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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover

TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS

Yes

 

Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 2347 ratings

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cfergmusic1
3 stars So Close to the Edge brought Yes untold success and made them certified darlings of the prog-rock world at large. Since the side-long title suite arguably had more maturity in compositional development than did other epics such as "Tarkus," "Supper's Ready," etc., people were starting to take Yes seriously as major players in this field, and listeners fell in love with their flights of fancy as the songs grew in length. (The resulting tour for that album?also a smashing success?was released as the majority of the following triple-LP live recording Yessongs.) Even the name "Yes" had become something of a trademark due to the iconic "bubble" logo that would continue to adorn most of their album covers (Roger Dean or no Roger Dean) starting with CTTE. So, what could Yes do to top themselves this time around? The answer: do a double-album of four songs, each taking up an entire side of vinyl. Sound crazy? Not according to Jon Anderson, who drew inspiration from a footnote (you heard right) from page 83 of Autobiography of a Yogi that described the four Shastric scriptures. In fact, the bulk of the material was co-written by Anderson and Steve Howe, who essentially dragged the rest of the band kicking and screaming into the sessions for this album.

I have to say that I came to this album with some trepidation, based on most criticisms that I read about it as a budding Yes fan many years ago. Of course, since that time, critical opinion has come to mean absolutely nothing to me; I trust my own ears and preferences when judging any piece of music. However, I know that a lot of people really don't like this album?least of all Rick Wakeman?and for the most part I tend to agree with them. Not that it's all bad; it seemed as if Anderson and Howe could do no wrong in the songwriting department at this time, and to be fair, they do come up with some great musical ideas. I do have an issue with how a lot of these ideas are presented and expounded upon endlessly, but I suppose that's to be expected when you try to stretch it out to conform to the limits of vinyl LPs.

We start off with "The Revealing Science of God," and it's worth noting that the 2003 Rhino remaster actually restores the original, almost 2-minute intro that was missing from every previous release, extending the running time to just over 22 minutes. The mood is set perfectly, CTTE-style, with a crescendo of wind noise (possibly coming from Rick's Moog) followed by Howe's volume-controlled guitar on top, outlining the original theme. The chanting section that immediately follows makes more sense this way, instead of having it start as soon as you put the needle down or press "play". In my opinion, this is how the track should have begun in the first place. (Apparently, though, even this was cut down considerably, as Howe claims to have a 28-minute version of this track in his private collection.)

The opening vocal section builds layer by layer through every repetition, quite effectively at that, before the main instrumental melody is introduced at about 4 minutes. Right off the bat, this section sets a mellower mood than, say, "Close to the Edge"; the band knows where they want to go but takes their sweet time getting there. The vocal harmonies on the "chorus" ("What happened to this song," etc.) are pleasant although a bit thin in places, but things pick up a bit with the transition into the faster G#-minor section ("starlight movement"). Other prime Yes moments include Howe's major (9th? 13th?) chords during the first reprise of the instrumental melody at 10:48, as well as the "Glory to Sons" portion that includes Wakeman's somewhat jazzy Mini-Moog solo (even he likes this track!). The piece ends with some nice symmetry, reprising "What happened" and the opening "chanting" section with different lyrics. Even if there is a bit of padding here (although not as much as other tracks), it doesn't feel overly long, it's a nice tune and I personally enjoy listening to it. (By the way, one of the bonus tracks on the Rhino reissue is a studio run-through of this track, one minute longer due to an extra "Glory to Sons" verse before Rick's solo.)

Unfortunately the next track, "The Remembering" is a bit of a slog despite being very well-composed. The spacey guitar atmospherics at the outset, as well as the first "folk-song" section that it accompanies, are pleasantly mellow but could have been cut down to about half their length (as it is, this part of the song lasts about 8 minutes). Wakeman has one of his best moments in the transition out of this section, with Mellotron pads and the by-now familiar "And You And I" synth lead patch, but as an example of Rick's dislike of this album, he could apparently never be persuaded to play this solo effectively in live performance (as is borne out by an interview with Jon Anderson and a fair amount of bootlegs from the tour for this album). In fact this may be the movement of TFTO where the famous "curry incident" took place (look it up).

The following section is another folk-song, actually very quirky and well done, which picks up steam considerably for the "Relayer" chorus in 7/4 (now I'm trying to find a connection with this and the next Yes album). Unfortunately this entire section repeats itself almost verbatim, including the keyboard solo, pretty much for the sole purpose of stretching the track out to 20 minutes, although the guitar solo afterwards is great. Speaking of, this album features guitar more prominently than any other Yes effort, by which I mean to the exclusion of almost everything else; other instruments like bass and keyboards seem to stay in the background for the most part (which could partially explain Rick's feelings towards?as he calls it?Tales from Toby's Graphic Go-Kart). Anyway, the piece reverts back to themes and verses from the first 8 minutes, complete with Rick's ultra-cheesy Mario Brothers reed organ under "Out in the city running free," building to a not entirely satisfying conclusion. Oh, and did I mention that the band routinely quotes from "Revealing" on this track? This will be sort of a recurring theme throughout this album?quoting from its' previous songs. Somehow it doesn't feel entirely organic, not in the way that Beethoven quoted the first movement of his 5th Symphony throughout that same work.

"The Ancient," which opened disc 2 of the original release, is Yes at maybe their most avant-garde. We're off to a groovy start with the funky, metrically-displaced bass of Chris Squire (remember him? where was he the last 40 minutes?) pairing up with newcomer Alan White's percussion arsenal, including trap kit, log drums and even marimba. (I have to say that I generally don't care for marimba as an instrument, but sometimes it can be used to great effect, including White's work here.) This rhythm bed, accompanying Howe's slide guitar, is meant to sound very "tribal" in nature to outline Anderson's concept about past civilizations. The avant-garde aspect comes to play as the track progressively (ha-ha) becomes more angular, with Anderson's sparse lyrics referencing solar deities of old (Sol, Sun, Tonatiuh).

As Anderson implies in the original liners, this is Howe's big solo track. The electric segments are rather long-winded (no surprise), but the acoustic solo at about 13 minutes is one of his best ever. Unfortunately Howe takes it upon himself to quote both "Siberian Khatru" and "Close to the Edge" during this track (not exactly the conceptual continuity of Frank Zappa), in addition to various references to the previous two tracks here, revealing a band in search of itself. The last 5 minutes or so of the track, otherwise known as "Leaves of Green," is quite lovely and maybe should have been its own separate song. (The Rhino reissue also has an early studio take on this song, including sharper-sounding keyboards in the intro and an electric version of "Leaves.")

We close out with "Ritual," the other fan favorite here (along with "Revealing"). After a couple minutes, it seems as if the praise for this track is deserved, and for the most part it is. The opening melodies are typical Yes goodness (especially the one starting at about 2 minutes), but again, they just repeat themselves way too much, to the point where most of the musical meaning is lost. After a guitar section containing Howe's SECOND quote of CTTE as well as most of his first "Revealing" solo (do you think this band is running out of ideas?), we go into one of the best parts of the album at about 6:45, "Life Seems Like a Fight." In spite of its similarity to the other "song" sections of this album, this piece is one of the best constructed things Yes ever put together. The melody is catchy, the lyrics are actually somewhat singable, the vocal harmonies are innovative within the Yes ethic?heck, even the by-now-obligatory "Revealing" reference doesn't bother me this time around.

The instrumental section that follows is also extremely cool. Rick's "Roundabout Part Two" organ arpeggios lead to a rocking bass solo in 5/4 that almost sounds like proto-Rush. Alan White contributes more percussion layers here, adding congas to the rhythm track. Another guitar solo, building in intensity, finally leads to White's now-famous effects-laden drum solo?with all band members except Wakeman playing additional percussion behind White. I will say that when I saw Yes live at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim (now the Honda Center) on their 35th anniversary tour in 2004, this section came off really well on stage (and was in fact one of the highlights of the concert), but in the studio, it doesn't quite have the same effect?in particular, the electronic toms sound really dated and cheesy. Eventually, though, it winds down to the closing "Nous Sommes du Soleil," which is a nice comedown from what came before it; unfortunately, the last 2 minutes peter out and leave the listener hanging, and not in a good way. And so, after over 80 minutes, ends Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Even though this is supposed to be one of those albums that you either love or hate, I'm right down the middle on this one. As previously mentioned, the actual songs and melodies are fine, but there's a lot of artificial repetition throughout the album; sometimes it gets to a point where you wish they'd just move on, already. This album takes a lot of patience to sit through, and not just because the majority of it is at a slow tempo (and also due to Alan White's presence, rocks more overtly than any previous Yes album). I agree with Wakeman when he says that if the CD had been invented at that time, Yes would have been more able to "trim the fat" and reduce everything down from 80 minutes to, say, 45 or 50. It also would have easily fit with the bounds of a single LP (hell, Genesis made 50-minute single albums on a regular basis) and been more musically effective in the long run. Even if they wanted to "stretch out" a bit more, they could have made it 55-60 minutes and put 15 minutes on each side, or even released a triple-sided album?that is to say, a double-LP with side four being left blank (which, yes, was being done in the days of vinyl; look at Keith Jarrett's Eyes of the Heart or Joe Jackson's Big World). I don't suppose any of those ideas occurred to Anderson/Howe at the time, though. Maybe they should have listened to more Mahler to learn how to develop long-form ideas?

Anyway, for better or for worse, Tales stands to this day as the most polarizing and controversial Yes album possibly of all time. I understand why people love it, I understand why people hate it, and I understand that the band's desire and fondness for epic forms was growing exponentially around this time. However, when you consider that bands like Gentle Giant only made 35-minute albums yet contained enough music for double that length, you start to wonder if maybe Yes wasn't?how do you say?just a bit misguided here. Still, if you're a fan of classic 70s Yes, pick this album up anyway. Who knows, you may just fall in love with it. 3 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 3/5 |

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