I love progressive-rock music, but I’ve never connected with Yes’s majestic Tales From Topographic Oceans. The album is hailed in prog-rock circles as one of the most influential albums of all time. The album is 50 years old in 1973, certainly a time for reflection and discussion, and perhaps another chance to fall in love.
I’ve never owned a copy of this album, though I own everything else by Yes, even live recordings and box sets. Why did I avoid Tales all of these years? There are no hit songs, few memorable riffs to groove on, and it’s loooong.
I’ve read many reviews of this album, critics were mixed at the time, passing fans were befuddled, but serious fans of Yes absolutely love this four-sided album. It’s more than 80 minutes of dense, long-form mini-symphonies. There are also many YouTube reviews and essays, so I listen to many current assessments of the album.
Tales From Topographic Oceans was Yes’s sixth studio album. The band membership consisted of Jon Anderson (lead vocals), Steve Howe (guitars), Chris Squire (bass), Rick Wakeman (keyboards) and Alan White (drums). White replaced Bill Bruford with this album, but even with White, this lineup is considered part of the “classic” lineup of the band’s history. The four-sided album was primarily written by Anderson and Howe, but the other band members contributed key musical elements for each track as this is definitely a band creation. Tales is very much a prog-rock symphony.
From the liner notes on the remastered version of the CD:
“As Yes were always looking over the horizon (as Alan is fond of saying), vocalist Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe, feeling their oats over previous successes, decided to pursue a large-scale project. Jon had taken notice of a footnote in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography Of A Yogi that described four Schastic scriptures covering various aspects of religion and life. These would form the basis for Yes’ next grand work, the ambitious four-song Tales From Topographic Oceans, with each track consuming an individual vinyl side.
While on tour Jon and Steve conducted candlelight sessions, working out the basic structure for each of the four compositions inspired by this concept.”
The album name has always been a mystery. The term “Topographic” actually applies to the study of land features, not water. However, there are numerous water-related references, particularly in side two.
The album had a different working title through much of the creative process and somehow it evolved into Tales From Topographic Oceans. Anderson would write the lyrics, drawing from Autobiography Of A Yogi, which was given to him by King Crimson member John Muir at Bill Bruford’s wedding. The book, containing Indian wisdom and spirituality, was used by Anderson, but combined with his own imagery and his own inventive style of wordplay and phrasing, was his trippiest Yes lyrics ever. This album was not just a trip, it was the ultimate journey. Honestly, it’s not the lyrics that the listener remembers, the Eastern philosophy is often not understandable in the mix, and the lyrical imagery is not as digestible as “Roundabout” or even “Close to the Edge.”
Wakeman would leave the band after the resulting tour, expressing his dislike for the album, off to enjoy his growing solo career. As yes fans know, he would return to the band a couple of more times before departing again. His son, Oliver, would later join the band briefly playing his dad’s keyboard parts. Wakeman reflects on Tales saying that the band padded parts of the songs to lengthen them to each fit an album side. The other option was to shorten them, which the others refused to consider. Wakeman also points out the album contains marvelous moments, some of their best work.
The tour promoting Tales combined a “hits” set and then the band playing the entire album in concert. The band would shorten the Tales part of the show based on fan reaction and critic reviews. I imagine fans were challenged by the newness of the album, and much of it absent instantly memorable choruses or riffs that listeners that burrow into your memory. Even though many Yes fans have remarked that this album is best consumed whole, like the symphony that it is, casual fans feel differently.
Here’s an excerpt from a fan review I really like:
“The rewards are more subtle here. Tales From Topographic Oceans goes for building vast and expansive soundscapes. What Yes was trying to do here was build mood through music. And it works, for the patient and dedicated listener.”
The Songs (with original liner notes):
“The Revealing Science of God – Dance of the Dawn” 20:27 – “Revealing Science of God can be seen as an ever-opening flower in which simple truths emerge examining the complexities and magic of the past and how we should not forget the song that has been left to us to hear The knowledge of God is a search, constant and clear.”
“The Remembering – High the Memory” 20:38 – “All our thoughts, impressions, knowledge, fears, have been developing for millions of years. What we can relate to is our own past, our own life, our own history. Here. It is especially Rick’s keyboards which bring alive the ebb and flow and depth of our mind’s eye: the topographic ocean. Hopefully we should appreciate that given points in time are not so significant as the nature of what is impressed on the mind, and how it is retained and used.”
“The Ancient – Giants Under the Sun” 18:34 – “The Ancient probes still further into the past beyond the point of remembering. Here Steve’s guitar is pivotal in sharpening reflection on the beauties and treasures of lost civilisations, Indian, Chinese, Central American, Atlantean. These and other peoples left an immense treasure of knowledge.”
“Ritual – Nous sommes du soleil” 21:35 – “A fight between sources of evil and pure live. Alan and Chris present and relay the struggle out of which comes a positive source. Nous sommes du soleil. We are of the sun. We can see.”
“The Revealing Science of God – Dance of the Dawn” is sprawling. It’s not the most inviting of the four songs, but not the toughest either. If you are looking for a continuation of the magnificent, and also lengthy “Close to the Edge,” you’ll be disappointed. The dense arrangement takes time to engage, but be patient. Wakeman and White are noticeably key contributors to this symphonic cauldron. Wakeman might not have liked the album, but his brilliance is evident. White contributes creative beats and percussion, taking up where Bruford left off. The more listens, the more I appreciate this track.
“The Remembering – High the Memory” This song starts off with more openness than the first track. I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it’s easier to absorb. From the opening measures, this song is tighter and a bit more memorable.
“The Ancient – Giants Under the Sun” Is this ELP or Yes? I like the great percussion, it’s jazz-fusion, and sets the stage for Howe and Wakeman to take the melody line. The use of the Mellotron adds great sonic texture. Overall, the best track thus far. Musically, it shouldn’t have taken till side three to shift into this gear, but I’m glad it finally did.
“Ritual – Nous sommes du soleil” The highlight of the album. This track sounds the most like Yes. Anderson’s singing is grand, whatever he is singing. Howe is playing a sitar-type guitar. The chord progressions are melodic and worthy, making the vocals by Anderson and Squire stand out. Wakeman is more in the background creating lush textures. The drum spotlight by White and various percussion is outstanding and not bloated. Howe returns with the melody, along with Alan White on piano. Yes, drummer White contributed some chord progressions on acoustic piano.
My main criticism of this album is how meandering it is and the absence of some really inventive hooks. Instead of appearing to focus on ponderous noodling, tighter song construction would have helped. Did it really need to be four sides and 80 minutes? Producer/engineer Eddie Offord should have worked with the band to either improve the songs or shorten then to fit on one album.
I’ve purchased a copy and I listen to it at least once a week. It’s not Thick as a Brick, Quadrophenia, In the Court of the Crimson King or Close to the Edge, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s ambitious and sprawling, yet magnificent in its own right.
One thought on “How I Learned to Stop Fearing Tales From Topographic Oceans and Love the Album”
Except for a few bands like Yes, early Genesis and Pink Floyd, prog rock and I never became close friends. While if anything I feel I’ve become more open-minded when it comes to music, I doubt this is going to change anytime soon.
As somebody who still believes The Beatles are the greatest band of all time (I mean, seriously, can there be any doubt?😆), I tend to look for memorable melodies and great vocals, ideally harmony singing, no matter what genre I’m listening to, perhaps with the exception of jazz.
I’m listening to “Tales From Topographic Oceans” as I’m writing this. I’m close to 13 minutes into the opener, and while there’s no doubt Yes were incredible musicians, long tracks like this tend to test my patience.
I know this sounds terrible to say, unlike “Roundabout”, “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, I doubt I’ll remember much if anything about this track the moment it’s over.
That said, I still believe Yes were a great band!😀
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