Friday, August 25, 2023

Yes 7: Tales From Topographic Oceans

After releasing a triple live album, how could a band like Yes possibly scale back to something simple like a single LP? Certainly a double album was within their grasp. But to make it worthy of the “epic” tag, Tales From Topographic Oceans consisted of four side-long “songs”, with Jon Anderson’s lyrics and commentary printed in the gatefold to help us along. Or so he hoped. Inspired by a sacred text of sorts, he and the band, but mostly Steve Howe, attempted to encapsulate all of creation in eighty minutes. (There’s a lot to take in here, and since we haven’t spent half a century doing so, we are quite aware that we are likely missing subtleties and not-so-subtleties aplenty.)

“The Revealing Science Of God” is a bold title for anybody, even when subtitled “Dance Of The Dawn”. Jon sings what sounds like the same note for a few lines, which is improved when Chris Squire and then Steve Howe begin to harmonize. This gives way to a nice Rick Wakeman synth riff that’s as simple as it is catchy. “I must have waited all my life for this moment,” Jon sings, which is odd because we thought this was all taking place before the origin of time. There’s a funky break that threatens to take over the proceedings, before a more stately theme comes through, then the riff comes back, and the cycle repeats. This is precisely the type of “padding” that detractors cite as for why this didn’t need to be a double album, especially since the more placid section that arrives is more effective. This has to get funked up too before they go out they way they came in.

“The Remembering”, helpfully subtitled “High The Memory”, begins with some arpeggiated and Leslie’d 12-string that dominates while Jon and Chris Squire chant underneath. It builds slowly and deliberately, eventually adding melody, but not drums for at least six minutes. After a spacey interlude, a completely separate folky section built around the 12-string. This gets rocked up, and alternates with the spacey section. Here we have another suite with a lot of parts that probably should have each been developed on their own, rather than jerry-rigged together, since the sections are all pretty strong. (The word “relayer” figures a lot, possibly predicting their next album.)

Perhaps to make up for being quiet through most of side two, Alan White is given lots of space to display his drumming ingenuity all over “The Ancient”. Percussion dominates, with a lot of distorted, atonal guitar, as befits a piece subtitled “Giants Under The Sun”. It seems to go on for far too long before a vocal comes in, and there’s a lot of stopping and starting to keep you from nodding off. We hear a few more melodic moments, but mostly Steve meanders for several minutes while the percussion keeps trying to beat its way through. Finally there’s an abrupt switch to a nylon-string guitar paired with a vocal, which thankfully silences so Steve can take an extended classical-type solo, which soon descends into a pretty melodic sequence now known as “Leaves Of Green”. This redeems the side, but they still insist on reprising one of the heavy riffs.

“Ritual” boldly begins with the threat of a majestic fanfare, and tries to deliver, but it’s not easy due to the tricky time signature and wordless melody that defies singing along. So they give up, leaving Steve to wander by himself for a while—we even get a quote of the “Close To The Edge” riff—before Jon comes to the realization that that “Nous Sommes Du Soleil”. There’s another decent rocking section about twelve minutes in, albeit reprising that odd time signature and melody at the start of the side. It gets more frenzied until everything stops and the proceedings descend—again—into cacophonous percussion with effects that sound like tapes being sped up and run backwards, until finally it all fades to reveal another peaceful Howe segment with piano accompaniment to restate the thesis of the French subtitle. The whole band shows restraint as the suite comes to a close.

Back in the vinyl days it was easy to get lost in a side at a time, and just keep sending the needle back to the start. That would be the most efficient way to ingest Tales From Topographic Oceans, but even that can be considered a chore. It’s one of those albums that demands attention, because there’s a lot going on for a long time. Also, while they were busy crafting all these sections to fit together, there is a severe dearth of hooks. Did it really need to be this long? It’s not a bad album by any stretch, despite the hype and hindsight backlash, but it is definitely not for everyone.

Thirty years after it was first released, the remastered version restored about two minutes of music to the start of the first track, so now there’s a growing sense of this particular world being created before our ears, and better setting up Jon’s vocal entry, which now seems abrupt in its original context. This addition actually improves the album. (They also lopsidedly but understandably put the first three tracks on one disc, and added “studio run-throughs” of sides one and three to the second disc. One jettisoned segment seems to predict the theme from The Rockford Files. Later “definitive editions” offered the usual surround sound re-imaginings in various channels and resolutions.)

Yes Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)—3
2003 remastered CD: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks
2016 Definitive Edition DVD: “same” as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks (plus 2 DVDs)
2016 Definitive Edition Blu-ray: “same” as 2003, plus 8 extra tracks (plus Blu-ray)

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