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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover

TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS

Yes

 

Symphonic Prog

3.88 | 1723 ratings

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maani
Special Collaborator
Founding Moderator
3 stars Someone once remarked that if you look up the word "pretentious" in the dictionary, you will see a picture of "Tales From Topographic Oceans." I wouldn't go quite that far, but I can see why some people might agree with that. However, if I had to use only two words to describe this album, they would be "maddeningly inconsistent" - especially from a band as great as Yes had become at that point.

The blame for this rests squarely on the head of Jon Anderson, not only for forcing this bizarre and self-indulgent (if not blatantly ridiculous) concept on the band, but, along with blameworthy Steve Howe, not allowing Squire, Wakeman or White to contribute to the initial ideas, structure and writing of the piece. Can you imagine any other great prog bandleader - Gabriel, Hamill, Fish, even Fripp, for Pete's sake - doing something like that? Writing - especially prog writing - has always been, and should be, a group effort. Indeed, of the other eight seminal prog bands (Crimson, Floyd, Moody Blues, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, VCGG, ELP), I simply cannot imagine any of their leaders doing something like that. It is virtually the antithesis of what progressive rock has always been about: collaboration and multi-level input.

There are two additional reasons why Tales is not as good as it might have been. First, it was written for LP, not CD; i.e., each "section" had to "fit" on an LP side, which set up "false" parameters for the songwriting. As Rick Wakeman has pointed out, had the CD format been available at that time, Anderson might not have been as self-indulgent, and the band might have been able to make Tales a far better edited, more cohesive concept.

Second, to my ears, there is no question that the entire concept of Tales was "written to be performed." That is, although it is ostensibly a "studio" album, Anderson had to be well aware of the power that Yes had "live." Having just come off a wildly successful tour, I believe that, in writing Tales, Anderson ultimately had the stage in mind. And although this is obviously debatable and unprovable, if you listen to the entire album in one sitting (which I did), this comes through pretty clearly.

The question then remains: how does one measure the "success" of the Tales concept, and its execution? Obviously, as a reviewer, one begins by doing it subjectively. In this regard, I believe that the album is occasionally successful, and occasionally not. [N.B.: With the exception of our feelings about "The Ancient," I strongly agree with most of Dave Connolly's review, which I highly recommend.] However, I think there is another criterion in this case, one virtually forced on a reviewer by Anderson himself: that is, to compare the four sections of the album to Anderson's notes for each. In this regard, much of the album fails, since it does not express what Anderson himself wanted it to express.

Anderson describes the 1st movement ("The Revealing Science of God") as "an ever- opening flower." Lyrically, this may be so. But musically I do not hear this. What I hear is a composition that "doesn't start anywhere" and "doesn't go anywhere." It has a few recognizably "Yes"-like sections, but "says" little, and certainly doesn't "unfold" like a flower. Of the 2nd movement ("The Remembering"), Anderson says, "We relate to.our own past.life.history. Here." Again, lyrically, this is expressed. However, although the composition is more cohesive than the 1st movement, and has a nice build- up and some good sections, again, musically, it "says" little.

The 3rd movement ("The Ancient") "probes still further into the past." Here it is the lyrics that fail to express the intent, while the music is the most creative and "compelling" of the movements. Although the middle section is a bit long, the drums, percussion and guitar successfully evoke various ancient cultures, and the song wraps up with a very direct appeal to protecting life, both individual and collective. The 4th movement ("Ritual/Nous Sommes Du Soleil") is described as "Seven notes of freedom.We are of the sun. We can see." Here, lyrics and music converge successfully to express their intent. The opening theme (which is reiterated later) does, in fact, use each of the seven notes of the scale once, and the finale is Yes at their most Yes-like, with unpretentious pomp and circumstance.

"Maddeningly inconsistent," as the second half of the suite (3rd and 4th movements) is so much more successful, compelling and satisfying than the first half (1st and 2nd movements). And herein lies what I believe is the crux of the "love/hate" debate that surrounds this album: for those who love it, it not only "measures up" to prior Yes albums, but takes them a step further by creating a double-album-length concept suite that "opens up" the possibilities for thematic exposition of ideas; for those who hate it, it not only does NOT "measure up" to prior Yes albums, but takes a step backward by allowing Jon Anderson to impose an almost painful level of self-indulgence on the majority of his bandmates, ending up with an inconsistent "mish-mash" of ideas that are not as well-realized, -developed or -executed as they should have been. For those who have never heard it, it is certainly worth a "once-through," preferably in one sitting, with headphones. However, given the lack of cohesion and number of inconsistencies in both lyrics and music - especially from a band that had more than proved its ability to handle difficult, complex concepts ("Close to the Edge") - it must ultimately fail as a truly great work, much less a masterpiece.

maani | 3/5 |

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