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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 2327 ratings

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5 stars scapegoat (-pg-) n, & v.t. 2. Person bearing blame that should fall on others.

There are those who blame this album for the decline and fall of prog rock. Life is never that simple, of course. The reason for the retreat of prog rock from the limelight had little to do with any specific album and far more to do with large-scale social forces. However, we humans aren't generally patient enough to work through the complexities of such change, so we choose a scapegoat, a symbol that takes the blame that ought to be borne more widely.

'Tales From Topographic Oceans' is that scapegoat.

It is the scapegoat because, in the eyes of many, it simply went too far. From one album to the next YES went from being the champions of heavy symphonic rock to an outfit that didn't know where to draw the line. Having drawn widespread acclaim with their three-song masterpiece 'Close To The Edge', they took the concept of one track per side and spread it over four sides of vinyl. Moreover, they stretched tracks that might previously have provided five or ten minutes' worth of god-like YES music into self-indulgent, overweight twenty minute marshmallows with no substance. This is YES in decline, desperately trying to paper over the cracks of a band at each other's throats, dominated by ANDERSON's incomprehensible conceptual leanings, rapidly becoming an embarrassing parody of itself. This set the scene for the widespread scorn rock critics began to show towards prog rock, and this album was therefore instrumental in public rejection of the genre.

Hogwash. I intend to offer a spirited defense of this album's place in the list of the true great moments of the genre.

In 1971 and 1972 YES had peeled off a triple-play of incomprehensible brilliance. 'The Yes Album' was one of the best things to that point in symphonic prog rock, and it was equalled by 'Fragile' and spectacularly trumped by 'Close to the Edge'. All three albums occupied much the same musical space: jazz-tinged symphonic prog, dominated by dramatic extended compositions led by an unequalled rhythm section, each song reaching a fiery climax. Compositionally brilliant, with tight musicianship, the band had by this point a sequence of mighty achievements under their belts. Clearly, though, the members of the band were not content with this: witness drummer BRUFORD's departure even before 'Close to the Edge' was released. With pressure from the fans for 'Close to the Edge II', the band recruited ALAN WHITE and set about doing something different, something that would truly extend them as musicians. Drawing deeply from their early psychedelic roots, borrowing from Asian musical tradition and scriptures, and - perhaps most importantly - from their own earlier repertoire, the band created an eighty minute musical melange that, rather unfortunately for their career, defies easy categorisation. The result, for better or worse, was 'Tales From Topographic Oceans'.

The basic shape of the album is thus: the first and last tracks are symphonic pieces in the mold of 'Close to the Edge', though with important differences, while the second track is less easy to pigeonhole, with large quiet, almost ambient sections, and the third track is experimental, filled with Asian sounds and difficult rhythms, much less of a song and much more of a soundscape. It seems to me it is the first ten minutes of 'The Remembering' - before the 'Relayer' chorus - and all but the last few minutes of 'The Ancient' that give listeners the most trouble. To which I can only respond that these listeners have not understood the nature of the music they are listening to. By all means choose not to like them - I'm not sure I 'like' either section myself - but long ambient soundscapes and rhythms and sounds from other musical traditions (in other words, the addition of other musical genres to rock) are exactly the sort of things that made prog what it is. After all, BRUFORD left because YES had become repetitive: 'What finally drove me out of rock'n'roll,' he said, 'was the repetition. That's what had separated me from YES. Why I had found KING CRIMSON so attractive was because they were way more open.' Clearly it was time for the band to break the mold. Unlike other bands who simplified their sound and were vilified for it (I might well be thinking of GENESIS here), YES added complexity and ambition to their music with this release. I contend that, by doing so, they did not help to kill prog. Instead, they helped keep it alive.

I apologise for taking up so much of your time with this argument, and I'll happily admit that it is only a point of view. But I hope my passion for this record will help some people see how essential an album 'Tales From Topographic Oceans' is in the YES canon, and in prog rock, whether it appeals to you or not.

One further point. Do anything you can to get hold of Elektra's 2003 remaster: not for the 'bonus' tracks, but for the vastly improved sound. One of the major difficulties with the original record was the production, which was rather muddy and knocked the highlights out of the music, further obscuring an underpowered rhythm section. The remaster addresses this. It really is like listening to a new recording.

The remastered edition begins with a rumble and some plaintive HOWE notes rather than the original ANDERSON vocal, but we're soon launched into ANDERSON's infamous manifesto. Aside from the overt spirituality, what's of interest here is the reappearance of the 'sharp' and 'distance' motifs from 'Heart of the Sunrise', the first of many such moments on this album. This section builds slowly with the addition of harmonies and notably the intense, shrill synth, and segues into a typically wonderful YES melody. The new order is already clear: melody has taken over from rhythm. HOWE and ANDERSON, responsible for the majority of the compositional work, have supplanted SQUIRE and BRUFORD. SQUIRE's rumble is subdued, and HOWE, ANDERSON and WAKEMAN drive this record. This is the single greatest difference between this record and its predecessors. In particular, STEVE HOWE dominates: his guitar colourings, where he makes the notes sound as though they are squeezed reluctantly from the instrument, are the feature of the record. 'What happened to this song/We once knew so well?' ANDERSON asks, a broad hint of the change - and, while he asks the question, listen to the rather ordinary rhythmical backing. SQUIRE's playing all the notes, but the dynamism has gone, and his interplay with BRUFORD is now only a happy memory. The greatness of this album does not come from the rhythm section. This record is about beauty, not power.

That said, the beauty is - well, staggeringly, sublimely beautiful. 'I must have waited all my life for this moment'. And after nine splendid minutes, we move into the next section, with more dynamism and the use of the same opposed two-word lyric lines made famous in 'Siberian Khatru'. YES continue to evoke their own past as they march into the future. The lovely opening theme is reprised, then WAKEMAN gets the first of many chances to drench the record in mellotron. The 'rape the forest' lyric follows, another superb section, followed by a return to the dynamic two-word lyric section. This is a symphonic epic on steroids, not a wasted moment - and oh, listen to the rising and falling mellotron at the fourteen minute mark. Glorious. HOWE dominates SQUIRE at this point (I can only imagine how this would have sounded a year earlier). More beauty follows, with a heart-wrenching section at fifteen minutes (the 'glory to sons' section), the inevitable calm before the storm of the finale. WAKEMAN gives us a simply indescribable solo at nineteen minutes - this is up there with GILMOUR's work. What follows is one of YES' best moments, on a par with the climax to 'Close to the Edge', with HOWE's guitar and WAKEMAN'S keyboard adding that dramatic colouring to the stunning reprise of the main chorus. YES are the best in the business at these high points, and this is another guaranteed not to disappoint. All a passionate reviewer can offer is yet more adjectives in praise of the music. 'The Revealing Science of God' is, apart from the diminution of the rhythm section, worthy of as much praise as 'Close to the Edge'. I cannot understand why this song does not gather the praise it is due - well, I do, given its context.

You see, even proggers didn't have unlimited patience. The drawn out psychedelic noodling of 'The Remembering' swiftly erases the glory of the previous track from the listener's mind. This is such a pity. Soundscapes work on a different part of the mind than does a dense symphonic effort like 'The Revealing Science of God'. They require time to unfold, but are no less beautiful for it. The shimmering combination of ANDERSON, HOWE and WAKEMAN (with SQUIRE and WHITE in some distant room, seldom invited in) invites the listener to use their imaginations rather than just their glands. Without the incessant rock beat we are forced to think, and I do think very well.

Of course, listeners are waiting with increasing impatience for the song to fire up. You've missed the point, lads. Even with the loss of BRUFORD, YES haven't forgotten how to rock. They just don't want to at this point on the album. So why not lie back in the shimmering sea for a while? We'll soon be back in the big surf. In the meantime let the small beauties infiltrate your mind. Beauties like the harmonies in 'winds allow', the emphatic 'I do think very well', and the consistent high quality of HOWE's work. It's on this album he reveals himself as a master guitarist. Like HACKETT he's not an axeman in the traditional rock sense; rather, he's an instrumentalist, adding to a sound.

Listeners breathe a sigh of relief when the 'Relayer' section begins, and the rock returns to propel the undoubted prog of this song towards its fulfillment. All those themes you didn't really hear as you waited in increasing annoyance for the song to 'start' reappear in the last eight minutes, played by different instruments than those that introduced them: propelled by WHITE's drumming, they suddenly make sense. This is a song that requires repeated listens to make sense. So why don't you go and listen to it a few more times? Isn't that what prog's about?

The hiss and swirl of the last quiet section (16-17 minutes) is an extended catching of the breath, a dramatic pause before the finale, but is glorious in its own right, and I adore the rise of the four-note motif heralding the climax. The blissful harmonies are doubled, and the band even has the cheek to reference the previous song at 18:30 as they draw us up into what is 'surely, surely!' one of the most triumphant finales in symphonic prog. Honestly, the wait was worth it - and without the soundscapes, the climax would be nothing more than perfunctory. It is because we heard these tunes earlier that they mean so much more to us now. The song ends with a lovely bittersweet denouement.

I believe 'The Remembering' will repay your close attention.

As for 'The Ancient', it's an experiment, and not an entirely successful one. There's nothing remotely symphonic about this track, and it was a shock to listeners. Much of it brings to mind early krautrock, and is so far from the rest of the YES canon that it was bound to be labeled an indulgence (or simply sh*t in Robert Christgau's infamous review). Though I do love the bright Tibetan crashing cymbals and HOWE's guitar themes, and in the right mood I enjoy the whole cacophonous mess. And everyone enjoys the last six minutes: the classical acoustic guitar, and the wonderful tune ANDERSON sings here, a prototype of what the band produced as 'Soon' from the 'Relayer' album. Indeed, 'The Ancient' is in many ways a precursor of 'The Gates of Delirium'.

The album concludes with 'Ritual', a summary of all that has gone before. In one package we have symphony, power, beauty and cacophony, with many of the album's earlier themes reprised. Like GENESIS' 'Los Endos', it is constructed partly from material we've already heard. Only in such a way can a fourth twenty minute song be palatable to the first-time listener. We are treated to a marvellous intro, filled with fire, melody and swing - and we even get a brief reminder that CHRIS SQUIRE is still with the band. Had this song filled the second half of 'The Yes Album', for example, I'm sure no one would have complained: it's certainly better than what that side of music offered. At 4:30 HOWE references 'Close to the Edge' - these things are not accidental - and reprises the main theme of this song. Entirely aware of the length of the album, YES are making it as easy as possible to assimilate on first listen. The 'Life seems like a fight' section at seven minutes reintroduces YES' lyrical beauty - and references 'The Revealing Science of God' - amid nice basswork and drenching mellotron. We sing the music's total retain - from 'Close to the Edge'. We venture. They move around, tell me. Sound familiar? The repetitive highlight of 'at all' leads to a reminder of 'The Ancient', but this time it sounds fitting in a symphonic context, and it segues into the heaviest and most dramatic moment of the album, SQUIRE and WHITE finally combining in a great instrumental passage, highlighted by HOWE's guitar and WAKEMAN's hissing, spitting keyboard. A truly thunderous moment. Smashing percussion gives way to a triumphant guitar motif, and we're into the album's finale. This time the band vary their formula: piano and ANDERSON's sweet voice round off the concept - 'we love when we play' - and leave room for a last spine-tingling instrumental farewell that finishes on an unresolved chord.


I will say this, though. The loss of BILL BRUFORD, and the resulting down-mixing of the rhythm section, does incalculable damage to the YES sound. Though ALAN WHITE has his moments in the sun later in the band's career, he is nothing more than competent on this album. Not until 'The Ancients' does WHITE do anything that captures your attention, let alone make you gasp in the way BRUFORD did. And SQUIRE's exclusion from the writing sessions for these songs neuters his sound. I lament the loss of that wonderful bass. Of most frustration, however, is the way the studio run-throughs supplied as extras on the remastered version bring the rhythm section to the fore, giving the songs more punch. If only ...

Make no mistake: this is a flawed masterpiece. If five-star albums are required to be perfect, this fails miserably. But if art is supposed to be ambitious, if humans are supposed to reach beyond their grasp, then this is high art. Like anything from the truly great, even the relative failures are of real interest. And this is by no means a failure.

'Tales From Topographic Oceans' simply does not, in my opinion, deserve the ridicule it has received.

russellk | 5/5 |


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