Olias of Sunhillow – an SACD masterpiece

bnbiS01Amid the manifold reissues and remasters meted out to the Yes catalog over the years, a handful of other related odds and ends have cried out for re-evaluation – and will probably continue to do so for a while to come.

Steve Howe’s Beginnings album heads the list right now, Chris Squire’s Fish Out Of Water, too.  But we can at least chop one name off the roster, as Audio Fidelity bring Hybrid SACD status to the finest of all Yes solo prolusions, Jon Anderson’s debut Olias of Sunhillow.

Surprise!

Originally released in 1976, at a time when Yes themselves were in serious danger of vanishing firmly up their own collective behinds, Olias of Sunhillow initially boded badly for anyone hoping for a return to more palatable pastures.  All cosmic voyaging and alternate humanities, a sci-fi concept album, it told the tale of an alien race setting out to a new land, fleeing a volcanic eruption on their own.

Under the aegis of the architect Olias, the navigator Ranyard and the unifying politician Qoquaq, they piled aboard the glider Moorglade Mover – an enterprise that the album’s jacket design (by David Fairbrother Roe) captured in both intricate paintings and archaic script.  Toklien, Vera Stanley Alder and Yes artist Roger Dean were all cited as influences, and Anderson even promised to perform part of the album in the aliens’ native language.

Oh, and he played every instrument himself.

Yes, it could have been grisly.

Instead, it was a revelation.  Of course Anderson’s so distinctive vocal makes it impossible to separate Olias of Sunhillow from the mothership’s prolusions.  But while Topographic Oceans and Relayer portrayed a band getting bogged down in its own sense of self-importance, Olias was wide open, wide screen, wide ranging, a broad, inspired and glorious sound, all choirs and fanfares, tribal ecstasy and hymnal wildness.

“Sound Out The Galleon” and “The Flight of the Moorglade” were tight, winding jewels, “Naon” an irresistible chant… without ever losing its cohesion, Olias of Sunhillow has an epic quality that compounds Anderson’s brilliance, confounds his critics and contorts even the loyalest acolyte’s expectations as it matches the scope of the story with a novelist’s ear.

And no matter how great it has ever sounded in the past, Kevin Gray’s SACD mastering is positively awe-inspiring, every instrument, every nuance, every trick of the tail teased to beautifully balanced perfection.  Famously, the sound of the original album suffered a little simply because of the number of overdubs it required.  Here, each one has space to stretch out, rendering Olias so bright and shimmering that even confirmed vinylphiles will admit that sometimes, digital can do it right.

There’s no bonus material, which might be considered a drawback, and the original LP sleeve and booklet can never be replicated in a CD jewelcase.   Even the fan forums have been grumbling since this was announced that there’s plenty of Yes albums they’d have preferred to see first.  Tough.  It’s a limited edition of 5,000 copies, which means the people who genuinely want it will hopefully be buying it first, and if you’re late for the train, then that’s too bad.

Anderson has been threatening a sequel for a few years now, an audio-visual online concept album.  Maybe this reissue is intended to pave the way for it, maybe not.  Either way, no matter how brilliant Zamran Experience may turn out to be, it’s got a very hard act to follow.

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