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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover

TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS

Yes

 

Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 2357 ratings

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The Mentalist
5 stars YES' Tales From Topographic Oceans is one of the few works of progressive rock that can truly be called symphonic. Two of YES' contemporaries; ELP and Genesis, for instance, both of whom come under the "symphonic" banner, never wrote anything as symphonic in nature as 'Topographic Oceans'. What about The Lamb lies down on Broadway, I hear you ask. Well, it's pretty ambitious, that's for sure, but not particularly symphonic. It does have recurring themes, but they're not interconnected in any way. It still remains an album of mostly self contained songs. What about ELP's 'Karn Evil 9', then? Well, okay, it is in three parts just like a standard classical concerto but there's no attempt to integrate the themes, by which I mean, the four movements are self contained and share no common material. Topographic Oceans', however, displays a network of themes and motifs which are carried over from one movement to the next and which give the overall work a structural logic. This not only makes 'Topographic Oceans', broadly speaking, symphonic, it also makes it to some degree "Romantic" in the symphonic tradition inherited and modified by Beethoven; developed by Berlioz, and greatly expanded upon by Mahler. I know I've probably overemphasised and exaggerated the importance and use of symphonic principles in 'Topographic Oceans', however, the point I'm trying to make is, for a mere Rock 'n' Roll album, 'Topographic Oceans' was, and continues to be, a spectacular achievement; a courageous and ingenious attempt to imbue rock music with some of the mystery and depth usually only associated with the Romantic/Symphonic tradition. Interestingly, the only other band from that era to come up with anything remotely comparable to 'Topographic Oceans' is Jethro Tull. Tull's 'Thick as a brick' fulfils some of the criteria needed to be called symphonic; namely, extended form and recurring themes. Ironically, Tull aren't labeled as a "symphonic" rock band, (no mellotron?) which just goes to show how misleading such labeling can be.

The music on this album is startlingly original, Anderson and Howe must have been particularly inspired when they wrote it. The playing is wonderful, too. The only real let- down is Rick Wakeman's decidedly uninspired contribution. It seems plain to me that Wakeman is completely out of his depth on this album. Anderson and Howe are steering the music into turbulent, uncharted waters, and Rick's beer belly and cape are no longer enough to keep him afloat. His trite, cod classicism sounds clumsy, ungainly and incongruous amidst the beautiful melodies and unusual harmonies sung by Anderson, Howe and Squire, and set beside Steve Howe's angular and idiosyncratic guitar parts, Wakeman's relentless diatonicism sounds especially bland and irritating. It is again ironic that Wakeman is renowned for writing symphonic/classical-style music, when, as anyone who's heard Jon Anderson's (as yet unrecorded) orchestral ballet will know, Anderson has a much more sophisticated understanding of what constitutes symphonic music. And the fact that Wakeman is so obviously floundering on this album, suggests that his grasp of the symphonic, and of what the rest of the band is trying to achieve, was somewhat limited, to say the least, which is a shame, as his technique is beyond reproach. Having said that, there's a fine moog solo towards the end of the first track, which is Rick's finest moment on the entire album, and one of the highlights of that particular song. And if you like lush mellotron textures, you'll love the second movement, 'The Remembering'. All in all Wakeman's best playing can be found on the first two tracks, he's way out of his depth on the last two.

One of the most striking things about 'Topographic Oceans' is its unearthly quality. From the very opening bars an other-worldly presence makes itself felt. A big factor in this is Jon Anderson's unique voice and equally unique lyrics. Much has been said against Anderson's lyrics, indeed, many YES fans have even been critical of them. In my opinion his lyrics from the 'Yes Album' to 'Relayer' are some of the most original and beautiful ever written.The first track on 'Topographic Oceans'; 'The Revealing Science of God' presents us with some great musical themes, too: two good examples are the soaring synth melody which bursts in directly after the vocal intro, and the erratic guitar theme, reminiscent of 'Five Miles High' by The Byrds, which pops up throughout the four movements. All the Yes trademarks are here: Chris Squire's distinctive and intelligent bass playing; Steve Howe's frenzied, jazzy/countrified guitar playing, which ends up sounding neither jazzy nor countrified, but, rather, ends up sounding completely alien, especially on the 3rd movement 'The Ancient' where his guitar playing steers the music through countless time and mood changes. This track is the most extreme thing ever written by YES , and in my opinion is the best track on the album. Allan White's contribution cannot be overlooked either. His deliberately tribal yet sophisticated drumming on 'The Ancient' and 'Ritual' adds to the unearthly, ritualistic nature of the music. The percussion onslaught towards the end of 'Ritual' is particularly intense, with White hammering out the bare rhythm of some of the recurring themes, notably the agitated guitar theme from 'Revealing Science of God'. Am I alone in thinking Allan White is much more suited to YES' music than Bill Bruford, whose contribution to 'Close to the Edge' was,in my opinion, almost as incongruous as Wakeman's. It seems Bruford made the right decision to join King Crimson when he did. It's just a pity Wakeman didn't leave after 'Close to the edge', too.(Not to join Crimson, I hasten to add. ) God only knows what 'Topographic Oceans' would have sounded like had the astonishing Mr. Patrick Moraz been involved in its creation. One only need listen to 'Relayer' to get an idea of how much imagination, energy and skill Moraz brought to YES - the first two attributes being something sadly lacking in Wakeman.

Having dwelt on the cerebral and technical aspects of 'Topographic Oceans" I'll end this review by quoting from a fellow reviewer and YES fan, Paul Cromton, who in his recent review of 'Close to the Edge" made this beautiful observation. . .and I quote. . ."you also have to understand that it's not important to understand, and that Prog Rock is feeling and emotion. . ." This is especially true of YES's music. And in order to fully appreciate it, one must be prepared to engage with it on an emotional level, for that's where its real power lies. So, when all is said and done, 'Topographic Oceans' has to be YES' greatest achievement. It is intelligent, sincere, ambitious, inventive, evocative, emotionally charged, and highly original music. And if it has any shortcomings, they're due to the fact that the keyboard player's heart wasn't in it, and his head wasn't up to it. This album is essential. I give it *****

The Mentalist | 5/5 |

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