Olias of Sunhillow is the 1976 solo recording by Yes' vocalist and lyricist Jon Anderson. Inspired by the artwork of Yes' own album Fragile, Olias tells the story of three celestial travelers -- Olias, Ranyart, and Qoquaq -- who rescue four tribes from a dying world. It was written, played, and recorded solely by Anderson during the short hiatus between Relayer and Going for the One. It competes with Chris Squire's Fish Out of Water as the best of the solo recordings by Yes members to come out during that time, and is arguably the most timeless of them.

The background

Jon Anderson had long been interested in science fiction and fantasy, as were many of the people of his generation, and occasionally the imagery and language of these literary genres crept into his lyrics. For example, the song title "Starship Trooper" was taken from Robert Heinlein's story Starship Troopers, even though the song itself has nothing to do with Heinlein's story. And Anderson's lyrics often showed an undercurrent of otherworldliness, perhaps even an obsession with myths and archetypes culminating in the 1973 album Tales from Topographic Oceans. But the inspiration for Olias of Sunhillow was more personal.

Beginning with 1972's Fragile, Yes established a long and fruitful relationship with illustrator and designer Roger Dean and his brother Martyn. Roger designed the now-famous Yes logo, and painted several album covers for the band over the years. Dean had some freedom with album cover designs, and painted a shattering world on the back cover of Fragile, with an ethereal sailing ship flying by. Anderson was struck by the image Dean had created, and began crafting his own story around it. Thus was born Olias of Sunhillow.

The story

Three riders from unknown places, beings of light, energy, and music, meet in the Garden of Geda. The three join to save the four tribes of Sunhillow -- Nagrumum, Asatranius, Oractanium, and Nordranius -- from the imminent destruction of Sunhillow, the fracturing world. Olias sings a song that coaxes the very trees of the Earth from the ground to form the timbers of the astral sailing ship Moorglade. The four tribes are led to a new home by Qoquaq, and in the end Olias and the other two die and achieve transcendence through song, leading humanity to salvation by their self-sacrifice.

The story of transcendent beings saving the human race is an old, old, old one, told in a thousand different ways. Nearly every religion on Earth has elements of this story -- human beings seem to be hard-wired for it. The only difference here is that it's solely a creation of Anderson's imagination. So though the story is fantasy, Anderson's getting at something more profound here. But that's what all good stories do, don't they?

The music

The album is remarkable for several reasons. Though much of the music of the 1970's suffers from the recording and instrumental technology of the time, Olias sounds the least dated of all the material put out by Yes or Yes members in that decade. Perhaps it is because Anderson is more interested in creating soundscapes than songs. While the arrangements are quite dense at times, the mixture of electronic and analog instrumentation is well-balanced, and neither dominates. Indeed, the parts played by the different instruments are often quite simple (because Anderson recorded them all himself), and the complexity of the songs comes mainly from their composition and arrangement. There is some debate as to whether Anderson truly played all of the instruments himself, but there's little instrumental showmanship on the record, and I don't find Anderson's claim far-fetched at all. Even the percussion and drumming is very simple -- often little more than a beating bass drum or handclaps -- so once Anderson had the songs arranged, the recording would've been straightforward.

However, it is clear that Anderson was very heavily influenced by the growing new age, ambient and electronic music movements of the 1970's. This was around the time when Anderson began his long-time collaboration Vangelis, and Olias obviously draws much from Jon's interaction with him. In fact, Vangelis was accused of performing on the record by his then record company RCA while still under contract, who had to be convinced by Vangelis and Anderson that he didn't participate. It must've been a hard-sell, because one could easily listen to Anderson's Olias and Vangelis' 1975 record Heaven and Hell (on which Anderson sang one song), and believe they were written and recorded by the same people.

The album

The album has eight songs, all composed and performed by Jon Anderson, telling the story from the meeting of the three riders, to the plight of the tribes of Sunhillow, to the building of the Moorglade and the rescue of the tribes and the final transcendence of Olias and his companions. It was recorded in Jon Anderson's 24-track home studio in four months, using a variety of keyboards, early synthesizers (like the Moog), and other forms of analog instruments including string and percussion instruments from around the world.

The tracks are:

  1. Ocean Song (3:05)
  2. Meeting (Garden of Geda) / Sound Out the Galleon (3:34)
  3. Dance of Ranyart / Olias (To Build the Moorglade) (4:19)
  4. Qoquaq Ën Transic / Naon / Transic Tö (7:08)
  5. Flight of the Moorglade (3:24)
  6. Solid Space (5:21)
  7. Moon Ra / Chords / Song of Search (12:48)
  8. To the Runner (4:29)

The album is is very well-crafted, and though the individual instrumental performances are simple, they combine into a beautifully orchestrated whole. The highlights of the album are Naon, Solid Space and Moon Ra, all of which are very primal rhythmic chants with simple melodies; despite their simplicity, they reach incredibly emotional and energetic heights, and are about as close to ecstasy as the album gets.

The album clearly won't appeal to everyone. Anderson's sense of wonder and unselfconscious exploration of spiritual themes on this record may seem pretentious to those not used to him. It's a New Age record, plain and simple, even though that genre of music really hadn't been defined at that time. If you're a fan of Yes, it's worth a listen just to see how Jon Anderson expresses his personal vision outside of the structure of the band.

Though I am quite biased, I highly recommend this for fans of New Age, ambient, or electronic music, as well as for fans of Yes and progressive rock. At worst, it's good background music. At best, it's an engaging and beautiful bit of storytelling. Though Anderson has put out many solo records over the years since Olias, this is by far the best.

If you like fantasy, you'll probably like this record. If you like Yes, you'll probably like this record. And if you like Jon Anderson, you'll love this record.

Jon Anderson
Olias of Sunhillow
Atlantic Records, July 1976
Rereleased by Warner/WEA International, April 1996
CD catalog number: Atlantic 7567-80273-2

Trivia: the symbol on the back cover of the album, set of nested regular polygons, may look familiar to you. Aside from being a potential Pythagorean (or Keplerian) sigil, it reappeared in slightly modified form on the cover of Yes' 2001 record Magnification.