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Tales From Topographic Oceans
Double Vinyl, 180 gram
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Tales From Topographic Oceans
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Tales from Topographic Oceans is the sixth studio album from the English rock band Yes, originally released as a double album on December 7, 1973 by Atlantic Records. It is a concept album based on singer Jon Anderson's interpretation of a footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) by Paramahansa Yogananda that describes four bodies of Hindu texts, collectively named the shastras. After he pitched the idea to guitarist Steve Howe, the two wrote the themes and instrumentation of four, side long tracks based on each text.
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So... which is it?
Well, the worth of any music is of course in the ear of the beholder, but I seem to be one of the few people who come down somewhere in the middle on this one: it's pretty far from being their best or most consistent album, but there's certainly enough here to justify its existence...
If you're looking for the radio-friendly aspect of classic Yes such as "Roundabout" or "I've Seen All Good People", don't bother looking here. This is of course a double album with only 4 songs (one on each "side", as they were known back in the day.....), which makes the shortest song just over 18:30; the rest clock in at 21-22 minutes, so... not exactly "radio friendly".
But... "a waste"? Not even close. The best way to describe this music is progressive rock almost as film score music. Rather than catchy hooks that are repeated throughout a song, the band set about touching on themes to set moods and then explore them. Jon Anderson's lyrical themes and angelic vocals are definitely there, but over the course of 20 min or so per song, there are multiple long instrumental passages. Unlike basic pop/rock, this music is most definitely not based on the old adage "Don't bore us, get to the chorus". Instead, Yes take their time moving through the various sections of each song here. This is, of course, nothing new for Yes, but on "Tales" they go farther and deeper in their explorations than ever before (or since?), which for me means even my favorite song here ("Ritual") has passages I could perhaps do without, but also that my least favorite track ("The Ancient") has moments I enjoy.
This album requires plenty of patience because what's happening in the first 3-4 minutes of a song might be very different from what happens in the middle or closer to the end. With a little patience and an open mind, I think most fans of Yes' earlier 70's works will at least find pieces of some (or all) of these songs to appreciate. There are definite moments of brilliance, but alas they are mixed in with moments of what keyboardist Rick Wakeman called "padding" (Wakeman has stated that they really had enough material for about an album and a half, but rather than trim back to a single LP, they opted to "pad" it out to a double LP; of course, others in the band don't necessarily agree with Wakeman's assessment, so little wonder that fans too are divided on this one; how much of this album is "brilliant" vs. how much is unnecessary "padding" is up to each individual listener).
Hence my 3-star "mixed" rating for this one: Yes managed to deliver challenging and progressive music in smaller and easier-to-digest chunks than this one on 4 albums that can only be described as "brilliant" (see: The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Going For The One), and other albums while somewhat uneven are still easier to digest than this one as well (Drama, Time And A Word....). So, it's hard to rank this one as one of their best. BUT... "Tales" still most definitely has its moments for the patient and open-minded listener, so if that describes you, this one is far from a "waste" and most definitely worth exploring.
And for those that not only like and appreciate Yes' other classic progressive works but want to get even closer to the edge, there is nothing quite like "Tales From Topographic Oceans". It truly is a one-of-a-kind album for Yes, but you'll have to listen a few times to decide if that's a good thing or not. I personally prefer several other Yes albums over this one, so definitely wouldn't recommend STARTING here if you're just getting into Yes, but after purchasing and really liking "The Yes Album," "Fragile," "Close to the Edge" and a few others, I *am* glad I picked this one up.
"The Reveling Science of God" features Jon's best lyrics, Rick's awesome keyboard playing, Steve's understated but beautiful guitar parts, and newcomer Alan White joining up with Chris Squire to put a wonderful floor under it all. I just love this piece and have listened to it hundreds of times over the years and never tired of it. Seeing them play this in concert both in the seventies when it was new and in the 2000's was a highlight of the over 20 times, I have enjoyed this wonderful band.
"The Remembering" starts out with classic Yes vocal harmonies and some of the best the guys have ever done. Chris and Alan provide a great rhythm behind the harmonies and Rick adds some great background synth work. The middle of the song with Chris and Rick playing is just beautiful music. Then Steve's acoustic enters the picture and how anyone doesn't like this is beyond me. "Other skylines, other skylines, to hold you." After that the the song rocks, and everyone in the band gets in the mix. Damn this is good stuff.
"The Ancient" stretches the limits of progressive rock and takes it to a place that not many were comfortable with. The opening of percussion under Steve's guitar is intense and when Rick's keyboards come on the scene the song takes you on a ride, that leaves you wishing it would never end. This is one of the most adventurous pieces of music ever attempted by a rock band and is truly what progressive rock is. It pushes the boundaries of music and asks the listener to come along and push their own boundaries. "The Ancient" has always amazed me with it's intensity. I don't know if Yes ever got what they wanted out of this number, but damn I am sure glad they tried.
"Ritual/Nous Sommes Du Soleil" became of staple at Yes shows and I have seen it with Rick, Patrick Moraz, Igor, and an orchestra and every time it was the highlight of the show. This song in parts is some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard, mixed in with some of the most violent music you will ever hear. It is truly a masterpiece in progressive rock and why those of us that love this genre, love it. Time changes to many to mention, Chris Squire the greatest bass player in rock music showing us why, Alan White a powerhouse drummer at only 25, some of Steve Howe's most tasty solos, and Rick Wakeman playing keyboard over the top of it all. And I forgot to mention the one and only Jon Anderson. This is music at it's best and a joy to hear.
Summary: As you can tell by now, I just love this album. Over the years my understanding and appreciation of it have changed, and that is the way it should be. It never gets old or stale and I can always find something new to enjoy, because there is so much here to digest. Progressive rock was a genre that asked its listeners to take part, to really listen and try to understand where the artist wanted to take us.
"Tales From Topographic Oceans" is a piece of music that the band itself may not have understood where they wanted to take us. It goes from melodic to chaos and back again. Some parts of the songs seem to go on too long and some seem to end too soon. Ideas are formed and forgotten and never gone back to again. It is the flaws that make it what it is: A true progressive rock masterpiece and one of a kind in the history of rock music. 5 stars and then some.