Tales From Topographic Oceans


Atlantic Records, 1974


REVIEW BY: Herb Hill


You can take any Yes album from 1969 to 2000 and listen to it without requiring a contextual structure within which to place it; except this one. You cannot listen to Tales (no one calls it Tales From Topographic Oceans) without first listening to Close To The Edge twice at the very least, and Fragile also, if you have the time. If you don't have the time for that, then you don't have the time to learn to appreciate Tales. Go ahead; I will wait for you...

You're back? Good, then we may begin.

You need not be a musical genius to appreciate Tales. Every level of human endeavour is represented in the Yes fan base. From truck driver to politician (politicians being at the bottom of the strata of course). All you need is time and a spirit that has not been hardened against the possibility that music is not just about watching Britney's tits bounce. You need only be open to the possibility that music is an expression of creativity that encompasses more that what MTV can show you on your new plasma screen. Really! There is more inside your head than there is on that screen and Tales was designed to turn on that light between your ears. The "topographic ocean" is your own imagination.

No album divides like Tales. Reviews of this album typically start with, "You either love it or you hate it." Bullcrap! You may love parts of it, you may hate parts of it, but I have yet to meet the human who can honestly state that they love or hate all of it. But not everyone has the time for this kind of effort, and if this is true for you and you hate it all because you have not the time to discover Tales then go away now. Minor prog albums such as Alan Parsons' Tales of Mystery and Imagination await you. On the other hand, if you love the whole album then you would probably buy copies of Jon Anderson farting fairy dust and call it art also. You are a true Yes Fanatic and you have no need to read this review. Be gone! THE POWER OF COMMON SENSE COMPELS YOU!!!

A work such as Tales is too large and too all encompassing to fall under such an umbrella as "love it or hate it". Eighty minutes of Herculean effort from the most talented group of musicians ever to carry a tune await you. Appreciation requires time. Some of it will pound your impoverished soul with a hammer of emotion that will leave you breathless.. and yes, some of it sucks.

Four tracks on one double album:

"The Revealing Science Of God (Dance Of The Dawn)" "The Remembering (High The Memory)" "The Ancient" (Giants Under The Sun)" "Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil)"

Each track approximately twenty minutes long and each with its own alternate title. How mysterious... Striking Roger Dean artwork graces the cover. Designed with some collaboration from the group and meant to display various 'mystical' locations and land marks from across the globe. Consistently ranked at or near the top of the most memorable album covers of all time the cover alone has been known to command considerable respect among the 'artsy' crowd.

When creating Tales lead singer Jon Anderson used the four part Hindu Shastric scriptures as inspiration. The lyrics are, on the surface, as enigmatic as most Yes lyrics. However, if you take the time to listen, what Anderson was thinking will come through; there are layers to Tales that may take some effort to reveal. If you have the time to actually listen to the lyrics sung over the gracefully executed complexities of Steve Howe's lead guitar then parts of this album will send you reeling. Particularly enjoyable are the opening piece "The Revealing Science of God" and the closing piece "Ritual."

The chant at the beginning of "The Revealing Science of God" is all Anderson sound painting, evenly balanced over an increasing crescendo of power; and, at first glance sound-scape is all that is. But if you listen closely it is (imho) a description of a four part awakening of the human spirit. The "dawn" of light, thought, power and love. Anderson lyrics can be vague. But if you want to work at it there is often grace and humour in the even smallest part. For example, a small portion of lyric from this song is:my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

"We must have waited all our lives for this Moment moment"

We wait all of our lives for every moment that we live.. don't we? You wait all of your life for every moment that you live, so use every moment well. That's the simplicity and power of Anderson at his best.

Musically, it is a powerful piece utilizing the virtuoso talents of the whole band. Squire thunders along gleefully with White. Howe peels back layer's of feeling, alternately ripping or cajoling emotion from the strings of his various instruments. And Wakeman, on record as a Tales detractor, manages to push his keys with a mighty good impression of someone who still gives a shit. A tour de force if ever there was one.

"Ritual" is the best closer ever to grace a Yes album. A perfect blend of Squire bass and White percussion, backed by towering Anderson vocals and intriguing Howe string inlay (including a quick reprise of the theme from Close to the Edge). In true Yes fashion a pure percussion piece (to call it a drum solo would be like calling the northern lights just another static charge) breaks out in the middle of this song and then segues into one of the most haunting and melodic pieces of Yes music ever recorded; "Nous Sommes du Soliel." We are of the sun. As Anderson skips like a pebble on water over a blend of Howe acoustic and Wakeman piano brilliance, the song winds down slowly to an end. It speaks volumes that Yes can do this whole piece in one shot live in concert to this day. It speaks tomes that I have personally seen grown men of the truck drivin' variety weep when they do so.

These two pieces alone could comprise a complete album. But the need to complete the musical thought is paramount to the Yes paradigm and sales were never a great concern to Anderson and co. And so we have the other two pieces of music on this monster of a concept album. Beware Yes Fanatics, accusations of suckage ensue...

"The Remembering" has hints of good things in it. Like a fruit cake that looks good but is just too, too much to actually get down. Dry and flat; on and on and on it goes. Stop plotting my demise please. I am not saying that "The Remembering" is not worth the effort IF you are interested in getting to know Yes in detail. But the average listener, even the average Yes fan IMHO, will find that the rumours of padding on this album are not without some small merit. From close to the edge we've gone way over the edge; here there be monsters.

"The Ancient": The percussive expression that starts this track flows throughout most of the song using discordant "punches" which are echoed later in the final track. A bit padded perhaps but not much, and "The Ancient" includes the extraordinary sub-song "Leaves of Green." But "Leaves of Green" does not fit in here at all. It's a great song, there is no doubt, but it does not belong here. Having said that, I am glad that it made it on any album at all, for "Leaves of Green" is a text book example of Howe's outstanding command of the acoustic guitar and Anderson's innate ability to enhance a melody with his angelic counter tenor. Wow.

What Yes were attempting with Tales was another break out of the box. Limits mean nothing to Yes and it is well for all of us that this is so. We need musical explorers to break us out of our cultural tendency to stick in a musical rut. We sure could use one right now 'cause if I have to listen to another pop diva stretch a simple two syllable word into a freakin' four-octave aria I will start looking for the bullets. But I digress…

As a whole Tales expresses what has lately been completely missing from the crap fed to the dull eyed masses by the marketers of MTV's musical sludge; and that missing element is creativity. Most of Tales is an expression of pure creative talent and taken in context it becomes an even greater feat. Look at what Yes created in four years:

The Yes Album 1971 Fragile 1972 Close To The Edge 1972 Yessongs 1973 Tales From Topographic Oceans 1974

This was a creative growth spurt of colossal proportions. Whether you feel that Tales is the orgasmic climax after four years of foreplay or the wet spot on the sheet after Close to the Edge, Yes should be applauded for trying, and in most cases succeeding, in pushing beyond boundaries that most musicians can't even approach. Tales shattered musical boundaries completely, leaving the traumatized pundits of musical conservatism lying in a pretentious heap. "You can't do that!", screamed the critics. "We just did," answered Yes. It is not in the corporate music mongers best interest to have you appreciate Tales. They want you in the box.

It would have been in Yes' commercial interest to produce an endless stream of "Roundabout" clones, but that's not what 'progressing' is all about. And while it is true that keyboardist Rick Wakeman left Yes shortly after Tales, it is also true that he keeps coming back and plays tracks from Tales. Apparently it isn't bad enough to keep him off the stage.

In 50 years no one will know who the prefab singing strippers of the MTV generation were because they are designed by the star maker machinery to be replaceable. Tales is quite irreplaceable and that makes this an A album.

Rating: A

User Rating: D



© 2004 Herb Hill 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.