Jon Anderson’s 1976 solo debut Olias of Sunhillow was a lockdown album decades before those were in vogue. Recorded in his home’s garage with Anderson on every instrument, the singer-songwriter recalled three months of 10-hour days to bring the ambitious sci-fi/fantasy concept album to life. While its success was modest – it peaked at No. 47 in the U.S. and a stronger No. 8 at home in the U.K. – Olias musically anticipated Anderson’s collaborations with Vangelis and is today fondly looked upon as one of the finest, if not the finest, solo album from a member of Yes. It’s just been reissued by Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint in a new CD/DVD edition boasting the remastered album on CD and high-resolution stereo as well as up-mixed 5.1 Dolby Surround mixes on DVD.
Inspired by British writer and mystic Vera Stanley Alder’s 1939 book The Initiation of the World as well as by the artwork of frequent Yes collaborator Roger Dean (who nonetheless declined to design Olias despite Anderson’s repeated entreaties), Olias loosely spins a tale about the denizens of the doomed planet Sunhillow. The story isn’t told literally but impressionistically with Anderson’s trademark lyrical opacity and mystical inclination.
Over new age-styled keyboards and varied instrumentation including guitars, bass, harp, sitar, flute, mandolin, percussion, and the lute-like instrument known as the saz, Anderson narrates the tale of the magician Olias who is compelled to build a ship when a volcano looks to obliterate Sunhillow. (Shades of Krypton from Superman lore.) “The frame will be so built to challenge the universe,” Anderson sings on “Sound Out the Galleon,” “clasped with the skins of the fish of the plain.” Another magician, Ranyart, becomes the navigator and a third, Qoquag, must convince the planet’s four rival tribes to take the journey into space before their planet is destroyed. The power of music sees Olias and his compatriots through, and they ultimately land on Asguard [sic] where the tribes relocate and the three magicians ascend to godlike positions.
A pronounced Eastern influence flecks Anderson’s appropriately cosmic melodies including on the opening instrumental “Ocean Song” (the only song from the album to have been heard on a Yes tour) and on the mini-suite “Qoquag En Transic/Naon/Transic To” which also features a heavy percussion element to represent the tribes. “Flight of the Moorglade” chronicles the intergalactic trek (“And the slightest confrontation was dissolved before the start/Each man belonged to each as one clear hand…”) in a more traditional prog-rock setting. Each song form is different than the last; “Solid Space” marries its mantra-like, repeated lyrics to a pulsating melody and shimmering arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place in EPCOT Center. Anderson layers the chanted vocals on the intricate “Moon Ra” as the travelers “ascend to the stars,” building to a majestic choral finale that wouldn’t be out of place on the musical stage. “To the Runner,” an epilogue of sorts, has some of Anderson’s most austere, classically-inspired music of the album.
With its diverse instrumentation, effects, and sprawling soundscape, Olias of Sunhillow has long been a tantalizing prospect for 5.1 surround. Sadly, that wasn’t meant to be. Esoteric is up-front regarding the fact that the multitrack tapes for the album cannot be located in the Warner archives, making a true surround mix impossible. As a result, the producers have offered an “up-mix” from the original stereo master tapes that’s well-intentioned if no substitute for true, discrete surround. The high-resolution stereo presentation, however, is expectedly terrific as sourced from the masters by engineer Ben Wiseman.
A highlight of this reissue is Malcolm Dome’s new essay featuring extensive and illuminating quotes from Jon Anderson. The 20-page booklet (which also features numerous photos and memorabilia images such as newspaper clippings and even sheet music) is housed within an eight-panel, two-pocket digipak. The panels reprint the illustrated storybook that accompanied the original LP. At CD size, it’s difficult to read but still a welcome inclusion. A second, eight-page booklet is included in the second pocket containing all of the lyrics which were also printed in the original 1976 package.
Jon Anderson has long teased a potential sequel to Olias of Sunhillow, and it’s not hard to imagine an accompanying graphic novel fleshing out the fantastical story. In the meantime, Esoteric’s CD/DVD reissue is a major upgrade to recent editions on Wounded Bird and Music on CD, and a less expensive but still well-mastered alternative to Kevin Gray’s sublime remaster as issued on a now-costly Audio Fidelity SACD in 2014. If prog/space-rock concept albums are your bag, you won’t regret saying “Yes” to 45 minutes or so with Olias of Sunhillow. It’s out today in the U.K. and on April 9 in North America!
- Ocean Song
- Meeting (Garden of Geda)/Sound Out the Galleon
- Dance of Ranyart/Olias (To Build the Moorglade)
- Qoquag En Transic/Naon/Transic To
- Flight of the Moorglade
- Solid Space
- Moon Ra/Chords/Song of Search
- To the Runner