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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 2348 ratings

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5 stars This is, almost without question, the most widely-criticized musical work (rock or otherwise) of the second half of the 20th century; even Yes fans are divided as to whether it's a good album or not. Although it hit the top 10 on both the U.S. and U.K. album charts, it also made the top 10 in a published list of the 50 worst albums in history. It was generally regarded by the punk movement as one of the main reasons that the creation of punk rock was necessary. The Christian Right loathed it, and used the album as a frontpiece in their statements that it was the duty of every good Christian to burn "rock" records. The album even threatened to blow the group itself limb from limb. And yet, despite all this, there are still a select few (there might be 1000 in the world; nah, there might be more than that) who not only are fond of this album, but consider this one of their best works, and in some cases one of the best rock albums ever.

This album, as you've probably heard, is a double album. No, wait, that doesn't properly explain things: it's a double album with 4 tracks on it (coming out to one track per side). No, wait, that's still not the worst of it, if you listen to the naysayers. Nah, the worst of it comes from the subject matter of the album. You see, (and yes, this story has been told a zillion times on the site, as well in the liner notes, but writing a thorough review without including it is impossible) Anderson had been looking for a theme for a grand scale rock symphony, if you will, for quite some time, and one night during the CTTE tour, when the band was in Tokyo, he was flipping through Paramhansa Yoganada's "Autobiography of a Yogi," when he came across a lengthy footnote on page 83. This footnote described the four part Shastric scriptures, texts which not only take care of religion and social life, but also of medicine, music, art, architecture. Well, a normal man would have put down the book, forgotten about it, and just done his show, but this is Jon Anderson we're talking about here. No, he decided that the proper thing to do here was to base an 80 minute album around a set of writings with which virtually nobody in the Western world had familiarity. Putting it mildly, this is kinda risky.

How do I feel about it? I'm giving it a ***** rating. Call me a pretentious jerk, but I love this album. No matter how many times I listen to it, I never fail to be struck by how beautiful and how powerful this piece is (by the way, although TFTO is listed as having 4 tracks, the reality is that these are merely movements in an epic "symphony." And yes, I'm aware that it doesn't follow the symphonic form - I'm pretty familiar with classical music, thank you - but the fact that I'm forced to explicitly state something so obvious yet so inconsequential to the overall effect of the album makes me fear that my eyes will never get unstuck from the back of my head). Even if it is nonsense, and don't get me wrong, it seems it a lot of the time, it has made more and more sense to me with every listen over the years. Plus, I can't help but love it when a band shows ambition (which this album has in spades) as well as a desire to do something that nobody has ever done before, and then actually lives up to that ambition (I know a lot of people would disagree with me on that notion for this album). Within in the context of pop and rock, this completely blew away a lot of traditional "boundaries," certainly exceeding most albums that had been recorded to that point. It's not every day, after all, that you come across a rock album with four extended pieces containing interlocking musical and conceptual themes (apparently the double- album/four-song routine had actually been done in a couple of previous instances, but in those cases each piece was a completely separate piece and not a fundamental part of a whole). Yes thumbed their noses at the notion that song ideas have to be placed into concise, immediately recognizable structures (and that was an interesting step for Yes, given that they *were* at heart a trumped-up pop group), and showed (at least in my mind) that fading in and out of song ideas over a lengthy period of time, as if in a strange hallucination, is not something that should necessarily be a failure. But I ramble, and a return to the topic at hand, Tales From Topographic Oceans, is necessary. To assist in my elementary exposition of what you are exposed to in each of the "movements," I will be using the final four paragraphs of Anderson's liner notes. They can better explain what is going on than I possibly could on my own.

1st Movement: Shrutis. The Revealing Science of God can be seen as an ever-opening flower in which simple truths emerge examining the complexities and magic of the past and how we should not forget the song that has been left to us to hear. The knowledge of God is a search, constant and clear. This track, my favorite on the album and my second favorite in their catalogue, begins with a chanted invocation by Anderson and eventually with the others, summoning the listener to the dawn of light, thought, our power, and of love. In other words, to the creation and beginning all of the good things which bring happiness to our lives. He seems to lament that these wonderful forces seem to have been lost by the human race through their own negligence, resulting in all sorts of unwanted calamaties, and that only through love can the others (light etc.) be returned to their proper station. Or something like that. Fortunately, even if the lyrics lose you, the music is simply gorgeous, filled to the brim with ecstatically beautiful melodies. Although Alan White is seemingly able to provide little more than a steady background beat and a plodding drum sound (the jazzy lines left with Bruford), the others more than cover for him. Squire keeps things going with soothing bass lines, and Howe's guitar work, when he's mixed high, is terrific, but the real star of the show is Wakeman. You see, although there are a ton of great ideas being contributed by the others, there are admittedly a lot of places where not a lot is happening with the guitars. And so, Rick has no choice but to take over, and he does so admirably. Whether holding down the fort with heavenly mellotron parts or going nuts with synthesizer solos, he continually keeps the listener's interest, and he's arguably more crucial to the sound than ever. But back to the concept.

2nd Movement: Suritis. The Remembering. All our thoughts, impressions, knowledge, fears have been developing for millions of years. What we can relate to is our own past, our own life, our own history. Here, it is especially Rick's keyboards which bring alive the ebb and flow and depth of our mind's eye: The Topographic Ocean. Hopefully we should appreciate that given points in time are not so significant as the nature of what is impressed on the mind, and how it is retained and used. Ok, your guess is as good as mine here, I must admit. Best as I can tell, the piece alternates between Anderson touching on various memories that we have all had in some form, and Wakeman carrying us away from these images and thoughts of our past to others on a trip through the peaceful recesses of our mind via his keyboards. Sure, whatever. And although the tune itself can seem a little dull at times (I think the faster parts are really crisp and quite interesting), if you listen to it in the right frame of mind, calm and at peace, it is absolutely, positively gorgeous. Rick's keys set the majestic, beautiful mood of the piece perfectly, and while most would disagree, I wish it were longer. There are no words to express my fullness of joy after having absorbed such a wonderfully stunning, meditiative and beautiful song.

3rd Movement: Puranas. The Ancient probes still further into the past beyond the point of remembering. Here Steve's guitar is pivotal in sharpening reflection on the beauties and treasures of lost civilizations. Indian, Chinese, Central American, Atlantean. These and other peoples left an immense treasure of knowledge. I used to dislike this section, but after further listens, I've come to realize that this is actually a pretty cool track. The subtitle is Giants Under the Sun (in reference to other civilizations long past), and so near the beginning, Anderson, quite cleverly I must add, chants the word for sun in several different languages. After this, there's a long, dissonant, somewhat avant-garde solo by Howe (though, I have to be honest with you, it really begins to bore me after a while, but that just means the album is in my top 100 instead of my top 50), before the piece settles back into a simple ballad with Anderson spouting some more jibberish. I think he's trying to say that all of these past peoples have all of the answers to the important (and sometimes not so important, but hey...) questions that trouble society today, but I could be wrong. Maybe it is just jibberish, but I'm sorta doubting that at this point in time. Whatever may be, the melody in this acoustic section is very lovely.

4th Movement: Tantras. The Ritual. Seven notes of freedom to learn and to know the ritual of life. Life is a fight between sources of evil and pure love. Alan and Chris present and relay the struggle out of which comes a positive source. Nous sommes du soleil. We are of the sun. We can see. Basically, when we love, we can return to the state of goodness which we were in at the dawn of creation. This is conveyed excellently near the beginning and end of the track with the reprisal of some of the musical themes which had come up in the first movement. Steve's guitar solo near the end, in particular, is breathtakingly beautiful. Oh, and did I mention that the main vocal melody is one of the catchiest and lovliest little ditties Anderson ever came up with? Or that the passage at 14:10-14:20 or so makes it sound like the world's about to come to an end (one of my favorite Yes moments, by the way)? And there's a giant drum solo near the end, and it's interesting and even entertaining - especially live, since the group becomes a percussion ensemble for about five minutes and you get to see Squire on tympanis and Anderson on some weird chime things and ... oh, stop me before I gush some more.

This album is definitely not for people who get bored easily. Admittedly, it's very slow in some places (like in the beginning and middle of "The Remembering"), and it's a bit looser with structure than other Yes albums tend to be. And yet, I don't think the album's poor reputation is even remotely deserved; for one thing, I find the whole "padding" argument against it (pushed by Wakeman among others) to be overblown; out of the whole album, the only parts I'd really consider slicing out would be a minute or so from "The Remembering," and half of the mid-section of "The Ancient" (where the long discordant instrumental passage gets played virtually note-for-note twice). I also think that the album's poor reputation among so many, even fans of other prog fans, ends up poisoning potential listeners fairly frequently; I had no idea going into the album that I was supposed to hate it, and I was quite surprised to learn this after the fact. And most importantly, to me, it works incredibly as a catalyst for imagination, ten times as well as even Close to the Edge did. I don't consider this their best album (it does meander a little too much, and besides, Fragile and a couple of others are better), but it's one of the most treasured albums in my collection regardless.

Of course, Wakeman hated it, and the stories surrounding this are legendary. Even worse, after his masterful performance, he sealed his disgust with Anderson and his wacky lyrics by tendering his resignation from the band. Fans-of-simple-pop-music everywhere cheered; it seemed the band was about to collapse under the enormous weight of its own ambitions.

PS: Hey, do you want to hear something else I figured out with regard to this album and its imagery? Each track, in addition to addressing whatever topic in the Shastric scriptures, contains strong musical allusions to one of the four basic elements according to Aristotle. For me, and apparently some others, it can be viewed as

"The Revealing Science of God" - Air (don't you feel like you're flying from place to place during the instrumental breaks?)

"The Remembering" - Water (don't you picture yourself sailing on a calm, blue majestic sea, with sea ditties coming in from time to time?)

"The Ancient" - Earth (Hey, the track's theme is 'Giants Under the Sun', which in turn talks about ancient cultures walking the face of the Earth).

"Ritual" - Fire (Doesn't the synth-heavy drum solo remind you of ritual purification, a burning of all that is bad in order to restore true love to the world?)

PPS: The 2003 remastered version is absolutely outstanding. "The Revealing Science of God" is restored to its originally intended form with a beautiful atmospheric introduction, the drums have WAY more kick and power to them than before, and all the little intricacies of the album stand out that much better.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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