Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow charted a course of separation from Yes

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Olias of Sunhillow, Jon Anderson’s utterly unique 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 ex-Yes frontman created a rich and rewarding world unto itself.

It arrived on July 24, 1976 amidst this burst of creativity from a fully engaged Jon Anderson, who made use of the entire studio bandwidth: He plays every instrument, wrote every 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 makes for a richly rewarding listening experience, decades later.

Along the way, Jon Anderson’s ambitions gave new insight into his central role in a series of earlier collaborative triumphs with Yes, 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 Jon 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 of Sunhillow 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 Jon 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. Jon 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 little to compare to this spellbinding journey. Then as now, Olias of Sunhillow stands alone.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • John Ross

    Jon was YES’ band leader, when they started chafing under his vision they’d never really approach their prior greatness again; got close enough though. I’d love to see a 2 Jon YES.

  • Jamie McQuinn

    Unfortunately, this was Jon Anderson’s best solo album. I also enjoyed Song of Seven, but each succeeding solo album was a disappointment to me as I kept hoping for anything to come close to the genius of Olias.