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Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 2348 ratings

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5 stars 13.5/15P.: an incredibly underrated album which is one of the few, or perhaps even the only example of large-scale progressive rock which is almost entirely successful. The little weaknesses do not lie in the concept, but rather in some minor overlengths in track three which in the end are too minor to be counted as a severe fault.

Why review an album which everyone reading these webpages already owns? I'm pretty sure that some listeners have given up on this album too quickly. I did too, but something in this album kept me listening to it over and over again, and while waiting for the few parts which I always loved a lot (most of them in the opener) I started discovering the essence of many parts which I didn't notice before.

To make it short: I am one of those prog listeners who usually hate everything which is overblown, pathetic and megalomaniac. I don't like ELP's Brain Salad Surgery, I cannot stand Rick Wakeman's solo albums at all and after all I think that the cathartic New Wave a la Byrne, Bowie and Abacab-era Genesis was the best which could ever have happened to the music scene of the late 1970s, especially comparing the unbelievably creative Talking Heads with the conservative Marillion and IQ.

From this point of view I should actually classify this album deeply into the 'dreadful'-category. But it's so different to all the narcissistic noodling of later wannabe prog bands, and that's mainly due to the combination of three factors:

1.) Absolutely stellar and catchy melodies written by Jon Anderson, set to exciting chord progressions by Steve Howe. And catchy doesn't mean that they stay in your head for many days, but you rather think 'oh, that verse is really powerful' while you're giving the album a spin; and this particular moment occurs time and time again. This album is so densely packed with great melodies and counterpoints that it doesn't ever wear out. One brief example in the full-length version of The Revealing Science of God is the romantic part at 11:42 (including tender Mellotron cello and guitar harmonics) leading into the overhanging trees chorus at 12:10 with full Mellotron strings and the jazzy rhythm guitar which reminds me a lot of Phil Miller on Matching Mole's Part of the Dance due to the charismatic vibrato effect. And Anderson's vocal melody in this passage in my opinion is by far the best one of his whole career. It's amazing how well it fits with the heavier side of his voice and how it's representative of his whole style. Regardless of all the complexity Jon Anderson, as we know from interviews, absorbed lots of Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles songs and learned a lot how to find and arrange great melodies. The nous sommes du soleil part in Ritual is actually quite close to the Moody Blues of the 1990s (think Is this Heaven?), had it not been for the weird soloing all around this chorus. And this is why I always say that this album is basically pop music; you won't understand the lyrics and you won't be able to understand how much effort the band put into the arrangement, but you can and will surely sing along, and you will know the lyrics by heart quite soon simply because of the sound of the words.

2.) Rick Wakeman plays some unusually concise keyboards. He seemingly was quite underchallenged when he recorded that album because such an album needs absolute restraint from every contributing musician; the structures and chord progressions are already too complicated to stuff them with the busy (and, admittedly, impressive) keyboard onanism of Six Wives of Henry VIII. Wakeman, always wrongly associated with an excessive use of the Hammond organ, mainly sticks to Mellotron and Moog synthesizers on this album with the occasional grand piano tinkling, betimes throwing in some pretty cool parts on his beloved RMI Electra Piano. And there's not only his standard warm Moog solo voice, but especially on the second LP and in the extended intro of The Revealing Science of God you can listen to Wakeman creating pretty atmospheric ambient sounds of filtered white noise and other interesting timbres which you'd rather expect from Kitaro or Vangelis than from the fast-fingered keyboard wizard in the glittering cape. The gurgling atonal synthesizer flickering in the drums-synth-duo of Ritual is unique in Wakeman's career, and 'unique' may gladly be interpreted positively in this context. Admittedly Patrick Moraz was the better avantgarde keyboarder, but it was Wakeman who first conceived these keyboard arrangements for this album. This time Wakeman is just part of a really tight band in which no-one particularly stands out all the way through, but only in short passages, and this is how I like him most. Just think about his glorious work with the Strawbs and his high-quality contributions to Cat Stevens, Black Sabbath or David Bowie as a studio musician. Space Oddity is better than most of his solo albums altogether.

3.) The arrangements are 100% untrepid. No-one but Yes would accompany a most monotonous and arrhythmic vocal part, as in The Remembering, with instrumental parts which stay in the same strange rhythm. At times this strange pedestrian rhythm even gets stuck on a fermata (2:14), and you think that this finally the starter of a new stanza, but nothing changes afterwards. Instead the piece walks further and further. Indeed the whole album feels like walking through a rainforest which always looks the same although, of course, it's always a new tree which you pass by. If you walk this path he first five times you think that it's all the same green, muggy, warm tangle which you wade through. But after the tenth walk you start spotting little hills, subtleties in the vegetation, borders between broad-leaved and coniferous forests, perhaps even places offering a view on the surrounding miles. If you intend to put such a walk into music, no matter from whichever Asian religion's point of view you might come, the resulting album is most probably ending up in total boredom. But this band does everything to create a really *beautiful* landscape to walk through. Every 30-60 seconds there's a little sophisticated miniature inserted in the constant flow of The Remembering, be it Rick Wakeman playing a wishful synthesizer solo on top of a silky carpet of Mellotron strings, or Anderson introducing a completely new melody which might or might not be reprised later on. The most striking one is the short relayer part foreboding the next Yes album which rocks quite hard for the means of this song. The constant element however is Steve Howe's Leslie electric guitar and Wakeman's strange pipe organ sound which is either a great synthesizer sound or a real portative just like the one David Palmer played for Jethro Tull. If you have stood through this uniformity you are rewarded with a finale not entirely unlike the one in Awaken. Ancient, on the other side, is complete mayhem. Felicitous mayhem, to be precise. Mad rhythms underneath undiscernible bass lines and free jazz guitar playing in the beginning lead into pastoral Mellotron layers, followed by Olias of Sunhillow-like tribal chanting, only to end in a baroque six minute ballad featuring Steve Howe on classical guitar plus backing vocals and Jon Anderson on lead vocals. Just like Genesis' More Fool Me mixed up with Mood for A Day. If you were a musician, and if you had a pretty delicate ballad written on acoustic guitar - would you make the listener sit through 12 minutes of tribal chantings in strange languages before? Or how would you - in the case of Ritual - combine a ballad which is completely cheesy (when regarded isolatedly) with a thunderstorm of percussion instruments without sounding like a total dabbler? I don't know how, but it does work in this case. And it worked even better live. Get the Live at QPR DVD and watch Ritual. I've never been overpowered more by such an energetic performance. Chris Squire runs around on the stage, shreds his bass guitar, vocalizes along until Patrick Moraz introduces a part in which the whole band flails around all sorts of percussion instruments, apart from Moraz who drives all of his keyboards through odd filters until Steve Howe ends this rousing mess with a gorgeous guitar solo. Squire also takes a solo in the studio version, and the tribal part is present as well, but that's just a more precise sketch of what Yes were able to develop in concert. If you've ever experienced a thunderstorm in the Austrian Alps you can at least guess where the inspiration comes from. And this, of course, wouldn't work if Alan White hadn't been an extraordinary drummer. He has deteriorated a lot over the years, at least he seems not to want to play like he did before, but this is his first studio album with Yes and he is burning here - not with the amazingly somber British jazz styling of Bill Bruford, but rather with the self-assurance and oomph of an American rock drummer.

The bonus tracks are a real enrichment. Listening to Revealing Science of God in its complete version, including the deleted ambient introduction, is worth the money alone, but the studio run-throughs are extremely interesting documents, too. They show two of the tracks in an unexpectedly naked and rough manner - incomplete lyrics, no overdubs, just a band playing on a highest niveau live in the studio. The surplus value? The ending ballad in The Ancient is performed by the whole band on electric instruments, and the staccato drums and the crunchy electric guitar give this sweet ballad an interesting industrial sound. The Revealing Science of God features combinations of different occuring motives which aren't present on the album version. The fact that you can look over the musicians' shoulders doesn't need to be mentioned in further detail.

Overall, I have to admit that this album drops down a bit halfway. Not in The Remembering, as many people think, but rather in The Ancient. It doesn't drop a lot, but it drops ostensibly around the 7 minute mark. But given that the opener is in big parts even somewhere above the 15/15-point realms and that the whole concept was incredibly courageous to conceive and perform, I'd be reluctant to give this album a 4 star rating. LP1 is, for sure, deeply situated in the 14/15-point range, but LP2 is somewhere around the 12.5-13/15. You can decide if this should be a weak five star rating or a strong four star rating, but the former is the rating which I prefer giving at the very moment - it might change in the next few months or years. Disregarding all these numerics I recommend this album to everyone interested in progressive rock music of its finest and most emotional sort - in any meaning of the word -, and those who already own this album, but always dismissed it, could maybe - if they are willing to get into this record - try it again. Imaging this album as a walk through a green rainforest helped me a lot, but since everyone has his own picture before his mind's eye it might also be different.

Einsetumadur | 5/5 |


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