When the term independence is applied within the context of a Modern Drummer feature, it’s usually in reference to a technical skill drummers possess by which they simultaneously orchestrate different rhythmic patterns with multiple limbs. On Close to the Edge, Yes’s fifth studio album, drummer Bill Bruford demonstrates those aforementioned drumming abilities, as many a great skinsman has. But in this case the word can be applied in a much broader sense as well—to the inarguably groundbreaking nature of the 1972 release itself, which effectively closed the argument that the full artistic potential of rock music could or should be constrained in any way.
The first thing you should know about the record is that the nineteen-minute, multi-sectional title track consumes the entire first side of the original LP. Yes had explored vast musical terrain previous to Close to the Edge, having sculpted enduring classics such as the top-twenty U.S. hit “Roundabout” and the cosmically hip “Starship Trooper.” These songs are now considered classics. But they’re nothing on the order of magnitude of “Close to the Edge,” which elicits the grandeur, dynamics, and scope of classical symphonies while somehow maintaining cohesiveness, conciseness, and coherency.
“I was pretty disinterested in equipment [at the time],” Bruford tells MD today. “So long as it stood up and sounded okay, I was happy enough.” Bruford banged Hayman drums with a teakwood finish. He chose from either an 8×12 or 9×13 tom-tom and a 14×14 or 16×16 floor tom. His bass drum was 14×22, and he played either a 5×14 Ludwig Supraphonic or a 5.5×14 wood Hayman snare. The cymbals he used were a 15″ Super Zyn crash as well as an arsenal of Paistes, including 15″ Giant Beat hi-hats; 16″, 17″, 18″, and 20″ 602 crashes; and 20″ and 22″ 602 rides. A cowbell was always at the ready, as were percussion accessories such as a tambourine and triangle. Remo heads were spanked with Ludwig or Hayman 5A sticks.
“Close to the Edge,” featuring lyrics by singer Jon Anderson that were inspired by Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel, Siddhartha, ends as it begins—wish a rush of running water, chirping birds, and buzzing insects, representing the river and the majestic “om” at the center of the German author’s fictional yarn. The character of Siddhartha, spiritually transformed upon hearing the river’s calming sound, perceives it as the hum of the cosmos—all human joys and sorrows, pains and pleasures, fused into one universal experience. This philosophical connectedness is represented beautifully by the multitude of musical styles the band explores in the work, and may well serve as a metaphor for the kaleidoscopic spectrum of influences that prog rock, in general, embraces.
Bucking trends and any sensible record executives’ expectations, Yes boldly designed a jigsaw pattern of musical genres snuggly juxtaposed to one another, from American country and western and avant-garde jazz-rock fusion (with shades of Mahavishnu Orchestra) to eighteenth-century European baroque. Percussive puzzle master Bruford carves out several elegant patterns throughout the epic track, varying them slightly through beat displacement, among other rhythmic and compositional methodologies, to create subtle complexity.
“What was my role in the track’s creation?” Bruford posits to Modern Drummer in an exclusive interview for this article. “Good question, since the handful of photos of the time show me sitting at the kit reading a paper or otherwise looking bored. I’m interested in group dynamics and the creative process. In that light, and thinking about it a bit, I was at best the grit in the oyster, the provocateur, something of an irritant, always asking a different question, wanting to do it another, better, different way at a better, different tempo or meter.”
“And You and I,” which opens the original LP’s second side, may be the epitome of symphonic pastoral prog, a transcendent blend of hypnotic acoustic/folky qualities and sweeping, slowly unfolding passages. Bruford’s playing here is economical, generating maximum power with a minimal number of beats.
Bruford shares top songwriting billing for composing one of the overarching themes of the song, as well as a co-credit, with bassist Chris Squire, for penning the “Eclipse” section. “Piano had always been my second instrument, and a fascination,” Bruford says. “So long as the tempo was slow enough, my limited technique was just about sufficient to get the point across. I was given a generous credit for the main theme of ‘And You and I,’ so I had begun to dip my toe in the composition waters, for sure.”
The final entry, “Siberian Khatru”—the shortest song on the record, running a skimpy nine minutes—throbs with a common-time pulse and boasts two main feels: a straightforward dance-y beat and a jazzy shuffle. A snare drum figure, perhaps constructed of double-stroke rolls, slowly surfaces within the stereo image at approximately 5:40. The patterns are stealthy but impactful—a hallmark of Bruford’s playing.
As guitarist Steve Howe performs nearly atonal guitar acrobatics in the title track, Bruford lunges for the jugular, playing patterns that possess properties of conversational dialogue and free-jazz abandon. As the song progresses through its four major movements, the band traverses several different tempos. Bruford navigates time signatures such as twelve, nine, and six by employing economical rhythms possessing an underlying logic.
To some observers it might appear as though nary a beat is out of place on the record, yet this precision was the offspring of a painful birth. Yes spent weeks—months—writing, rehearsing, recording, and mixing Close to the Edge. Tracking, layering, and tinkering were part of the seemingly never-ending creation process. The meticulous work began to grind on Bruford’s nerves. “The pitch of the snare drum descends over the course of the [title] track, which, suggested [one] commentator, indicates how long it was taking to record,” Bruford says. “True, I guess. I just hadn’t noticed, and probably wouldn’t have cared if I had.”
A creeping mania beset the band’s collective consciousness and led to one infamous incident that’s passed into Yes lore. The story goes that a missing piece of tape from the album’s title track had been accidentally discarded, only to be recovered from the dustbin before being lost forever. Miraculously, coproducer Eddy Offord was able to patch things up. But, as it turns out, the slice of audiotape was the wrong piece, at least according to stories spun by keyboardist Rick Wakeman. The sonics didn’t quite match up, and the band was forced to live with the track as is.
The tortuous process of constructing Close to the Edge convinced Yes’s founding drummer to jump ship. In an effort to sharpen his musical instincts and develop fully as an artist, Bruford accepted an invitation to join Robert Fripp’s semi-improvisational King Crimson, an early Yes rival. He couldn’t wait to leave. Bruford was so eager to skedaddle from the hit-making prog band, in fact, he announced his exit prior to the September release of the album.
The six-beat bump sculpted by our crafty drummer and bassist Chris Squire in “And You and I,” beginning at approximately 1:13, is actually a looped bit of audio. Marking this pulsating figure is the beautiful chime of a triangle. Why did Bruford choose this particular piece of concert percussion? “Same reason anyone does anything in music,” he says. “Because it might be effective and/or beautiful—on a good day, both.”
Drummer Alan White, ostensibly Bruford’s replacement, racked up credits early in his career as a young journeyman, having performed or recorded with John Lennon, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, and Terry Reid, among others. As the decade wore on, White steadily evolved into his role as a hard-driving foil for his more cerebral Yes cohorts. Meanwhile, Bruford conducted a wide-ranging search for musical independence and percussive innovation. During the 1970s he could not sit still; he collaborated with Crimson, Gong, Genesis, U.K., Missouri-based Pavlov’s Dog, Led Zeppelin/Pink Floyd pal Roy Harper, and National Health. Bruford even reunited with his former Yes partners on occasion and spearheaded the (largely) instrumental rock band bearing his name.
In the decades since the record was unleashed, Close to the Edge has not only come to represent the pinnacle of Yes’s musical and compositional ambitions, but to trigger artistic growth and free thought among its hordes of followers. It provided Yes with a prototype for commercial success, if not a license to indulge in creative excess (and combat conventional music industry “wisdom”), while also liberating a maverick percussionist to redefine his career and reshape progressive rock forever.