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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 2348 ratings

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4 stars One of the Twin Peaks of Prog Ambition

Yes' TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHICAL OCEANS has been both derided and championed for the same quality ? aspiring to touch the sun. Fueled by the band's greatest success (CLOSE TO THE EDGE), it is the band's most ambitious work, reaching for the highest heights the band will ever attempt. The flip side of that tricky coin is the evil "P" word (pretentiousness), but prog fans have always known that uber-talented musicians pushing their boundaries to the limit will sometimes step beyond the line. Like Icarus, the band ignores the warnings of the wise and we share with the band both in the intensity of the fire and the singe of their burnt feathers.

TFTO was released in 1973, and Genesis' two-disc, similarly ambitious / excessive concept album LAMB LAYS DOWN ON BROADWAY came out not long after in 1974. While the two discs sent the two bands in opposite directions in terms of commercial success, I find them to be remarkably parallel albums in many ways. Both are fueled by extremely cerebral and spiritual concepts coming from their lead singer. In the case of TFTO, it was Jon Anderson's adoption of a group of teachings from Paramahansa Yogananda's AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI. In parallel with the hippies' search through Eastern Religious thought as they aged, Anderson stayed true to his roots. But just as Peter Gabriel's separation from his bandmates during the writing of the LAMB weakened the album and the band, Anderson and Steve Howe's domination of the writing of TFTO cost the album some power and the band Rick Wakeman.

There is one huge difference between the albums, however. THE LAMB abandons the lengthy song structure of the band's previous work and instead has many focused songs. Some are weak, some strong, and a few are among the best work the band ever did. Yes, however, took a different path. They created what essentially is an 80 minute suite comprised of four 20 minute parts. TFTO is one of the most symphonic and epic pieces of the classic prog era. For good or for bad, its defining characteristic is its length.

Luckily for me, my first listen to this album was on an extended airplane ride where I just sat back uninterrupted with my headphones for the entire work. Like a classical piece, the album is meant to be a continuous experience with movements and when you listen in this way, I believe it works quite well. Sure, the band takes their time letting some parts evolve, but I've gotten bored much more easily during some classical pieces which also extend over a longer period of time.

There are so many great moments on this album, and they vary so much. The slide guitar over the frenetic rhythms to open "The Ancient" to the sunny moods of the opener to the grand vocals in the finale of "Nous Sommes de Soleil," join so many phenomenal moments of music. There are little allusions to previous pieces, the most obvious being Howe's quotation of the signature melody of "Close to the Edge." Howe gets in his classical moments, grumpy Wakeman adds some powerful synth solos and mellotron pads, and newcomer Alan White holds down the rhythm transparently.

A few very important things are lacking on this album, though. The first one is intensity. Listening to RELAYER's "The Gates of Delirium" midway during my day of continuous sampling for this review, I realized how, well, mellow TFTO is compared Yes' other work. There aren't any sections that really rock. Similarly, there is a lack of tightness in the composition that Yes displays elsewhere. While some openness and space to explore can be fuel for great music, Yes gets away with trying such difficult music on other albums precisely because of the tightness of the composition. The title song from CTTE is a perfect example of that tightness at its most perfected. "Gates of Delirium" strikes a nice balance between composition and exploration. On TFTO, the explorations simply overrun the compositions. Some really enjoy these moments, and other bands also have albums made up entirely of this experimentation. I like it when I'm in certain moods, and frankly, when I have the time to let it sink in. But that time and place are inherently limited. Most importantly, TFTO just doesn't transport me to that higher plane that CTTE does. When it comes close, it just can't hold me there. It is for that specific reason that it misses masterpiece level.

I agree with others that this is part of the core of prog music, and should be part of the library of all prog fans. But it is a late addition. It takes work, and the rewards are going to be subtle. It is an excellent album, just not one of the masterpieces of prog.

Negoba | 4/5 |


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