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Album review: Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)

Tales from Topographic Oceans.jpg

Tales From Topographic Oceans

TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS was released on December 14th 1973 and it landed in our household the next day. TALES would divide opinion amongst fans and critics alike: overblown and pretentious or symphonic prog masterpiece.

The presentation of the album is quite special. It’s less ostentatious than the preceding Yes offering, the triple live set YESSONGS in its triple gatefold, but more elaborate than CLOSE TO THE EDGE which, perhaps more than any other album was responsible for creating a link between the sonic vision of a band and a visual representation of the music. The imagery used on TALES took in some obscure iconography and utilised ideas put forward by the band themselves, such that it could have been a bit of a dog’s breakfast. But somehow it all hangs together. I was more worried that the four words of the album title featured three basic colours. Both the front cover and the open gatefold work as complete images, as the eye finds different focal points for the two potential presentations: the Mayan temple on the front cover; the waterfall for the open gatefold. I used to try to ascribe meaning to the position of the photographs within the song words but I no longer believe there is any association other than they are literal illustrations of Anderson and Howe's use of 'green language' in their lyrics.

This cover is wrapped around roughly 80 minutes of music which, though it can be plotted on a line of general progression between CLOSE TO THE EDGE and RELAYER, there has been nothing like it in terms of ambition and scope either before or since. The original release was of course on four sides of vinyl and though I also own a remastered and expanded edition on CD, I retain a vinyl copy and that’s how I prefer to refer to and listen to the album.

80 minutes of complex and challenging music makes TALES a fairly difficult listen. With each side acting as a suite in its own right it's quite easy to see why the casual listener might have difficulty understanding why Yes should record such an album. There are a bare minimum of passages where there is a straightforward rhythm defined by bass drum and snare and, with its lofty, philosophical concept, this could be the reason why most critics were so averse to the album as it moved ever further from the narrow confines of rock ‘n’ roll.

I personally love the album though I believe side 2 (THE REMEMBERING/HIGH THE MEMORY) is comparatively weak. Side 1 (THE REVEALING SCIENCE OF GOD/DANCE OF THE DAWN) is relatively accessible because it does seem a natural progression from CLOSE TO THE EDGE but that’s not the reason it’s my favourite track. There's a good deal of sonic variety and what comes across as shared input from the five musicians. I particularly like that around the same point on the title track of CLOSE TO THE EDGE and THE REVEALING SCIENCE OF GOD (at 15' and 16'45" respectively) there's a Wakeman Hammond solo on the former and a synthesizer solo on the latter, indicating attention to overall structure. I also love that particular configuration of the Moog on THE REVEALING SCIENCE OF GOD. As an atheist, the title of the track did use to cause me some concern with its reference to ‘God’ and there’s also the line ‘Young Christians see it from the beginning’ but my apprehension was reconciled when I placed the album in the context of a quest for enlightenment that doesn’t necessarily require a specific deity.

Side 2 comes across as having most of what Wakeman has described as padding. Though it’s necessary to regard this movement as part of the whole, I still find that the relatively slow pace of the piece tends to drag and, whereas CLOSE TO THE EDGE and to a lesser extent, THE REVEALING SCIENCE OF GOD are densely packed with sound, THE REMEMBERING has too much space between the notes (no pun intended.) What’s more, this side contains music with the least contrast.

Side 3 THE ANCIENTS/GIANTS UNDER THE SUN) comes across as almost pagan. From the different languages used to name the Sun to the percussive sections and the ‘leaves of green’ denouement which, though by no means folk music, does call to mind a plainer, less advanced or mechanised way of life. It’s no surprise that the band should use THE FIREBIRD SUITE as opening music for their live shows. I think that stretching the possibilities of rock music by incorporating some of the ideas of Stravinsky was brave but also something that perhaps only Yes could have done and, if I’m allowed to draw another parallel, Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING also caused something of a stir when it was first performed in Paris in May 1913, dividing critics and the ballet audience with its deviation from the accepted form. I think that THE ANCIENTS and RITUAL are the best illustrations of the influence of Stravinsky on Yes music.

Side 4 (RITUAL/NOUS SOMMES DY SOLEIL) is something of a cross between the more straightforward prog of THE REVEALING SCIENCE OF GOD and the percussion movement on THE ANCIENTS. It may be that Wakeman also thought that this was an unnecessary inclusion but again, in the context of what Anderson and Howe had envisaged, it’s actually stunningly dynamic, especially when performed live. The resolution of the track into the NOUS SOMMES DU SOLEIL section is a powerful piece of musical drama, drawing threads from the other three sides together into what always feels to me like a perfect conclusion; you have to have listened to the other three sides before this to get it to work. It’s uplifting and very positive and ultimately very satisfying.

When I first used to listen to the album I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more overt keyboard work but I’ve since realised that the subtle Mellotron that pervades the entire album is a vital part of the overall orchestration. I believe it’s important to see the work as ‘orchestrated’ because of what Anderson and Howe had originally conceived. Equally, the percussion (and Alan White was something of an unknown to me) should not be regarded as rock drumming because it’s often used as musical colour around guitar lines, rather than the other way round.

As a fourteen year old, listening to the album and poring over the lyrics (yes, I used to be able to recite all of them) this seemed to me as a natural successor to CLOSE TO THE EDGE. It’s only since then that I’ve read how it divided fans in a manner similar to the schism caused by the release of 90125, but I do understand why. I accepted TALES because I believed that Yes music had the power to transform; the music and the concept of TALES may be challenging but they are ultimately rewarding, so it’s hardly surprising that the further they deviated from the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is an expression of simple rebellion, the more chance there was of losing fans.

TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS is a symphonic prog masterpiece.