Before the notion was rightly dismissed by the others, Jon Anderson was said to have expressed a wish to record Tales from Topographic Oceans in the middle of a forest at nighttime. Although Jon didn’t get his wish to record their sixth LP out in the woods with the owls and squirrels, Yes instead decorated their studio to make it look more like a farmyard. Among these ornaments were stacks of hay, archetypal white picket fences, a miniature barn, and a model of a cow with mechanical udders. Even being the lifelong fan of this album as I am, I am not beyond calling that one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard a band do in order to ‘get in the mood’ for recording. Then again, their last two albums – 1971′s Fragile, and Close to the Edge from the following year – had both turned out as masterpieces, so Yes could certainly afford themselves some degree of pretentiousness.
Compared to the more institutionally recognized of Yes‘ masterpieces, Tales from Topographic Oceans still stands as a matter of contention for listeners, even today, four-plus decades after its recording and release. After having touched the sky and cracked upon the egg of ambition with Close to the Edge, Yes would have been in a tight spot; would they try to keep pushing their ambition somehow and risk alienating everyone, or pull back the reins and enjoy more familiar grounds? The band reached a near-melting point with this album, with Wakeman in particular famously feeling pretty discouraged about the way it turned out. Pushing the boundaries further pastClose to the Edge and creating a double album four epics long resulted in the most critically polarizing progressive rock album ever made. A few rag-tag advocates defend the album for its scope and ambition, whereas the rest cite it as a poster child for prog rock indulgence, self-importance, and idle longwindedness…
…whatever their grievances may be, they’re wrong.
…well, maybe they are right, but Tales from Topographic Oceans‘ opaque self-awareness and bombast don’t stop it from being one of the most incredible albums ever made in progressive rock, and quite possibly even Yes‘ finest hour. It’s the true definition of a grower album, and though Yes demands more here from the listener than they ever had or would again, the ultimate rewards for sticking with it are incredible.
With Close to the Edge, Yes‘ writing had been condensed, with a clear regard for the economy of time. Almost every minute sounded like it was used to perfection, and it’s that ‘no-filler’ attitude that has made it such a crown jewel in their discography. By contrast, Yes opens up the scope once again on “Tales”, no by continuing to up the density in their sound as they had been doing for their career up ’til now, but by relaxing the measurements of time and giving compositions air to breathe. Without that stress on the composition’s back, new territories are more capably explored. Somewhat like the feeling of coming off a highway and feeling like you’re driving more slowly on the normal roads than you really are, Yes‘ change of pace, and their more drawn out instrumental passages have a tendency to feel aimless or wandering compared to the band’s typical fare. It’s easy to dismiss the listener’s responsibility to stay attentive and brush the leads as longwinded, sure, but as the album grows more familiar, patterns and motifs become more obvious. If there’s anything I can say or do in this review to convince someone of the album’s wonder, I would simply ask to approach the album with the assumption that each note has been given the same thoughtful, meticulous care that Yes would put into their other masterpieces. It’s certainly not as obvious, but it’s there.
Though I wouldn’t say it has the narrative pacing or overt thematicism to be called a full-blown concept album,Tales from Topographic Oceans was inspired with a clear concept in mind. Jon Anderson had been reading up on Hindu scripture and came upon a footnote which outlined four categories for its religious scripture called shastras. Each category thus became the seed for one of the compositions here; the ‘smiritis’, for example, are ‘remembered lore’, which found themselves manifested musically as “The Remembering”, the ‘tantras’ are rituals which likewise inspired “Ritual”. The source material is warmly acknowledged in the generally reserved pace of the music, which at times comes close to sounding truly meditative and transcendental in its atmosphere. Compared to the chaotic three-song epics that came before and after Tales from Topographic Oceans, the music feels remarkably relaxed and at peace with itself, and though an acolyte of Hindu religion and teaching would be far more qualified to judge whether each of these four compositions aptly reflects the personality and distinction of each shastra, Yes have woven this meditative aura into their music phenomenally. Each song takes a life and style of its own, but a foundation of peace and positive feelings for oneself runs throughout the entire album. Jon Anderson also clearly took this spiritualism to heart in writing the lyrics; his lyrical metaphors are often provocative and engaging (Getting over overhanging trees, let them rape the forest) and navigates a keen balance between vivid imagery and exploration of the inner self, although there are often times when I’m left wondering if it’s not missing the point to try and glean a clearcut meaning out of him (see: mechanical udders). I cannot, and will not make judgement of its worth as a modern adaptation of the Hindu shastras, but for what it’s worth, I think Anderson and company did a remarkable job of fusing elements of religious transcendence and meditation in with their atmosphere.
Each of the four compositions take on a life of their own. Writing a full set of thoughts about each of them may serve to bore myself and anyone reading to the point of tears and vomit, but I will say that the pieces proceed from the least to most impressive. “The Revealing Science of God” is still a remarkable opener in any case, and the restored two minute introduction only helps to foster the meditative atmosphere. “The Remembering” is arguably better structured than its predecessor, still taking on a similarly leisurely and dreamlike atmosphere. “The Ancient” is a stark switch in mood and tone however; tranquility is exchanged for harsher percussive textures and a more driving pace that recalls the intro from Close to the Edge, although this piece too finds peace with itself, by the time a soft acoustic tie-in from Howe rolls around. “Ritual” is arguably the most perfect piece on the album, harkening back to the dreamlike quality of the first two epics, but imbuing it with a more lively sense of hope and wonder. “Ritual” is also home to some of Jon Anderson’s most beautiful vocals ever; I swear, when the build-up swells around the four minute mark and Jon lets out “Nous sommes de soleils”, it feels like the heavens crumble and all is right with the world. Upon first hearing the album, “The Ancient” was the most difficult to get into, in spite of being the shortest composition here, at a relatively brief eighteen minutes. Perhaps it’s because its dissonance approach feels out of place compared to the rest of the album; whatever the case, the way Yeschange things up halfway through gives the album a greater sense of scope, and makes the return to peace and wartmh on “Ritual” feel all the more powerful and profound.
Although Bill Bruford’s replacement Alan White as the new drummer for Yes would mark the end of Yes‘ so-called ‘classic’ lineup, he’s an excellent drummer of his own and fills the void comfortably, although it wouldn’t be until Relayer where his talents came into full view. Rick Wakeman is famously absent from the album, although his smattering of synth leads throughout the album are among the album’s most memorable moments. Squire’s basswork isn’t quite as groovy as it was on Close to the Edge, if only because there isn’t the same aggression in the music anymore for his basslines to ride upon. Steve Howe is given the most liberty to explore himself instrumentally here, with plenty of relaxed leads throughout the album, and even a “Mood for a Day”-style acoustic detour towards the end of “The Ancient”. There’s no question at any point of the album however that Jon Anderson is in control of things this time around. While other albums may have had a strong basis on the instrumentation, Anderson’s deep-rooted interest in New Age spiritualism and distinctive, ethereal vocals take center stage more than ever before. This isn’t a bad thing at all however- with the slightly disappointing exception of Squire’s less assertive bass grooves, the instrumentation adapts to this change of pace wonderfully. If Yesplayed the role of a Western classical symphony on Close to the Edge, they’re doing something here more along the lines of an Eastern musical ritual collective, the sort of thing the Beatles may have dreamt of doing at some point, but never went the distance for.
Is it a masterpiece for all ears? Certainly not, and at least far less so than Fragile or Close to the Edge. Tales from Topographic Oceans is longwinded and mellow, but it’s only as boring as the listener makes it out to be. I’m sure Jon Anderson would be pleased to hear me describe the album in terms of a fallen log in the forest. Even if a fallen log might look underwhelming and anaemic from a glance, all you need to is lift up a cleft of bark to see the life and wonder teeming just beneath the surface. If Tales from Topographic Oceans didn’t change my life with this epiphany while listening to it, it at least still stands as an album with some of the most potential to envelope and engage I have ever heard. Just close your eyes, give it a listen, and find yourself transported away to vistas once only seen in Roger Dean’s cover art.
1. The Revealing Science Of God – Dance Of The Dawn (20:27)
2. The Remembering – High The Memory (20:38)
3. The Ancient – Giants Under The Sun (18:34)
4. Ritual – Nous Sommes Du Soleil (21:35)
Total Time: 81:14
Bonus tracks on Elektra remaster (2003):
5. Dance of the Dawn (studio run-through) (23:35)
6. Giants under the Sun (studio run-through) (17:17)
* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Steve Howe – guitars and vocals
* Chris Squire – bass and vocals
* Rick Wakeman – keyboards
* Alan White – drums