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Yes - Tales from Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.91 | 2589 ratings

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4 stars "Tales" is a flawed masterpiece; there's no doubt that the album lacks the impact of the three albums that preceded it. Although certain passages do achieve the excellence of its predecessors, the momentum they build up is diffused by overly-long, less-inspired passages that pad out the album.

And I believe this meandering quality is primarily due to the radically different aesthetic approach Yes took when composing this album. An earlier reviewer commented that he was somewhat mystified how a devout fan of "Close to the Edge" could, in good conscience, claim to not like "Tales," his point being that the increased complexity of the "Tales" must surely mean that it is as good or better. But anyone who truly appreciates CTTE and "Tales" does not suffer this confusion.

The difference is this: CTTE is an album composed of pieces that were crafted as individual songs without the burden of a having to conform to an overarching preconceived idea. "Tales" was inspired from the start by the Buddhist work "Autobiography of a Yogi," which Anderson and Howe conceived as a double-lp size project to celebrate four themes of within that text, each to be an album side long.

So instead of crafting more complex songs that naturally evolved out of earlier shorter versions and grew to their appropriate length, Yes was saddled with the burden of composing four 20-minute songs celebrating a predetermined theme. In contrast to this, the song "CTTE" began as a much shorter fragment that Howe had come up with. From there, he and Anderson began to organically build the song out with the inspired help of Squire, Wakeman, and Bruford. The end result is a piece that is varied and complex and that ventures where few prog rock songs up to that time had ever gone.

On the other hand, "Tales" compositions often sound somewhat stitched together; there are excellent sections but often they are over-extended or padded out with uninspired instrumental work. Indeed, given the compositional limitations, I'm surprised the album is as good as it is. Howe and Anderson should be especially credited with working out the many excellent passages. (Squire, White and Wakeman, you can tell, are less integrated into this album which also accounts for part of its problem.)

Another factor that hinders the listener's response to the album is the band's announcing on the album's cover what inspired the work and what all four songs are about. Unfortunately, doing this cannot help but somewhat inform a listener's reaction even before the first note is played. It limits the power the piece may have in its own right. Part of why CTTE succeeds is that we are NOT told what inspired the songs. Generally speaking, the true impact of a gifted artist's work always transcends whatever inspired him or her to compose it. As Robert Fripp often points out, the music (and poetry that accompanies it) is made manifest via the artist, who is in sense only a conduit of the powers of music. Indeed, a good argument could be made that Yes's overly-conscious approach toward crafting "Tales" adversely affected this intuitive process.

While an impatient listener may view "Tales" as flamboyant or pretentious, I don't think it is. Pretentiousness suggests an attempt to put up a false front, to pretend to be more than you are. Those who listen to Yes's music in a cursory way often confuse ardent thought with pretentiousness. However, the truth is that "Tales" is remarkably heartfelt and an admirable attempt to craft musical magic out of the artists' spiritual world view. While the spiritual ideas are less compelling to me, the music and lyrics it inspired hold up well after 30 years (god, has it been that long!).

Oddly enough, I actually like and appreciate this album more than I did when I first bought it. In some ways, it's an album that requires more patience and concentration to listen to than I was willing to give it back then, especially if you want to get why it is ultimately a failed masterpiece. But there is little doubt that this album was created by a progressive rock band at the height of their powers, and were I to draw up a history of progressive rock, I would devote a fair section of the course to Yes, particularly the six- album period between "The Yes Album" and "Going for the One." While "Tales" doesn't reach the artistic perfection of "CTTE", it certainly is an excellent addition to any serious progressive music collection. Four stars.

bluetailfly | 4/5 |


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