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Yes - Tales from Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.90 | 2482 ratings

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2 stars In prog's classic era it was actually pretty hard to truly jump the shark, and actual pretension was few and far between. As such, there we have the first of the two great accomplishments of "Tales From Topographic Oceans"...

(Ed. Note, 1/24/2020 - The following has been edited somewhat for the second time. In the years since this was first published, this flawed gem has grown on me a bit, and the original context - fans overhyping Jon Anderson's lyrics - has faded into distant memory. Cooler heads now prevail. Still, the rating remains.)

The main factor in this is the half-baked concept Anderson cooked up. The story goes that at Bill Bruford's wedding reception, the Yes and King Crimson line-ups of the time both attended in good terms - by this point Bruford had already joined Crimson. Jon started talking with Jamie Muir, who was already planning on running off to that monastery, and Muir introduced Jon to Paramahansa Yogananda's classic "Autobiography of a Yogi". While touring Japan, he immersed himself in the tome, focusing on a footnote about the classes of Hindu scriptures. Suddenly, he wanted to make an album inspired by this. It apparently didn't matter to him that he'd never read a word of the holy writings. His ignorance should be obvious due to the fact that this concept of his is only reflected in the track titles; as usual, he based his lyricism on making his voice an instrument, not a storyteller. Already a strike when you're making a blasted concept album, but furthermore, whereas it worked so well before, often coming up with unique lines (remember the closing portion of "Close To The Edge"?) , it is almost always gibberish here, not even good enough to be glossolalia like the Cocteau Twins's vocals. He would've been better off just reflecting Yogananda, but here we are, and Jon's misappropriations could be considered in poor taste.

I think it's also important to note a few other things about the composing and recording process. Originally, Jon wanted to name the album "Tales From Tobographic Oceans" - yup, you read that right, Tobographic - inspired by Frank Hoyle's by then already widely discredited theories. He met over dinner with Phil Carson, then CEO of Atlantic, who noted that that word sounds similar to Topographic, and so Jon suddenly decided to change it. The band fought over where to record, with Jon wanting to record in the countryside, and Chris Squire and Steve Howe wanting to record in London. When they slunk into London's Morgan Studios, in search of their Ampex, Jon demanded pastoral trappings. White picket fences, keys resting on stacks of hay... and a model cow with electronic udders by a barn replica. Ozzy Osbourne could hardly believe his eyes when he peeked in during a break in the "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" sessions! Bruford has noted from his time in the band that the various unironic geniuses making up the group constantly argued as they crafted their albums, which perhaps helps explain what went wrong here. Rick Wakeman, who originally went along with Jon's ideas and wish to record in a rural setting, became disenchanted, and, having exiled himself from most of the proceedings, helped Sabbath cut "Sabbra Cadabra", demanding payment only in beer. You can put two and two together there. As well, his loss of interest explains his key parts, which are generally some of the weakest parts of the record next to the lyrics.

LP1 is the disaster, though not entirely by any stretch. It starts strong before drunkenly stumbling, falling over, and passing out. "The Revealing" has a wonderful run up, classic Yes, and Wakeman's synth theme is pretty and undermines harsher reviewers' assertions that there aren't any hooks. The track ends beautifully at the halfway point, yet ends up receiving cruel necromancy from Wakeman's Mellotron. This is the only time in music that I find an extended cut to overstay its welcome, with both him and Howe noodling poorly from there and turning the track into a glorified medley. At least the track is comfortably anchored by the main themes even then. "The Remembering" is the true nadir, Anderson leading the track as it tries yet fails to develop engrossingly on its march. He gets his one decent line with "And I do think very well...", whose success rests on his delivery.

LP2 picks up immeasurably. I maintain that "The Ancient", the crazy part of the record, is indeed about as stunning as Tales's biggest defenders say. The rhythm section is the true saving grace of the whole album, and is at their best here, fast then slow. Howe is at his most disciplined and inspired - his electric is played strangely yet intriguingly as some of the trappings of Hindustani classical fade in and out, and then gives way to simple acoustic beauty. The only little catch is the unnecessary synth in that final section. Still, this is the truly forward thinking part of this double LP, and in an album where most of the themes are out of place in relation to each other, the progressions here are insane enough to work. Finally, "Ritual" is a generally low-key ending, barring a quick and exciting wig-out from Howe. Like "The Ancient", it shows how the band had found near perfection in subtlety - something they could've used on the overly busy back half of "The Revealing" - and interestingly use it instead of a standard grand finale.

The flaws in the record are reflected in Roger Dean's cover art - a beautiful landscape at dawn, with magical fish and constellations, cluttered by a misplaced Chichen Itza blocking the sun and some archaic flying machine accomplishing nothing. Instrumentally this is probably a three star record at least, with good, bad, ugly, and nutty, that some can enjoy a lot. But really, the abortive concept just drags this down. I really don't know what else to say after all these years, other than that I am now at peace with Tales.

LearsFool | 2/5 |


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