Olias of Sunhillow, Jon Anderson’s utterly unique 1976 solo debut, was always meant to be listened to completely — and at very high volumes. With its fantastical storylines (a flaxen hero, the promise of a better day, some seriously weird outer space stuff) and enveloping soundscapes, the former Yes frontman created a rich and rewarding world unto itself.
This new super-audio compact disc remaster, deftly handled by Kevin Gray for Audio Fidelity, redefines the contours of what had always been an unfortunately murky mix. Granted, some of that was by design, as a fully engaged Anderson made use of the entire studio bandwidth: He plays every instrument, wrote ever word, sang every line — and through that process created a swirling, deeply atmospheric album that was all about feel, about musical textures, about the journey. Olias of Sunhillow ultimately became as dense as it was sun-flecked, however, and that kind of complexity is richly rewarded through this limited edition remixing.
Along the way, Anderson’s ambitions gave new insight into his central role in a series of earlier collaborative triumphs, even as it helped chart a course for his future musical path.
Certainly, its diaphanous mysticism will be familiar to fans of Yes’ “We Have Heaven,” from 1971’s Fragile, but it also paved the way toward “Wonderous Stories from the band’s subsequent Going for the One. (The interstellar-exodus concept itself, in fact, was said to be inspired in part by the cover art for Fragile, created by Roger Dean.)
As Anderson weaves in synthesizers, exotic and alluring Celtic and Asian instruments and tape loops, his spectral connection to Vangelis — which would find its fullest flowering over a trio of early-1980s recordings beginning with Short Stories — is made clear, too. By the time of the Olias sessions, Anderson had already sat in on Vangelis’ 1975 release Heaven and Hell, and the impact on his then-emerging style at the keyboard is clear.
Filled too with writerly detail, the album’s escapist narrative — Olias, the architect of a spaceship called Moorglade Mover, must lead a daring escape from Sunhillow after a natural disaster — is at once vintage Anderson and a bold maturation of earlier conceptual arcs like Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans from 1973. It’s not hard to fathom why Anderson would soon begin working in earnest on separate solo projects, and why Yes would ultimately move on without him completely. Olias of Sunhillow is the sound of an artist coming into his own, someone who — by any measure — has been more famously part of a working band, but whose outsized ideas didn’t always find a comfortable landing spot within the larger collective that is Yes.
Olias of Sunhillow would go Top 10 in the UK but, alas, with the on-set of the 1980s came a retrenchment back toward more compact pop songcraft — and Yes, by then augmented by Trevor Rabin, dove in head first. Anderson would occasionally be gifted an opportunity to construct the kind of dazzling long-form storylines heard here over the course of his remaining years with the group, but nothing to compare to this spellbinding journey. Then as now, Olias stands alone.
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