Tales From Topographic Oceans


Atlantic Records, 1974


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Thirty-nine seconds into the hypnotic chant that opens this album, Yes lead vocalist Jon Anderson and bassist/harmony vocalist Chris Squire offer a virtual topic sentence for one of the most notorious double-LPs of all time: “Disjointed, but with purpose.”

More or less on the nose, isn’t it?

For while it’s undeniable that there are moments of genuine beauty and excitement on this album – the aforementioned chant opening “The Revealing Science of God” among them -- it’s equally undeniable that the listener must slog through long stretches of far less engaging music to arrive at these few and precious moments. 

Tales From Topographic Oceans was the culmination of a trend that had seen the pioneering progressive rock band expand and finally burst the known boundaries of rock music to deliver, in “Close To The Edge,” an 18-plus minute, sidelong suite that managed to be both coherent and transcendent.  Like any proggers worth their salt, though, the guys seems to have said to each other, well, if more is better than some, then a whole lot more ought to be better yet.  Right?

Ahem. Well. 

To answer “right” would require that the “whole lot more” in question comprise a thoughtfully crafted, magnificently beautiful rock and roll concerto, a la “Close To The Edge,” rather than 80 minutes of patience-testing noodling by five extraordinary musical talents whose ambition for once outstripped their ability to deliver. 

The thing about Yes’s other long-form pieces from the 1970s – “Close To The Edge,” “Gates Of Delirium” and “Awaken” -- is that while they feature multiple movements, they’re actually very tightly-stitched, cohesive pieces.  Themes are stated and repeated in a way that feels logical and seamless.  There is a clear beginning, and middle – and more middle, and more middle – and end.  Whereas, the four pieces on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Tales each feel like six or seven distinct and different songlets slapped together without any regard at all for flow or compatibility.  They have no real beginning or end; they simply start up and wander (and wander, and wander) and finally, mercifully peter out 20 minutes later. 

“Ritual,” the strongest of the four Tales suites by a substantial margin, trails the other three non-Tales epics from the 70s by a substantial margin in terms of impact; having an actual chorus hook that’s repeated doesn’t elevate this heavily padded track above a generous B- rating, and two of the four suites here -- “The Remembering” and “The Ancient” -- are notable mostly for being among the weakest products of the band’s 1971-78 classic period. 

“The Ancient” is particularly disturbing, starting out with a bizarre, atonal duet between Steve Howe (guitars) and Alan White (percussion) that sounds like a pair of anti-social art-school kids let loose in the music room.  In a word, yikes.  There is an undercurrent of musicality to it in places that’s oddly fascinating, but in no sense of the word is it a song.  And the middle section is actively painful, featuring some of Howe’s most dog-howling-at-the-moon, anti-melodic soloing ever.  Then the “Leaves Of Green,” Renaissance-flavored Howe-Anderson song-within-a-song comes along and you admire their skill at it, but to what end, when it’s so completely out of sync with its surroundings?  The capper comes when this utterly incoherent track, rather than reaching an end point, simply winds down like a toy with dying batteries.

Anderson’s lyrics are clearly part, though hardly all, of the problem.  They’ve always been abstract, but the dynamism of the music they’ve typically been matched to usually turns them from vaguely poetic non sequiturs into beautiful sound painting.  Not so here, or at least not often; much of the time on Topographic they feel like random spurts of maddening, incomprehensible gibberish.

Tales From Topographic Oceans was a polarizing album.  It divided Yes fans (many loved it, some hated it), critics (some admired it, many scorned it), and even the band.  While Anderson was clearly the driving force behind Tales, keyboardist Rick Wakeman could barely be persuaded to finish the recording, and walked away after the tour, though he would return and depart several more times over the years.

For all that, Tales was a daring experiment, and there are moments of musical brilliance here, particularly the concise jams at 16:50 of “Revealing Science” and 14:00 of “The Remembering,” and the gorgeous “Nous sommes de soleil” chorus featured in “Ritual.”  Despite its bloat and bouts of musical and lyrical incoherence, you can’t dismiss Tales entirely, or you’ll miss those moments.  And, even if you don’t respect the results, you have to respect the pure unprecedented audacity that went into creating what is essentially an 80-minute magnum opus of progressive rock, broken into four suites.

In the end, with all due respect to those who would give it an “A” and those who would give it an “F”, I think the truth lies closer to the middle.  A bit south of that, to be sure, but not so far as to be considered a total loss. 

Rating: D+

User Rating: D


© 2010 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atlantic Records, and is used for informational purposes only.