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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover

TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS

Yes

 

Symphonic Prog

3.88 | 1751 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Review 54, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Yes, 1973

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There are, it must be admitted, few albums which exemplify 'prog' as much as Tales From Topographic Oceans does. Both in excesses and successes, the album stands out as a much more expansive and challenging one than Yes' two preceding efforts, and the combination of superb musicianship, the slaughtering of conventional structures, semi- or entirely- nonsensical lyrical material, and an ambition at producing a more primal creature than Close To The Edge without any realism whatsoever included. These make the album pretty much the essence of longer instrumental-based prog, and a huge target for some mainstream critics.

The playing, of course, is good to stunning, with Howe contributing superb acoustic and electric guitar (as well as lute) and White stepping up to the challenge of taking over from Bruford while not aping him. Squire provides some of his finest bass-work, distinctive and potent throughout, with a couple of superb bass solos making an appearance. Wakeman, though not exactly the album's greatest fan, moves to slightly plainer keys than those of the preceding albums (perhaps as a result of the less involving process by which the album was made), but nonetheless gives us some wonderful playing, especially on The Remembering/High The Memory. Jon Anderson is fairly capable throughout, though in a couple of spots he fails to get the menace demanded by the music. Still, his vocal performances are generally distinctive and good. The Yes harmonies, naturally, take their place on the album gracefully.

Despite this excellent playing, I initially did not get the album at all, considering it nonsensical, boring, not worthy of CTTE and generally despicable. However, going back to it after a little while spent developing my musical tastes and ear, I later found it incredibly and inexplicably stunning. This is an album which demands attention and to be listened to in full, and with the energy to engage with and explore its depth. Not casual listening.

The Revealing Science Of God/Dance Of The Dawn opens the album with what is certainly one of Yes' finest numbers. Thunderous rumbling and gentle keys build up a watery, swirling atmosphere, moving to calm when John Anderson's vocal enters, slowly building tension with the strung-together syllables and words. This gradually and brilliantly builds up to the potent bass solo on the line 'Endless caresses for the freedom of life everlasting'. Steve Howe then enters with confusing guitar, and the band really kick off as a whole.

A more rock-based section ensues, with Alan White's percussion standing out especially. Anderson contributes an excellent set of vocals and suitably cryptic lyrics about a search for God or meaning. The harmonies mesh together very neatly, and the piece hums around calmly before shifting into a much faster-paced being replete with Howe soloing and killer rhythm section. Wakeman's keys, slippery and deliberately un-fixed, remain a constant through most of the song, including a softer and slower repeat of the music for earlier sections. Lush mellotron, ARP synths, some form of piano and just about every imaginable keyboard sound turns up to good effect. Of especial mind-blowing beauty is the soft guitar solo-based section (with flutey keys) which takes over at about 15.00 minutes, moving carefully onto more vocals. Of similar wow factor, though of completely different style, is a Wakeman keyboard solo. The piece finally disappears after its range of treats on a mysterious note.

In all this, the band handle very sudden changes in tempo and rhythm flawlessly, moving between a vast array of sounds with a couple of constants evoking the search. The musicianship on this particular piece is truly phenomenal, and, with all members of the band contributing with full verve and energy, it could never have failed to be stunning.

The Remembering/High The Memory follows the stunning opener with a softer and much less dramatic piece to suggest a more reflective mood. Flute makes an appearance, as do lute and all sorts of keys, though more conservative and 'normally' used than on the opener. Squire plays more slowly on a less edgy bass, which does suit the piece but at the same time doesn't feel quite right for a Yes song. The vocals carefully twist and deliberately overstay the bounds they've set for themselves, occasionally dragging the music along with them for surprise value. A mandolin-like guitar sound produces a more slippery atmosphere. There are some very clever examples of the music taking completely unexpected turns, and foreshadowing explosions that never happen. Even if it's not really musically my thing, dragging a little, I can only admire how the band has chosen to create the slight uncertainty and less ordered nature of memory, and there are some incredible moments in this mix, both in the more folky 'distant drums' section and amazing 'alternate tune/view' conclusion (everyone's favourite mellotron tone).

Again, it's not a 100% fixed and structured piece, allowing a huge variety of moods, though in a more conventional frame than either the opener or the follower. Wakeman's keys are probably the standout on the piece, with the multiple vocals coming second. A range of ideas are explored within the general theme of memory and a 'universal' memory, occasionally resurfacing several times. The entire piece doesn't always work for me musically, but most of it definitely does, and the cleverness of the way the concept is explored is always something to chew on during the bits I don't love for their own merit. Objectively another masterpiece song, though not always my thing.

The Ancient/Giants Under The Sun, both the most impressive and the most pretentious 'song' on the album, begins with a gong before the monstrous rhythm section bursts into life with some sort of cut-off or clipped organ/percussion sound rhymically working in the background while Howe screeches primordially and chaotic in the background. Here the intent is to go beyond sense, logic and memory to create whatever was before that. Naturally, this idea is pretentious both in the concept and in the execution (with the unfortunate decision to recite a list of names and places in various languages, most comprehensibly sol - sun and Ilios - (Troy)). Howe is an outstandingly dissonant guitarist and sitarist in this section, and the general chaos and energy of the first part of the piece is only spoiled by Anderson's pretentious moping and a rather more generic set of keys.

From this chaos appears Howe's interesting and emotional acoustic guitar (accompanied loosely by an acoustic bass) and a more substantial vocal from Anderson. The wonderful Spanish-with-just-a-touch-of-dissonance nature of his acoustic solo here gets me every time and it is naturally vital listening for fans of Mood For A Day. Considering that my main reason for admiring Howe's guitar-work is merely that he can handle an acoustic properly and emotionally without sliding into the realm of the generic, this part of the song is a delight for me every time. The song runs madly to its conclusion with a very odd juxtaposition of the forceful riff of the first part, sitar and screeching guitar. A flawed masterpiece in all its glory.

Nous Sommes Du Soleil is the coherent and searching conclusion demanded by the conceptual scale of the album. A thick bass thing opens the piece, which spotlights White and Squire very frequently. Squire, in particular, is a blur receding into the distance on the bass for the entire piece, providing a couple of especially fine solos. Wakeman echoes some of the key sounds on the opener to give us a denser feeling of conclusion and of a cycle. Vocals are densely merged to produce a more tight, warm and communal piece, and the development of the band towards The Gates Of Delirium is at times obvious. A blues-esque faux-conclusion shifts to a percussion showcase (with a saw in the background, if I'm not mistaken), which could perhaps be the best thing I've so far heard from Alan White. Haunting keys loom in the background before the piece moves to a softer conclusion. Howe provides an electro-acoustic thing, while the Caped One moves to a piano for the acoustic, natural conclusion. Naturally, this is not the end, and a stunning Howe solo and more liquid textures conclude the album indecisively.

This piece is probably the one I've got the least to say about, since it's more of a musicianship-based rock piece than the other more imagination-based pieces. Has to be heard to be understood. Again, great piece of music.

The bonus material isn't especially good, with the most interesting aspect being Wakeman's keys on the alternate mix of Dance Of The Dawn. Anderson's vocals are too thin on that version, however, to make it listenable, and the album as it is is long enough to discourage me from listening any further. Probably not worth a repurchase for them unless you really love the album and the band.

Of course, this is a masterpiece. Pretentious, yes, a mess, probably, but a masterpiece. Anyone who claims interest in prog rock should own it, and should take a while to make up their minds about it. If at first it doesn't stick, persevere, and if then it doesn't stick, put aside an hour and a half to listening to it once you've left it on the shelf for a month or two. If you then get it, the time and effort will have been worthwhile. Not to be missed.

Rating: Five Stars

Favourite Track: could be TRSOG, but today I'll say Nous Sommes Du Soleil

Edit: I dropped this to a four, since I felt that despite the obvious strength of the other three sides, it's hardly as fascinating as the couple of Yes albums before it, and The Remembering/High The Memory has a markedly feeble moment.

TGM: Orb | 4/5 |

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