands of instruments and voices all interweaving with each other. This is especially evident on Dance of Ranyart (with its very own embryonic pre-Star Wars R2D2 sounds!) and the lengthy, imaginative and diverse Qoquaq En Transic / Naon / Transic To section. What is also helpful with this gorgeously presented re-release are the lengthy booklet notes, which help to flesh out the storyline clearly. I will not attempt to outline the whole story, but getting this edition certainly enhances the understanding and the enjoyment of the album.
The original LP artwork and sleeve notes have been fully reproduced in the CD/DVD digipak (unlike the carelessly butchered previous CD edition which literally left out half the artwork and notes!). As the original sleeve notes were clearly intended for LP sized presentation, they are rather small on this edition… so a magnifying glass may be handy for some readers. However, the two accompanying booklets for the notes and the lyrics are much clearer and easier to read. The glory of this re-release is that it allows Dave Fairbrother Roe’s ornate artwork to be more fully seen. Apparently, Jon Anderson was keen for Roger Dean to provide the artwork but he was unavailable so he chose Roe, who did great work in magically conveying visually what Anderson had created musically. It is perhaps fortunate Dean was not available as having a different artist helps set this album apart from the main Yes canon.
This deluxe edition comes with a 5.1 version of the album. To get a rather more expert opinion of this, TPA asked experienced 5.1 play tester and surround sound consultant Neil Palfreyman for his views on this edition. Neil has worked extensively with Rob Reed (Magenta & other projects), Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief) and renowned producer Rob Aubrey (IQ & Big Big Train) amongst others so his view on this subject is certainly worth gaining:
‘The surround version of the Esoteric Records re-release of Olias of Sunhillow is an up-mix, i.e. a synthesised 5.1, rather than one that’s been re-mixed from the masters. And it’s remarkably good! To be honest; it’s far better than I expected it to be! It’s immersive and very clean, but also has a surprising number of discrete elements in the surround field. The up-mix retains all the feel of the original, which is no great surprise, but thankfully it has retained a good high dynamic range, too. Enjoying it immensely. Well done, Esoteric. By the way, the dual disk package is very well put together and is incredibly good value too.’
Neil is spot on, and I would echo his comments about the great value of this edition. Additionally, it is worth knowing the 5.1 version subtly animates Fairbrother Roe’s artwork as a backdrop to the music and it’s a real joy to behold as you play it.
It is great to have this re-release of Olias of Sunhillow, presented in all its beauty, sonically and artistically, with great care and attention by Cherry Red Records. If you have never heard it then you are in for a treat, and if you have heard it you will be able to hear, see and enjoy it afresh in great clarity and quality. Of course, Yes soon reassembled with Anderson to produce the wonderful Going for the One album, so Anderson was clearly on the crest of a great artistic wave at that time. Since then his solo work have never really come close to emulating this album, and maybe that is also part of its beauty – it is unique and quite unlike any other album. In Olias of Sunhillow Jon Anderson may well have reached his creative and perhaps even his spiritual zenith. As Anderson himself says at the end of the album:
01. Ocean Song (3:05)
02. Meeting (Garden of Geda) / Sound Out the Galleon (3:34)
03. Dance of Ranyart / Olias (To Build The Moorglade) (4:19)
04. Qoquaq En Transic / Naon / Transic To (7:09)
05. Flight of The Moorglade (3:24)
06. Solid Space (5:21)
07. Moon Ra / Chords / Song of Search (12:49)
08. To the Runner (3:43)
Time – 40:24
Same track listing as CD in 5.1 Surround Sound Upmix & High Resolution Stereo Mix
Jon Anderson – Vocals, Mini Moogs, Mini Korgs 1 & 2, Farfisa Rhodes 66, Double Manual Mellotron, Beaconsfield Church Organ, Baldwin Baby Grand Piano, Ken Freeman String Machine, Marimba, Glockenspiel, Children’s Toy Xylophone, Large Brass Band Drum, Two Brass Band Snare Drums, Caribbean Long Drums, Assorted Navajo Drums, African Skin Drums, Indian Tablas, Chinese Bells, African Cowbells, Tibetan Bells, Ludwig Wood Blocks, Thumb Piano, Custom Built Cymbal Tree, Tambourine, Triangle, Assorted Cymbals & Gongs, Irish Harp, Hofner Violin Bass, Sitar, Tampuri, Greek Bouzouki, Turkish Kes, Martin Acoustic Guitar, Gibson Acoustic Guitar, Gibson Melody Maker Guitar, Gibson Mandicello, Assorted African Flutes