REVIEW #5 - "Tales from Topographic Oceans" by Yes (1973), 5/30/2018
I had to eventually review this album. Ever since I was introduced to Yes at my local record store, where I was gifted a beat-up copy of "Close to the Edge", I always felt wary to give this album a try. It is perhaps the biggest target for critics of the genre, men such as Robert Christgau or Lester Bangs who lambasted every single album that they could get their hands on. It was the biggest justification for the punk rockers to revolt and depose of progressive rock in favor of more accessible and commercially-friendly music. This album of course, is Yes's 1973 epic "Tales from Topographic Oceans", which I consider the most interesting album to review given how the entire prog community has split feelings on whether it was a masterpiece, or a dud.
"Close to the Edge" is the greatest progressive rock album of all time. Yes had already cemented their legacy with their previous three studio albums, and it would have taken a godly masterpiece to top it. The band was experiencing internal tensions, as drummer Bill Bruford was recruited by Robert Fripp to join the new King Crimson, and promptly left the band, being replaced by Alan White of the Plastic Ono Band. Bruford and Yes remained close, and at the drummer's wedding, Yes vocalist Jon Anderson had a conversation with King Crimson percussionist and Buddhist Jamie Muir. Anderson, who already experienced with spiritual themes in Yes's music, was introduced to the works of the guru Paramahansa Yogananda by Muir; giving Anderson an idea for what would be the theme for "Tales." After briefly reading Yogananda's 1946 book "Autobiography of a Yogi" the vocalist was dead set on what would become the next Yes album. Although he was able to get guitarist Steve Howe on board, the rest of the band was indifferent or flat out skeptical of the concept. It would be a very rough and tedious ride; Anderson's ideas were grandiose as he centered the album's theme around the Hindu scriptures known as the "shastras". Throughout the recording process, the band was further strained; namely keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who resorted to getting drunk in the studio - most notably he would play keyboards for heavy metal icons Black Sabbath on the song "Sabbra Cadabra" since the two bands were recording albums at the same time.
All signs point to this album being controlled by Jon Anderson in its entirety; the singer had great aspirations for his album, and even in retrospect he still holds it in high regard. Initially wanting to record in the country, he had the studio outfitted with robotic cows and fake barns to simulate a farm, and even tried unsuccessfully to record on linoleum tiles to get a "bathroom sound." Anderson's antics only exacerbated trouble, especially as the album was laid out. "Tales from Topographic Oceans" at first glance looks like one of the most ambitious albums in prog; a double LP consisting of four twenty-minute epics, all of which are intertwined into a deeply philosophical concept. By the time the album was finished, the studio decorations were ruined, and the band was mentally and physically exhausted. While the product was complete, it became evident that the album was in reality incomplete. Nevertheless, the band's popularity at the time ensured the album reached the top of the charts in the UK. It is rather hilarious to realize that in 1973 an album with four twenty-minute songs (the antithesis of commercially- friendly) was able to top an album chart. It nearly cracked the top five in America as well.
Anderson refers to the four epics of this album as "movements." The first is "The Revealing Science of God/Dance of the Dawn" at just over twenty-two minutes. Originally intended to be twenty-eight, it was cut down to meet the physical constraints of vinyl. Rife with massive guitar solos, Howe claimed that he embarked on these massive passages thanks to the popularity of American guitarist Frank Zappa, who at the time explored very progressive music across the pond. However, unlike "Hot Rats", the work on this album gets extremely tiring quick, and therein lies the biggest problem with "Tales". At just over eighty minutes, your casual listener will get bored quickly. I had a musically-curious friend of mine who is a fan of the much more popular hip-hop genre listen to this album, and I challenged him to see how far he could get before turning it off. He made it just over ten minutes into this song before giving up. Now while it may be a bit inaccurate to throw something as difficult and inaccessible as "Tales" to your average pop music listener, I feel that it is indicative of the underlying problem with this album. That being said, "The Revealing" is perhaps the best song on the album, featuring traditional Yes melodies and arrangements which can allure a fan of the band's more successful work. A lot of the themes presented early on are reprised to death, something which I personally was unimpressed with, and ultimately the listener will wish that these songs were cut in half in size. Fortunately, we get a strong closing movement with this one similar to "Close to the Edge" which wraps things up well enough.
The band goes off the beaten path with "The Remembering/High the Memory". Rather than pursuing another traditional symphonic Yes epic, the band moves into the sub-genre of progressive folk. Anderson modeled this movement to mimic the ebbing tide of the ocean, something which a listener can pick up on if they focus closely on the music. Since I am a rather blunt listener, I did not notice it at first, and it was a rather cool revelation when I read that the song had this kind of dynamic element to it. Unfortunately, there is even more filler here than on the previous song; save for a Wakeman keyboard solo presented in the latter half of the epic. Keep in mind it will take in excess of fifteen minutes for the listener to reach this moment. One difference between the epics on this album and that of "Close to the Edge's" title track is that these ones are not broken up into individual movements which paint a clearer picture of the tendencies of the epic. Rather Yes throws at us a huge brick of music which we have to break into little pieces to truly absorb. "The Remembering" moves at a very brisk pace, yet represents a very progressive piece of music as the spiritual themes of the album are present. Interestingly Anderson took the Indian epic poem "Mahabharata" as inspiration for this piece, or the "smriti" Hindu scriptures in general. The Mahabharata is one of the longest written works of literature in human history, ten times longer than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey COMBINED. Therefore it is quite fitting that a song about it is in excess of twenty-minutes; it's a shame that it wasn't thirty so that even devout prog listeners would get put to sleep trying to traverse through its experimental and cooling tide.
On the second LP, we move on to "The Ancient/Giants under the Sun", which is by far the most experimental of the four movements. It is also a more clear cut piece with two separate parts - the first is a very progressive guitar showcase by Howe, backed up by White's drums. To me this was the hardest part of the album to truly take in and appreciate, the inaccessibility here will turn off most listeners as Howe explores guitar scales and moves into an infinitesimal space of various sounds and motifs. However the second part is much more clear cut, and very musically appealing - Anderson and Howe combine as the latter puts on an acoustic showcase. In reality, this is the most beautiful moment of the album; this second part is referred to as "Leaves of Grass" and features some deeply philosophical lyrics about the human condition. It is often played on its own in Yes live concerts, fortunately without its much more abstract counterpart. Both Anderson and Howe look upon this song favorably for its technicality and musical diversity, and while I can appreciate the progressive nature of the first part, I feel that the real takeaway from this movement lies in "Leaves of Grass." It also seems that the bulk of the positive reviews of this album from critics praise this passage, while they tend to slam its predecessor.
The band closes out this leviathan of an album with yet another movement, "Ritual/Nous Sommes du Soleil" which is a return to the traditional Yes sound which many are fans of. While the inner two movements feature a lot of experimental passages which lack uniformity, "The Revealing" and "Ritual" seem to contain much more alluring melodies and grandiose passages which will garner the attention of the listener, granted he wants to endure the massive piles of noises which will bombard you in the process towards reaching those mountainous peaks. That being said, this is another solid offering by the band. While I am much less optimistic on the previous two movements, "Ritual" reinvigorates my spirit and will to complete this album. I always am fooled into thinking that the album completely ends halfway through, as the band carries through what I believe to be the ultimate climax. Even though Yes carries on for another twelve minutes, I feel like if things had been cut off here, I would have been satisfied - maybe the band didn't know where to stop, or more likely, had to come up with material to fill up a second LP, granted they had too much material for just a single vinyl. Ultimately I feel the band did a proper job finalizing the album with this suite, but even by the time "Ritual" begins, your average listener will be truly and unequivocally exhausted.
Steve Howe referred to the four movements of this album in a very concise manner. "The Revealing" is ironically considered to be "the commercial or easy-listening" side of the album, where the band unveiled the sounds and textures which had achieved much success in "Close to the Edge." There is one major problem however, as there seems to be something missing in the music which the previous album hand, and midway through my review I realized it; the absence of Bill Bruford and the addition of a mediocre Alan White takes away the heavy edge which the previous three albums had to hammer down the rhythm. Meanwhile, Howe acknowledges the folk influences on "The Remembering", claiming it to be a lighter and folky side of the band - in my opinion this movement is too light, taking away a lot of what made the band so pleasurable to listen to on previous albums. In the midst of trying to be progressive in their approach, the band abandoned the best traits of their music, leaving behind a rather empty and uninspiring piece. "The Ancient" is quite literally described by Howe as transcending from "electronic mayhem turning into acoustic simplicity." At face value this is a true statement, but I feel that mayhem is just too dissonant to actually translate into good music. It isn't like King Crimson where the dissonance is channeled into the music to create extremely diverse and brilliant instrumentals, but rather it is mayhem for the sake of being progressive. I have absolutely no complaints about the "Leaves of Grass" portion of this movement, for I consider it to be one of the positive takeaways of the album. Finally, "Ritual" is the grandiose closing piece which the band wraps up "Tales" with, and really it is just as good as "The Revealing" but should have ended a bit earlier to truly hammer down the point with the listener.
"Tales from Topographic Oceans" is a very hard album to judge given that it is rich in music and talent yet lacking in design. Many people absolutely adore it, while some detest its mere existence. I fall somewhere leaning towards masterpiece, but more of an "above average work" which deserves a little bit more respect from the rest of the community. It is by no means essential in the sense that it is listenable, but rather essential in the sense that it was a milestone for the genre; you could argue that "Tales" killed prog and gave rise to punk. That is enough to make it essential but it still is not a masterpiece. Had the songs been appropriately shortened, I feel like there were enough good moments here to flirt with a five-star review, but the abjectly long songs hamper it enough to nearly give it three stars. Looking back upon the album, Anderson admitted that it was too long, and hinted towards a potential updated version which is much more succinct without the vinyl constraints which were the folly of the band back in 1973. Every prog fan should at least attempt to listen to this album in its entirely, but it is not required that he actually explore the entire thing, or even explore parts of it more than once. The layout of "Tales" will always attract critics, but there will always be prospective fans who will consider it a gem. I am neither of those people.
I give "Tales" a respectable (80%, B-) with four stars. Very interesting, yet exhausting listen.